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Editorial: Unmuzzling the civil service

The mainstream media has been having a field day over the newly reacquired ability of Environment Canada’s “rock snot” scientist to speak to the press about his work.

Max Bothwell, who has published multiple studies on the freshwater algae and what makes it grow, became somewhat of a poster boy for the federal scientists affected by the Harper government’s cone of silence after a journalist attempting to interview him was thwarted by bureaucratic stonewalling. The journalist finally gave up after her request resulted in more than 100 emails involving 16 public servants — including the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) staff.

The reasons probably relate to one of Bothwell’s hypothesis — that climate change contributes to algal growth. Climate change speculation wasn’t a good fit with the previous government’s economic agenda.

Regardless of whether you voted for the government now in power, few would bemoan the new sense of openness that has characterized the Trudeau government — so far.

Preventing scientists on the public payroll from engaging with the public for fear of interfering with a political agenda is indefensible. But to be fair, that started long before the Harper government came to power.

If memory serves correctly, the crackdown on speaking to the media within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada dates back to the 1990s when a certain East Coast AAFC scientist upstaged the federal minister on something to do with nematodes affecting Canada’s ability to export seed potatoes.

From that point onward, any attempt to speak to one of AAFC’s scientists was streamed through the department’s corps of communications officers to ensure the ‘proper’ person was assigned to the interview and that person was ‘properly’ briefed on what to say. Reporters were quizzed on what questions they wanted answered and briefing notes were prepared in advance.

The restrictions on media access to federal and provincial civil servants have become increasingly onerous over the years, not to mention the all-out blackouts on government communications during elections and byelections. As these laws have been interpreted, talking to reporters about whether it rained last week could be construed as an attempt to make political hay.

In many cases, meetings to discuss policy initiatives that were otherwise public were closed to anyone representing the media. The reason given was that people would be afraid to speak their minds if there were reporters present, a laughable premise in the age of social media and selfies.

Of course, the Harper government took this press paranoia to a new level. In the end, it cost the administration its credibility with the public.

Those of us who have been in this business for a while remember a time when the people charged with serving the public — both in the public and private sectors — were accessible to reporters.

Accountability worked both ways. Reporters who didn’t adhere to the rules of fairness, balance and context found themselves waiting a long time for returned calls.

Over time, relationships evolved that served the public interest on both sides of the equation. True, governments were open to uncomfortable scrutiny. But it also contributed to a higher degree of trust in the public service.

The Trudeau government has for the first time made its ministerial mandates public. You can see excerpts from our new agriculture minister’s marching orders here.

But that letter to the minister also included some general instructions about how he is to interact with the public and the media. In general, it calls for collaborative approach and “meaningful engagement” in a way that is constructive, rather than confrontational.

“As well, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, indeed all journalists in Canada and abroad, are professionals who, by asking necessary questions, contribute in an important way to the democratic process. Your professionalism and engagement with them is essential.”

We applaud this change in tone and will be watching to see if it is sincere.

Come together

Manitoba’s small farmers are meeting later this month to gauge interest in forming an organization to represent them.

Some are skeptical that participants in this diverse sector will be able to look beyond their differences to find their common ground.

We hope they do because there is a need for the small farmer’s voice to be heard when the industry debates critical policy issues. If the ministerial mandate is an omen, there is a renewed commitment to increasing the availability of locally produced and processed foods to Canadians. It is a market this sector is well positioned to serve.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.


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