Recently, an Environment Canada employee, Tony Turner, wrote and recorded a political protest song against the Harper government. He was subsequently suspended from his position and is being investigated by his department to see if he violated their code of ethics. This has generated considerable protest and demands that he be reinstated. Cries of ‘Censorship!’ are ringing out loud and clear.

While no-one opposes the Harper government more than I do and along the same lines as Mr. Turner (despite his occasional ventures into hyperbole), I don’t necessarily agree with the view that he was perfectly within his rights. There are consequences to speech after all – as the Hydro One employee who shouted obscenities at a reporter on air found out. He lost his job and rightly so.

During the 1980s and 90s, both as a political activist and as a low level union leader (I was a local president) I fought for an expansion of political rights for public servants. Now entrenched in contracts and legislation, most civil servants – right up to the top ranks of middle management – do have considerable freedom to express their views. They can have lawn signs and attend political rallies. They can hand out pamphlets (though not in the workplace where any sign of partisanship is banned) and they can make donations. They can apply for a leave of absence to run for office. This year 37 federal public servants have done exactly that.

Where is the problem then? The deal has always been that you can criticize the government about anything – except the area of your own job. So as an Environment Canada employee, Mr. Turner is free to criticize government for its policies on health care or the treatment of Aboriginals but not so free when it comes to climate change or pollution control.

There are good reasons for this. First, you are in effect criticizing your colleagues who either agree with government approaches (some do) or have agreed to do their best to implement them. Hardly makes for a stress free workplace. As well, one can hardly speak truth to power in the workplace while shouting your opinions to power outside of it.

There was in effect a bargain – civil servants give their advice and decision makers choose to either follow it or do something else. Would you really want something else? Would you want your lives to be run by experts and technocrats with no input from the people who were democratically elected? If so, why have elections at all? Why have politicians at all? Let’s have the country run by faceless bureaucrats like they do in China.

Public servants should speak strongly to the politicians. They should base their views on evidence and they should be as honest as they can possibly be – even if it goes against the public views of the government in power. Governments should listen carefully – and should often follow the advice they are given. But sometimes they should say thank you, we understand but we were elected to do xyz and will accept the consequences of not following your advice. Now go do this. And public servants should then go do that and if they can’t they should find other work. Which is what Canada’s chief statistician did over the cancelling of the long form census.

Unfortunately this bargain has been broken – first and foremost by the current government. Instead of quietly listening, they told public servants to shut up or they replaced them with people who would never say a harsh word. Then, instead of telling public servants to do this particular thing, they told them to do nothing. Go sit in the corner and be quiet. In part, this government lacks the courage of their convictions. They don’t want government to do certain things but fear the political repercussions of actually shutting down offending programs. Instead they tie the hands of civil servants and stifle them.

That’s been a standard approach of these guys. Big talk and not much action. Death by a thousand cuts. And in the end a decided lack of courage when it comes to doing what they really want to do. And thank goodness for small mercies.

Civil servants are used to being denied and to doing what they are told. They are not used to being silenced and told to do nothing. Despite what some people seem to think, people don’t join the public service to sit in their offices and do crossword puzzles.

No wonder morale is so low; no wonder public sector unions are – for the first time – actively campaigning against the government. No wonder Mr. Turner – who probably will be re-instated and told to edit bits out of his song (it’s too long anyway) – is protesting. No wonder so many public servants are taking leave or actually quitting their jobs to run against the government.

Nobody wants to work loyally for a boss who breaks trust with them.

And that’s a lot more than ten minutes. You can protest my broken promise anyway you like.


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