Prior to my testifying at the Standing Finance Committee in Ottawa on October 27 about my thesis findings, the people I surveyed suggested that one of two things would happen. Option one, the Liberals and New Democrats would be friendly and ask questions that elaborated on my testimony, but the Conservative majority on the committee would ignore me.
After all, there was the committee’s response when opposition committee member Murray Rankin of Victoria, BC previously introduced a motion calling on the government to appoint an independent investigator. The investigator would examine allegations (including my thesis findings) that the government has politicized Canada Revenue Agency. But the committee’s Conservative majority forced an in-camera discussion and then refused to allow the motion.
Alternatively, I was told, the Conservatives will be aggressive and go for the throat of the testifying researcher who kicked off the national conversation about the CRA politicization. My work was widely disseminated in media, spreading the message about the resulting muffling and distracting of charities from their missions, and the abuse of power/bullying of these expert organizations. The results are to the detriment of strong debate about important policy options such as whether to expand the oilsands, build pipelines, and export bitumen by ship to Asia.
After all, Canadians recently witnessed the bullying of prostitutes testifying to a committee about the controversial new bill that they say would continue to put their lives at risk.
Being ignored. Or being bullied. Fine choice. But such are our times.
And sure enough, the response to my testimony, or more particularly the behaviour of two Conservative members, became a metaphor for the government’s current relationship with civil society groups, and particularly charities: bullying, attempted silencing, mendacity, and abuse of power.
Liberal and NDP members of the committee (Rankin for the NDP and Liberal Arnold Chan of Ontario), did indeed ask pointed questions that enabled me to elaborate just a bit on my testimony. I wish they’d asked more, because I had lots to say, but the testimony of co-panelist bankers, accountants and small business witnesses also required clarifications and elaborations.
Most Conservatives ignored me but two lay in waiting. Gerald Keddy, after noting he’d been researching me as well as my thesis, proceeded to rant about my research method. He clearly preferred that I do a statistical analysis of the opinions of a large number of charity leaders and CRA staffers, all of them open with their names. I had to ask him if he had a question for me and then he just cut me off again anyway. Clearly, more interested in “unilogue” than dialogue.
But the kind of study that Keddy seemed to prefer was not possible in the current political environment and the very real fear of people in the charity sector. His government’s behaviour was the direct cause of the approach taken with interviews.
My biggest early challenge was getting charity leaders to speak to me at all despite the promise of full anonymity, so scared are they of retribution from the taxman under this current government. Some leaders were not even happy my study was taking place. Even three of five sector experts (which included lawyers, former senior CRA staff, fundraising professionals, sector insiders, and academics) wanted guaranteed anonymity.
A few charity leaders and two experts were willing to be identifiable to varying degrees, but I chose to keep everyone on an equal footing. (And lest we cast these people as victims—participants and those who refused—I also note that most were very happy that my study was occurring and some were eager to participate if they and their organizations were protected from direct or indirect identification.)
Keddy also carefully, so very carefully, confused the politically motivated new “political activities” audits of charities with the perfectly reasonable financial and program audits that charities have always undergone on a random basis or if there is an apparent problem with the charity. Keddy is correct that audits are a necessary and useful fact of life and charities should expect them. Charity leaders I interviewed wanted to be clear that they favour them. This mendacity, an attempt to confuse the public about the kind of audits in this new program, has been a central plank of the government’s response to my thesis, along with assertions by senior CRA administrators that they’re not being influenced by the government’s agenda.
But my thesis is about the politically motivated audits designed to muffle and distract charities from their Missions (or “chill” and instill fear) while the government implements a series of contentious economic and environmental policies and ideological priorities.
It’s hard to find other examples in Canadian history of a government determined to abuse its power by so systematically marginalizing alternative policy ideas through defunding, ending consultations, firing scientists, “managing” other scientists and their studies, and going after civil society organizations—see Voices-Voix website for an in-depth catalogue of actions.
In any case, those in the room and on TV were treated to Keddy’s artful rant, aimed at undermining the credibility of the study and the researcher through attacking the research method.
Conservative committee member Mark Adler from Ontario was even more charming in his rant. I had to challenge him to ask me a question: how I could insist that there was political interference at CRA when even senior staffers deny it. He very rudely, childishly even, proceeded to talk over me as I explained the “funnel” constructed by his government to move CRA to auditing certain charities. I called him on it.
He asked the Conservative chair, James Rajotte of Alberta if it was not true that it was his seven minutes. A bemused looking Rajotte affirmed that it was indeed Adler’s seven minutes, but that it would be good to allow the witness to answer his question.
Though he returned to his rant, Adler was by then bright red and maintained the complexion for the rest of the meeting. I don’t know what infuriated him so—was it hearing my thesis findings entered into the Parliamentary record, my insistence on answering his rant, or the chair’s chiding his rude behaviour?
Of course, Adler’s and Keddy’s attacks are an old PR tactic. I can understand that Conservatives are unhappy to hear someone testify about the impacts of their government’s corruption of the traditional separation of the political and administrative arms of government—and especially the taxman of all departments. The tactic is not to argue the research, but to trash the study and researcher. It is an unimaginative response (and one that, in a different context, makes it hard to make progress on addressing climate change), but one of the hoary old tools in the PR toolbox.
What I tried, not with complete success, was to avoid giving defensive answers about my thesis findings or method. I felt, I still feel, secure in the method and integrity of my research. It’s solid research, so I’m not interested in participating in an attempt by government members to change the conversation in that direction. For the record, I followed ethics protocols, utilized perhaps the most esteemed qualitative research method (grounded theory), and my final paper was approved by my committee.
It was tempting to note, but I resisted, that my school had nominated me for a Governor General’s Gold Medal and that I also earned a Public Ethnography Award. It was tempting, when Rankin congratulated me on the quality of my thesis, to note that I felt honoured to hear that praise coming from the former Dean of Law at University of Victoria, given that he, certainly more than any other panel member (ahem!), actually knew what he was talking about when discussing research.
It’s easy to second-guess, and I’ve gone over it a few times in my head, but I think I made the right decision in mainly avoiding the baiting and sticking to the topic—my thesis findings and their implications for improving CRA regulations and processes and behaviour of the government itself. Some who saw the meeting said that I handled myself well under attack, especially in politely pushing back and insisting on questions and a chance to answer.
I guess I’ll know how it came off when I view the video recording of the event and read the transcript. If nothing else, I can use the video for teaching media training workshops. It will provide examples of what to do and what to avoid when encountering politicians who ignore their mother’s guidance on the importance of politeness and respect, and who forget that the purpose of the committee system is to hear from members of the public rather than insult, bully, and attempt to silence them.
Keddy and Adler stood in for their government perhaps more than they realized and served as living examples of what my interviews with charity leaders and experts found: the current government is abusing power and damaging democracy in its attempt to muffle policy ideas that differ from their own through bullying individuals and groups. And they try to shout down people and ideas they don’t like rather than debate them maturely.
NOTE: THIS POSTING HAS BEEN MODIFIED FOR SENTENCE STRUCTURE AND CLARITY.
Have you checked out my Master’s thesis? Feel free to forward and tweet it. Check out media coverage of my thesis findings and the national conversation it triggered. And you can follow me on Twitter: @GarethKirkby
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communication professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing. My thesis was nominated for a Governor General’s Gold Medal, and I was honoured to earn a Public Ethnography Award.