Abuse by Conservatives on Finance Committee Verify Thesis Findings

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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.

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