Shutting Alternative Ideas Out of Discussions
My last blog posting reviewed the history since the 1950s of the rise and fall of relations between the federal government and civil society organizations, including charities. Let’s look at how input to public policy options has changed in recent years.
- In the 1970s, some organizations were funded for core costs by the federal government because they were viewed as representing groups of often low-influence minorities. Government ministers and administrators invited them to discuss public policy ideas, often in early stages of policy formation;
- The funding shifted to project funding through the 1980s and 1990s and they were still often invited to discuss public policy, not always at the formation stage but rather commenting on policy ideas that were nearly finalized;
- Through the Chretien years, there were many opportunities for interactions with administration and the Prime Minister was often personally curious about hearing about alternative perspectives;
- In the 1990s in British Columbia, powerful NDP cabinet minister and then Premiere Glen Clark was known for publicly denouncing environmental organizations as “enemies of British Columbia” and yet also meeting with the groups to negotiate over policies;
- Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has largely treated civil society organizations as the “vested interests” that its predecessor, the Reform Party, publicly considered them. They have shuttered some, and defunded many, organizations, particularly those working on women’s, and international development and human rights issues. The accumulated actions and impact on dissent are catalogued at the activist Voices Voix website;
- The Harper government—and the bureaucracy—rarely invite input, or positively respond to requests from organizations that formerly had significant access to discuss policy ideas or comment on government proposals;
- Some 2000 federal scientists have been laid off and remaining scientists largely muzzled from making public statements. Multiple federal science programs, particularly those related to climate change and related petroleum issues, have been reduced or defunded, reducing the input of experts and removing evidence from policy making;
- Provincial and federal environmental assessments have been merged into a single process to speed up project approvals, but again removing evidence from policy making. Some 2970 project reviews were stopped by 2012 legislation that also weakened other environmental laws—678 involved fossil fuel energy and another 248 involved a pipeline;
- My thesis found that the rhetoric of cabinet ministers, 2012 changes to regulations governing charities, and a special program of charity audits muffled communications and distracted charities from their Missions, reducing national conversations about important issues;
- The RCMP and CSIS spied on environmental organizations and First Nations groups in advance of the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline project, despite the commitment to peaceful protest repeatedly expressed by the organizations. The information was shared with NEB staff and security;
- RCMP, CSIS, Department of National Defence, and Communications Security Establishment (CSEC) and the NEB have also been meeting with the energy industry to discuss security issues, including officials from energy companies in the oil, natural gas, pipeline, petroleum refinery, and electricity sectors, the Vancouver Observer has reported;
- The NEB hearings into the proposed Kinder-Morgan pipeline is restrictive, not allowing those with official intervener status to orally cross-examine witnesses. It is through cross-examination that project weaknesses are often brought to life, helping ensure that project evaluation includes science and the best evidence. Under regulations implemented by the federal government, only those “directly affected” by the pipeline will be allowed to make presentations to the board, and comments will be written and not oral. The credibility of the hearings is questionable;
- The NEB hearings into the Kinder-Morgan pipeline proposal will not consider environmental and socio-economic impacts of “upstream” activities, the development of the oilsands, or the downstream use of the oil transported by the pipeline. The Kinder-Morgan decision from the NEB will be delayed until after the 2015 federal election.
Thus, we come to a troubling moment in Canada’s history of citizen participation in important public policy decisions. Expert organizations are now rarely invited to participate in the early stages of policy formation, nor are they often involved in later stages, nor are their phone calls consistently returned. Scientists, experts in their field, are laid off or largely silenced and their projects shut down and even their libraries closed.
Some organizations with different ideas about policy directions than the federal government are called money-launderers, conflated with criminal and terrorist organization, and added as a potential security threat in the nation’s terrorist strategy. They’re put under threat of audit and thus muffled and distracted.
Impact assessments are telescoped with resulting reduced credibility of the determination, public hearings are curtailed to speed up approval and reduce the opportunity of inconvenient facts emerging. And citizen groups are spied on by the enforcement arm of government, with findings shared with private sector vested interests—despite their commitment to peaceful participation in a nation where the Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes their rights to freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly.
How, it must be asked, are those individuals and members of citizen groups, including charities and their supporters, with different policy ideas than the government in power, supposed to participate in national conversations? What does a government expect of citizens when it closes off so many avenues of democratic participation?
I shall finish with the provocative words of a charity leader I interviewed for my thesis, an elegant summation of various comments made by many other participants:
We have a government with a very explicit agenda which they are advancing with clear determination. It is a multifaceted agenda where we are on the one hand vilifying and demonizing dissent and critics in all positions, trying to de-legitimize diversity of views and plurality of public debate. At they same time they are defunding evidence-building and analysis-building organizations. We’re living in this evidence-free zone, where research, where science, and libraries, and facts, are inconvenient and unwelcome because they want to frame policy around values and ideology. And they want to ensure that the state is not contributing funding to the creation of evidence or the pursuit of legal strategies that in any way constrain their agenda.
Meanwhile, please check out my Master’s thesis and feel free to forward and tweet it. 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 communications professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing.
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Re: your comment on Harper administration’s view of women’s organizations.
“the Reform Party … have shuttered some, and defunded many, organizations, particularly those working on women’s, and international development and human rights issues.”
I was a board member with the herland feminist film festival from 2000–2007. The organization was originally a project of the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) which had charitable status. The board of the festival never disbanded CSWAC even when it became inactive while the festival continued. Based on a tax return submitted in 1998 CSWAC received notice in 2003–2004 that they had participated in political activism when they published a pamphlet called “Watering down the milk: Women Coping on Alberta’s Minimum Wage”. Although Harper’s regime does seem more hostile to women’s organizations the events that led to CSWAC losing its charitable status occurred prior to his election. I don’t think any federal government has been entirely supportive of women’s issues. It is not accurate to say that the current government alone is hostile to women’s organizations — most Canadian governments in the latter 20th century were somewhat hostile to women’s organizations.