Canadian parliament seeks to impose lifetime gag order on employees


canada-flagThe Canadian House of Commons is imposing a new “loyalty agreement” that essentially bans employees working under Members of Parliament from ever revealing information they discover at work to the public. Would this gag order stop them from revealing evidence of wrongdoing by government officials? David Hutton, the executive director for the Canadian Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), calls it “pretty shameful” and says whistleblower protections are clearly crucial to government accountability.

The Toronto Star reported today:

Parliament employees face lifetime ban on revealing information 

OTTAWA—Employees of members of Parliament face a lifetime ban on revealing information about their work under a sweeping new “loyalty” agreement imposed by the House of Commons.

But the union representing staff working for the New Democrats fears the agreement will have a chilling effect on employees who want to blow the whistle on office wrongdoing. …

The muzzling order comes as Senate staff have raised concerns about the conduct of the senators they work for. … 

We have written on a number of occasions about the problem of political interference with science communication under Canada’s Harper government — in particular communication by government scientists about the environmental implications of energy and natural resources development. Now the Canadian House of Commons appears to be joining in on the censorship — seeking to create a system in which politicians can punish employees and former employees who speak truth in the public interest. Think about how this latest maneuver could be used to cover up wrongdoing — and how it will need to be undermined by employees when the public interest calls for greater transparency.

Quoting the executive director of Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), the Canadian whistleblower advocacy counterpart to the Government Accountability Project (of which Climate Science Watch is a program):

Toronto Star: Federal Employee Gag Order ‘Shameful,’ Say Critics

A new “loyalty agreement” for employees of members of Parliament makes government even more secretive at a time when transparency is sorely needed, critics say.

“It’s pretty shameful,” David Hutton, the executive director for the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR) said in an interview on Thursday.

Hutton said there is a need for protections for those who follow their consciences and expose wrongdoing.

“Canada is essentially a wasteland when it comes to whistleblower protection,” Hutton said.

Even before the new lifetime gag order was put in place, Canada lagged far behind protection for whistleblowers in Britain and Australia and even further behind American protections, Hutton said. …

In the United States, there are dozens of state and federal whistleblower protection laws, some of which date back three decades, Hutton said.

“There are many avenues (in the U.S.),” Hutton said. “Whistleblowers have a chance there.” …

The Canadian system is legalistic, costly and time-consuming, forcing whistleblowers, who are often unemployed, to hire lawyers to fight government lawyers.

“The cost can be enormous,” Hutton said. “It can go on for years. They’re struggling to put food on the table.”

Canada lacks any effective appeal mechanism for employees who suffer because of whistle-blowing, Hutton said.

Hutton noted that civil servants have lost their jobs for revealing wrongdoing. …

Hutton said the new code of conduct means the government can punish employees for saying something they don’t like, even if it is true and in the public interest.

“It is asking people to sign away their charter rights,” Hutton said.

“Everything about it is bizarre,” Hutton said. “It has been turned against whistleblowers, not wrongdoers.”

(“FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) promotes integrity and accountability within government by empowering employees to speak out without fear of reprisal when they encounter wrongdoing. Our aim is to support legislation and management practices that will provide effective protection for whistleblowers and hence occupational free speech in the workplace.”)

This comes on the heels of an earlier report on a major survey of Canadian government scientists, which found that 90% believe they are not allowed to speak freely about the work they do, and that one-quarter of respondents of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons:

Most Federal Scientists Feel They Can’t Speak Out, Even If Public Health and Safety at Risk, Says New Survey (October 2013)

A major survey of federal government scientists commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), has found that 90% feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.

The survey, the findings of which are included in a new report titled The Big Chill, is the first extensive effort to gauge the scale and impact of “muzzling” and political interference among federal scientists since the Harper government introduced communications policies requiring them to seek approval before being interviewed by journalists. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting her own investigation of the policies, which have been widely criticized for silencing scientists, suppressing information critical or contradictory of government policy, and delaying timely, vital information to the media and public.

In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37%) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media. …

According to the survey, nearly half (48%) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials.

“Federal scientists are facing a climate of fear,” says PIPSC president Gary Corbett…

The article quotes Francesca Grifo, who has recently taken the position of Scientific Integrity Officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

“Documenting the problem is the essential first step toward solving it,” added Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States where, under the Bush administration, federal scientists faced many similar problems. “You can’t hope to solve the issues until you fully understand them.” [See earlier post: A good new scientific integrity official at EPA]

The survey found that government science censorship was especially prevalent at the Environment Canada and Department of Fisheries and Oceans agencies:

Scientists live in a ‘climate of fear’; poll suggests federal researchers can’t speak freely

OTTAWA – Ninety per cent of Canadian government scientists feel they can’t speak freely to the media and half say they have seen the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability compromised because of political interference with scientific work, says a national survey of federal scientists. …

More than 70 per cent of respondents said the government is not using the best scientific evidence to develop laws and policies. This includes 63 per cent of Environment Canada scientists and 62 per cent of Department and Fisheries and Oceans scientists who said their departments are ignoring the best climate change research available. …

And even if scientists weren’t personally asked to censor their work, many said they had witnessed such activity. Sixty-seven per cent of Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists and 59 per cent of Environment Canada scientists who responded said they knew of cases where their departments had suppressed information, leaving the public with misleading or inaccurate information. reported on December 12:

Environment Canada denied 22 per cent of interview requests with scientists in 2013

Previously-released internal records from Environment Canada said that new communications rules introduced in 2007 had resulted in an 80 per cent drop in coverage of climate change in the media, Postmedia News reported in 2010. …

Postmedia News has been waiting since February 2013 to get an interview with a Natural Resources Canada geoscientist, Martine Savard, who led a peer-reviewed research paper on groundwater contamination leaking from oilsands industry operations in Alberta.

Earlier posts on political interference with science communication under the Harper government:

“Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development” (October 8, 2013)

New report on Harper government interference with science communication in Canada (March 20, 2013)

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