Did Trudeau muzzle scientists?

Do you remember, just a couple of years ago, when the CBC breathlessly announced that “It took five years, but the results of an harperinvestigation by the Information Commissioner of Canada were released and the verdict is in: the Harper government did muzzle scientists“? The investigation was “by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault  … [and it] … began in 2013 … [during the Harper government] … based on a complaint by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and the advocacy group Democracy Watch.

The biggest complaints had been that the Harper government was trying to downplay climate change science in order to not have to take any action … that was, certainly, the Liberal and CBC lines: both feigned outrage when Canada was singled out for not doing enough about climate change, even though that charges were being made by well-known climate change activists, not by the scientific community. Harper apologists, like me, pointed out that what was really happening was that the government was reminding scientists that their “work” is the property of the people if Canada and the Government of Canada, acting as the peoples’ agent, has ultimate control over its use and release.

That was, pretty clearly, the Harper government’s policy but it was, it seemed to me, neither uniquely political nor uniquely Canadian. In the late 1900s and early 2000s, we were undergoing an information revolution and many, many people were caught up in the notion that all information should be freely available to everyone. Many senior officials in many countries, from America to Zimbabwe were not persuaded. They and many corporate executives and some university presidents were worried that a total “free-flow” of information would actually stifle scientific and technological development, not enable it, and they worried that, here in Canada, for example, Canadian companies would be placed at a competitive disadvantage if too much information was released in an uncontrolled manner. In the area in which I worked in government and, later, in the private sector but very close to government ~ the radio frequency spectrum ~ scientific information was very often very closely guarded for commercial, not military, reasons.

Now I see a lengthy and carefully researched report by Grant Robertson in the Globe and Mail which says that “The Conservatives, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, began to reshape Public Health in 2014, reducing the clout of the Chief Public Health Officer and restricting control over staffing and budgets. Senior officials were brought in from other departments, such as the Treasury Board and Border Services, to run Public Health. New layers of management were installed above the CPHO and throughout the department … [and] … The move was billed as a way to ease the workload for Canada’s top doctor. But it amounted to a demotion of scientific voices within the department and, arguably, a way to escalate political influence in the decision-making process … [predictably] … When the changes were announced, the Canadian Public Health Association, which represents public health professionals, feared the new structure would imperil the department’s ability to respond effectively in a crisis. The Liberals called the restructuring “bad news” and warned it would lead to Screen Shot 2020-07-15 at 06.14.20the experts inside Public Health being stripped of their independence, allowing the government to exert control over decisions … [but] … when the Liberals took power in 2016, rather than reverse the changes they once opposed, the Trudeau government kept them.

In fact, Grant Robertson reports, the Trudeau regime effectively shuttered a small, cheap (less than $3 Million dollars ~ petty cash in Canada’s government) research and early warning team called the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) which “was among Canada’s contributions to the World Health Organization, and it operated as a kind of medical Amber Alert system. Its job was to gather intelligence and spot pandemics early, before they began, giving the government and other countries a head start to respond and – hopefully – prevent a catastrophe. And the results often spoke for themselves.” Unfortunately, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic was getting started, just when the GPHIN should have provided “early warning,” it had been told, by the Trudeau regime, to focus on domestic issues. But global pandemics don’t often start in Canada, do they? The GPHIN sifted through data from around the world, often from places like China, Iran and Russia which hide or manipulate medical information, conducting something akin to military reconnaissance so that Canadian (and global (WHO)) officials could “see” what might be headed our way.

Did Justin Trudeau give the order to “muzzle” the GPHIN scientists?  No, of course not … no more than Stephen Harper gave the order to “muzzle” scientists in Environment Canada. The decision to “refocus” the GPHIN on useless, domestic busywork was likely made by an Assistant Deputy Minister who was acting on yet another demand from the Treasury Board Secretariat to justify every programme dollar … again.

You should be glad that the Treasury Board Secretariat casts a sceptical eye on every single government programme and is a constant thorn in the side of operational people (like I was when I was serving and like the GPHIN folks were, too). They, skilled, hard-working civil servants, are just trying to ensure that your tax dollars are not being wasted. They are good people doing good work. But sometimes the wheat gets tossed away with the chaff. That appears to have been the case with the GPHIN. In retrospect, it seems almost criminally stupid to have deprived Canada of a valuable medical reconnaissance agency just because there had not been an “attack” recently. But that appears to have been the bureaucratic justification ~ it’s like me saying that since my house hasn’t burned down recently we should disband the fire department.

Did Justin Trudeau muzzle scientists? No.

Did Justin Trudeau’s government disable a valuable (and cheap) “early warning” system just to make its own wild spending look a little less careless? Yes, that’s what the Globe and Mail‘s investigation says ~ and we have paid a horrendous price in lives for that decision.

This story, it seems to me, is very much like the “Harper muzzles scientists” stories from a few years ago … but minus the massive media attention. It appears very evident, from Mr Robertson’s investigations that bureaucrats, acting on their own, internal priorities, emasculated the GPHIN just when we needed it most. That, bureaucratic action, was I believe what was, mainly, behind the “Harper muzzles scientists” stories, too. But in the 2010s much of the mainstream media was in a sort of undeclared war against Stephen Harper and so the claims of climate activists became “news” and opinions were treated as facts.

One cannot help but wonder: will the CBC will pick up on the Globe and Mail‘s quite excellent investigative journalism?

 

 

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