march of the control freaks

A troubling pattern is materializing in Ottawa. In committee meetings, federal auditor general Sheila Fraser announced there were newly drafted…

A troubling pattern is materializing in Ottawa.

In committee meetings, federal auditor general Sheila Fraser announced there were newly drafted rules that would require her public statements to be vetted by the Privy Council Office, an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office, prior to release.

Critics are calling the draft rules an unprecedented attack on officers of Parliament, a group of unfettered watchdogs that includes Fraser, the head of Elections Canada, and the privacy, information and ethics commissioners.

The rules would require them to get high-level approval before speaking out.

In interviews, Fraser downplayed the government’s motives — giving Harper’s team a gracious way out — suggesting she and the other officers were inadvertently caught in a poorly considered draft.

But she also said, firmly, she would never consent to such oversight.

The government will not undermine the independence of these officers of Parliament, Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the Commons yesterday.

And, in March, he sent those officers a letter saying he accepts not all board policies can be applied to them.

However, he also said, disputes would be handled on a “case-by-case” basis.

That last bit sounds ominous, especially in light of recent events in Ottawa.

You might remember that Harper’s crew sacked the independent head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen, after she did her job and insisted the Chalk River nuclear plant be shut down.

Then there’s former Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro resigned after Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced legislation that would have blunted his influence.

As well, Harper refused to co-operate with Shapiro’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding the floor-crossing of former Liberal minister David Emerson.

Also, former Access to Information commissioner John Reid resigned shortly after attacking elements of the Federal Accountability Act, the same law that spurred Shapiro to quit.

Reid said Harper’s new Access to Information Rules were cause for “grave” concern, noting “what the government now proposes, if accepted, will reduce the amount of information available to the public, weaken the oversight role of the Information Commissioner and increase government’s ability to cover up wrongdoing, shield itself from embarrassment and control the flow of information to Canadians.”

You might also remember the Harper government prevented a government scientist from discussing his fictitious novel about global warming with Canadian reporters because it didn’t conform to government communications objectives.

But the evidence of government clamping down with the flow of information to further its policy objectives doesn’t end there.

This week, an article in the International Journal of Drug Policy charged Harper’s Conservative government interfered with the work of independent scientific bodies, tried to muzzle scientists and deliberately misrepresented research findings because it is ideologically opposed to harm-reduction programs.

In doing so, Stephen Harper’s government committed “a serious breach of international scientific standards” in its handling of Vancouver’s safe-injection site, the study said.

Insite, the safe-injection facility, was approved by Ottawa in 2003 and, since then has been evaluated by 22 peer-reviewed papers.

All showed positive benefits, including a reduction in communicable diseases stemming from drug use and an increase in the use of rehab facilities.

In 2006, an independent Health Canada study recommended the program should be expanded and extended to cities across the country.

Instead, Health Minister Tony Clement slapped a moratorium on further study of Insite.

There were too many unanswered questions, he said.

In responding to the journal story, Clement’s spokesperson said he’d actually commissioned more research.

However, Clement’s new research funding had strings attached.

Any findings were to be withheld from the public until after funding for the Insite facility expired in June.

Researchers said that amounted to a muzzling of scientists. In protest, UBC staff refused to apply for the grants.

It’s a case of police concerns and tough-on-crime political priorities trumping sound public health policy, said the journal.

A commentary published alongside the article dubbed the situation a “policy horror story.”

The comment, by Robert MacCoun of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said the evidence demonstrates that a “well-executed piece of policy research on a promising innovation was discontinued for unstated but blatant political reasons.”

And, finally, there’s Bill C-10, the Harper government’s controversial film tax credit legislation.

Like Clement’s strings-attached research grants, it would give a faceless group of bureaucrats authority to determine which film projects were too sexy or gory for public financial support.

And now, to ensure its passage, the Conservatives have deemed it a confidence motion.

The measure plays to the party’s base in Alberta and to backbench government MPs, who want “film funding to focus on ‘mainstream’ films suitable for family viewing,” according to the Globe and Mail.

If it passes, it would give Harper’s crew new powers of censorship.

And all this from a government elected on the pledge of honesty and accountability.

In fact, a much different pattern is emerging.

And free-thinking Canadians should be concerned. (RM)