Remember who’s paying

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This is a different way to ask you to read an editorial. If you’re reading it in the paper version of The Telegram, go to the bottom of the page first and read Peter Jackson’s column on the federal Tories and science. If you’re reading online, go backwards one click, read Jackson’s offering, and then come back here.

The column, as you probably know by now, looks at the federal Conservatives and their strange penchant for gagging scientists: despite the fact that science thrives on the sharing and testing of ideas, the Tories apparently don’t want scientists sharing anything that  might conflict with Tory ideology. Politicians, and politicians alone, will decide what science can be discussed.

It’s a stand that has lately gained the interest of the federal information commissioner, who has launched an investigation into the muzzling.

But while Jackson makes good points, he left out the core of the Tory argument, which could be summarized as the government saying that, since it paid for the science, it gets to decide how and when it will be used or disseminated.

In the simplest terms, it’s he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Problem is, the federal government has made a crucial error in its hypothesis: while the piper may well call the tune, the Harper Tories have missed a step. Put it scientifically; X calls the tune, but X is not the Tories. X is actually the taxpayer.

Stop for a second and imagine the same equation playing out in scenarios other than science.

The federal government, for example, is responsible for overseeing health care.

Does that mean, therefore, that the Harper cabinet could select which Canadians get medical treatment, and whether, perhaps, Tory cabinet ministers get preferential treatment? It is, after all, the exact same equation.

Since the federal government pays the RCMP, should the federal government decide who gets investigated by that police force — and, more critically, who does not?

What about National Defence? Does the federal government’s role as official paymaster mean that they have their own private security service?

Away from science, it’s a position that no one would find  acceptable. The simple wonder is that we’ve been willing to accept that one political party owns the work we have all paid for — and to add insult to injury, work that blossoms when it is shared.

The fundamental confusion is that, somewhere along the line, especially when it comes to science, the federal government has confused itself with one small piece of history. It, for some reason, believes in the description often credited to Louis XIV of France, who was alleged to have proclaimed “l’Etat, c’est moi.” — “I am the State.”

Unfortunately, governments forget that they are not the state. All of us are. We own federal science, we own federal health care, and we own our federal police force. Governments that forget that, come election-time, may find the electorate has found another use for “X.”

Organizations: Tory, Conservatives, RCMP National Defence

Geographic location: France

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Recent comments

  • Will Cole
    April 03, 2013 - 19:48

    "There are demon-haunted worlds... regions of utter darkness." - the Isha Upanishad, India circa 600 B.C. As quoted in Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It is unsettlling to think that Canada under the Harperites may become another "demon-haunted world", a "region of utter darkness".

  • Ed Power
    April 03, 2013 - 17:03

    Maggy Carter - An excellent and insightful commentary. You should really try the "Ink Stained Wretch" gig as a career, you have a true talent with words! David, I don't reccomend that you leave your trolling job in the basement of the Conservative Party. "Saint Suzuki Scandal"? Really? And your source for the information on this "Scandal" is..... ....Sun News and Ezra Levant. Canada's very own version of Fox News, where - to parapharse Drew Carey's intro on Whose Line Is It Anyway - everything is made up and the facts don't matter.

    • david
      April 04, 2013 - 16:29

      In the several weeks since this was released, no one has refuted the facts of this video. No one. Not Suzuki, not John Abbott College, not Suzuki's minions, not even Suzuki's most powerful fan, the CBC. No one. In fact, the sole, immediate reaction from Suzuki was to demand that a media rep. from the Sun be barred from even listening to him speak at a public event. Lord knows the Sun doesn't get everything right, but they do report stories that no one else here will......and they nailed this one good. As far as casting unfounded aspersions, Ed, I'd suggest you look in a mirror. Your mouth is catching more flies than your stomach can take.

  • Tony Rockel
    April 03, 2013 - 16:40

    Harper obviously doesn't give a rip about science or the environment. Like many others in the fundamentalist, anti-science crowd, he's probably expecting at any moment to be raptured up into Heaven, where he can spend eternity with Sarah Palin Michelle, Bachmann, Mitt Romney and all the other right wing nutbars.

  • Tony Rockel
    April 03, 2013 - 16:32

    Harper obviously doesn't give a rip about science or the environment. Like many others in the fundamentalist, anti-science crowd, he's probably expecting at any moment to be raptured up into Heaven, where he can spend eternity with Sarah Palin Michelle, Bachmann, Mitt Romney and all the other right wing nutbars.

  • david
    April 03, 2013 - 12:56

    One point: Many of today's "scientists" are simply activists for an agenda who are employed in positions that give them a pulpit with illegimate influence and authority. They either never practiced real science, or gave it up long ago. Canada has far too many "David Suzuki's", when what we need is a Galileo or a Copernicus. And I'm sick of hearing Suzuki's BS....for a good laugh, Google "Saint Suzuki scandal". Our "fearless leader"...

  • Winston adams
    April 03, 2013 - 11:23

    When I asked at the Logy bay marine lab about records for salt water temperature , I could get no answer and I doubt they even regular record it. Are they being muzzled? Can the media ask the same question of them, or is this not important? Does the media care?

  • wavy
    April 03, 2013 - 10:10

    Bravo for this and Peter Jackson's column. What the Harper Cons have done to stifle the sharing and publishing of scientific data in Canada is federal censorship at its absolute worst; it is outrageous and disturbing. The Harper years will be considered the darkest scientific and environmental policy period in Canadian history, made darker by the fact the muzzling and manipulation comes at a critical time when forthright environmental scrutiny is needed most. But complaining about the Harper govt. feels like a broken record, doesn't it? Any wonder young people feel so helplessly frustrated and disengaged with politics and federal policy? Most of the country alternates between screaming for political vengeance and exhaustive apathy. Sad, dark times indeed.

  • Maggy Carter
    April 03, 2013 - 10:10

    Well actually state and government mean pretty much the same thing (except that, in some contexts, state refers to a particular piece of political geography as opposed to the machinery used to run it). The head of state is not the prime minister but rather the Queen of Canada (Elizabeth) and her stand-in, the Governor General. But that would be splitting hairs. Your point that "governments forget ...they are not the state" is valid, at least euphemistically, but I would go further. In terms of the present government, it is less a case of forgetfulness than conscious deliberation. Stephen Harper was the first ever prime minister to rebrand - at taxpayer expense - the 'Government of Canada' as the 'Harper Government'. It was an act of arrogance reminiscent of Napoleon who proclaimed himself emperor by placing the crown on his own head, signifying in effect that he was above the state. Harper's audacious move might be considered idiosyncratic were it not for the weight of evidence indicating that he actually believes himself to be above the state. The manipulation of the electoral process and the proroguing of parliament without its consent are prime examples of behaviours that, in the not-too-distant-past, would have evoked such public outcry that the government could not have survived. But as Democracy Watch and the Council of Canadians have underscored repeatedly, we are witnessing a steady erosion of democratic values and principles that arises from voter fear and apathy. Nor is the phenomena limited to the federal level of government. In many respects our own provincial government has emulated, if not exceeded, Harper's penchant for dismantling or circumventing the building blocks of our democracy.