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EDITORIAL: Their master’s voice

The Confederation Building in St. John's, Newfoundland. — file
Confederation Building in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo

The civil service has been silenced during this election, and that’s wrong

The message is a simple one: everything is now political.

The province has been chugging along through a relatively listless election campaign since just before Easter, but at Confederation Building, the process of government has continued.

There are still bills to be paid, decisions to be made, research to be done and meetings to be attended.

The world of government doesn’t stop while politicians are out trying to get a job for themselves for the next four years or so.

But you wouldn’t think that if you were in the media, trying to report on anything other than the election itself.

The public service, as its name implies, is supposed to serve the public, not the politicians who sit atop the government pyramid.

That’s because, strangely, the province’s public service seems to have lost its voice. Right now, if you want answers on anything in the provincial government sphere, you’re likely to be told to wait until the election’s over.

It’s not something that we’re used to hearing. Certainly, if what you want to talk about is the government’s budgetary policy, you’d want to speak to the finance minister. But if you want a straightforward interview on how a government program works, you’d ask for the person who oversees that program.

We’re now being told that there won’t be interviews on government issues until the election’s over. Commenting on the workings of government is being treated the way issues are when they’re before the courts — “We’re not commenting until that’s over and done with.”

You can understand public servants being nervous about not stepping on toes. You can even understand them keenly wanting to keep a low profile during the campaign.

But that doesn’t mean all answers and explanations should stop, if for no other reason than because public servants are not supposed to be political.

It’s unusual to be told — as we have been — that government employees have actually been ordered to not even give the simplest of comments during the election.

The Canadian Encyclopedia has this to say about the public service in Canada: “The convention of political neutrality in the public service is maintained by the principle of appointment on the basis of merit rather than on political affiliation. The traditional separation of politics and administration … theoretically meant public servants could remain neutral in supporting the government in power …”

The public service, as its name implies, is supposed to serve the public, not the politicians who sit atop the government pyramid.

If a public servant can’t release straightforward, factual information without overriding, constant political oversight, then nothing is really straightforward factual information anymore.

No, that information is all just content to be massaged, messaged, parsed and finally extruded in a form that constantly puts governing politicians in the best possible light.

Life goes on. Work goes on. Government goes on.

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