Sunday, February 24, 2008

A tale of two civil servants

Once upon a time there were two senior civil servants, Linda Keen and Rick Hillier. Linda Keen was head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and had serious concerns about the safety of an aging nuclear reactor. She was steadfast in refusing to go along with the Conservative government's intention to reopen the facility. Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to her in parliamentary debate as a "Liberal partisan". She was fired with a late night phone call.

General Rick Hillier is Canada's Chief of Defense Staff. On several occasions he has publicly expressed his opinions on Canada's military presence in Afghanistan. Not on how to conduct military operations, which is his job, but on political issues such as how long Canadian troops should be there. Just a few days ago he argued for an extension and went on to suggest that domestic debate about this was endangering Canadian troops:
... the longer we go without that clarity, with the issue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as a perceived weak link.

I'm not going to stand here and tell you that the suicide bombings of this past week have been related to the debate back here in Canada. But I also cannot stand here and say that they are not.

And, certainly, there is a perception out there that the Taliban will try to take advantage of the debate back here and try to prevent a cohesive mission and will indeed attempt to attack our Canadian Forces in Kandahar.
Hillier's job is not to advance his political views, which can certainly be described as "partisan". But apparently that's ok if the partisanship is of the Right kind. Needless to say, Hillier's job remains safe.

So there you have it: do your job and if it's inconvenient for the Conservatives you'll be labeled as partisan and fired; step way outside the bounds of your job with partisan commentary and if it's convenient for the Conservatives then it's all good.

Which is troubling enough. But consider the specifics: Linda Keen was responsible for nuclear safety! As for Rick Hillier, is it not clear that in a democracy, political interference by the military is problematic?

I'm not so sure that we'll all live happily ever after.

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Blogger dm said...

There was an interesting piece in Saturday's Globe & Mail about AECL and the CNSC. While I'm certainly not advocating what the Conservatives did, I don't think the situation was as clear cut as Ms. Keen getting fired simply because she tried to do her job.

What is particularly interesting is back in 1991, the Mulroney Conservatives forced AECL to sell its isotope producing division (a major money-maker for the crown corporation) to a private company (MDS). They then forced AECL to supply isotopes to MDS exclusively. I can't help but wonder how much of AECL's problems over the last 20 years were due to lack of cash - and how this loss of revenue over 20 years ultimately impacted the crisis in December?

9:55 AM, February 25, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Of course you're right: the Keen firing and the MDS Nordion isotope scandal were far more complex than I described. Nevertheless, I think juxtaposing the cases of Keen and Hillier provides food for thought.

Free market ideologues sometimes suggest that if a crown corporation has a profitable division then it should be sold off, because a private corporation will be more "efficient". I think that whenever such an argument is made, the public (and hopefully the media?) should demand that the reasoning be made absolutely explicit, including all of the underlying assumptions and predictions. And in the event that the decision is made to sell, the process of the sale should be subjected to intense scrutiny.

8:30 PM, February 25, 2008  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

Dammit, Taliban Nick. If you don't stop thinking for yourself and questioning the partisan politics of Canada's New Government, then the terrorists will have won!

2:23 PM, February 28, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I think what troubles me most is that the Harper government has chosen to politicize the civil service in both the Hillier and Keen cases. (Interestingly, through action in the latter case and inaction in the former.) The consequences may not be fully evident for some time to come.

I don't know about the terrorists, but the opponents of democracy are scoring some victories.

8:29 PM, February 28, 2008  

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