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Silencing the messengers

This op-ed by Parkland Institute director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Lethbridge Herald on December 4, 2019.

On Nov. 25, in legislative debate over Bill 22 which, among other things, fired Alberta’s Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson, who was actively investigating members of the United Conservative Party for what amounts to alleged money laundering, Opposition leader Rachel Notley quoted University of Calgary political scientist Dr. Melanee Thomas, who said Premier Jason Kenney was “using the power of the state to silence an independent body and this is corrupt.”

Thomas was not alone in this criticism. Many academics, including this one, as well as journalists, have argued Gibson’s firing was a dangerous attack on democracy; indeed, that it smacked of authoritarianism. Some compared Gibson’s firing to that of the famous “Saturday Night Massacre” when former President Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox; or the more recent firing by current President Donald Trump of FBI director James Comey.

The government’s explanations for Gibson’s firing had been, to that point, transparently without merit. Conveniently, Kenney was in Texas during the severely abbreviated time when the legislature passed the bill. It fell instead on House Leader Jason Nixon – an eerie coincidence of name – to provide the bill’s justification. The position of Election Commissioner was being moved in-house for reasons of cost efficiency – except that the position itself, along with all of the support staff, were being retained; no cost savings there. Gibson was not fired, as the position of Election Commissioner still existed – except that, while all the positions still existed, he was the only person without a job. The investigations would continue – except that, with Gibson’s firing, the process of investigation had been dealt a blow. The Chief Electoral Officer could, should he choose, re-hire Gibson – except that, well, here’s your marching orders, and by the way, your position comes up for renewal in the spring.

Safe in the legislative confines, which allow members to say pretty much anything with impunity about regular folk, Kenney’s retort to Notley’s quote from Thomas was to say, “It is so sad over there that they’re now resorting to quoting NDP candidates like Ms. Thomas as objective sources.”

Kenney’s remark is factually correct: Thomas ran as an NDP candidate in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections. But his statement reduces all criticism to partisan motives, and is dismissive of those trying to hold the government to account – presumably, one assumes, the statement’s purpose.

Thomas is a public intellectual, one who is an expert in her field who engages in public discussion about important issues of the day; who does not, in other words, restrict her role to the ivory tower. Like all academics who dare to engage in public debate, Thomas has been criticized for her views. Like Premier Kenney, her critics have sometimes attempted to reduce her comments to mere political partisanship, ignoring her substantial body of academic excellence. As Thomas notes, however, Kenney’s criticisms present a particular threat to academic freedom by virtue of the fact that it was discussed on the floor of the legislature, by the premier no less. In a tweet responding to Kenney’s comments, she wrote, “to be directly targeted by a head of government is chilling. It is more so when that person is responsible for your institution’s funding and has just gutted its budget for the current fiscal year.”

Already, several academics and academic institutions, including the Canadian Association of University Teachers, has jumped to Thomas’ defence. Sadly, however, Kenney’s remarks echo past worrisome efforts to silence critics by the Alberta state.

In the spring of 1995, for example, three distinguished academics at the University of Alberta published a paper examining the impact upon women of the Klein government’s fiscal austerity. A Conservative member brought up the paper in the legislature, pointedly asking then Minister of Advanced Education, “were taxpayer dollars used either directly or indirectly to fund the writing of this overly biased and poorly research paper?” The minister replied he did not know, but suggested that Albertans should inquire as to the paper’s funding and otherwise raise their concerns with the university’s administration and board of governors. As today, under the cloak of financial necessity, academics and other members of civil society faced threats from the government and its corporate supporters. Arguably, many of Alberta’s current problems – fiscal and political – can be traced to criticisms and warnings ignored at that time.

George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The views of academics such as Dr. Thomas must be valued and protected from the powerful who would have them silenced.

Trevor Harrison

Dr. Trevor Harrison is director of Parkland Institute. He is a professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, and a research affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.

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