Tag Archives: Canadian Medical Association Journal

Politicizing the public service a danger to public health

Two news items today worth noting. The first story, from the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, reports that the Tories have clamped down on public servants during the election, “muzzling” them from speaking at conferences, to scientific meetings, or in other public engagements. The story quotes Myriam Massabki, a spokesperson with the Privy Council Office, who argues the PCO rationale is to prevent public servants from speaking up about policy issues that may influence voter decisions during the election campaign. 

The timing of the announcement is important – the Conservatives are still dealing with blowback from the agriculture minister’s conference call faux pas, and most attribute the leak of the minister’s comments to an axe-grinding bureaucrat or staffer (this is as yet unproven and we may never know the source). Regardless, the announcement will most certainly produce a chilling effect within the public service and exacerbate already strained relations with the ruling party (of course, this assumes the Conservative will carry their 2-week lead in the polls through to election day).

The other item worth mentioning in this context is from CTV. The story is about a forthcoming commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Dr. Kumanan Wilson, the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Policy, and Dr. Jennifer Keelan, both of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Professors Wilson and Keelan ask why the federal agriculture minister and the president of Maple Leaf Foods, the company linked to the outbreak, have been the faces of the outbreak for both the media and the public rather than the government’s own chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones.

Good question.

“There’s a reason why we want our public health officials and our public health office to be in the lead on public health issues,” Wilson and Keelan argue. “When you have that situation, you are less likely to make other kinds of compromises for other reasons. The primary goal will be to improve public health.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada Act allows the chief public health officer to issue annual reports to Parliament and to communicate directly with the public concerning public health issues. Yet, Butler-Jones is more than just the country’s leading public health officer – he is also a deputy minister, precisely the kind of public servant the PCO/Tories are intending to muzzle from speaking on matters of public interest.
The irony here is that had Butler-Jones been the government’s public face of the issue and not the agriculture minister, the Tories would have saved themselves days of apologies and distractions, and improved the possibility of scoring that elusive majority. 

As an aside, it’s noteworthy that the headline in the delivery copy of the Citizen read “PCO tightens muzzle on PS for campaign” while the online version (at time of writing) read: “Tories tighten muzzle on PS for campaign.” A minor distinction, but an important one, especially if my hunch is right that many readers won’t know what the PCO is or the role it plays.

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Filed under Food-borne illness, Politics