Monday, September 29, 2008

Gagging The Gagged

"Public servants ... are expected to maintain a low profile during an election and avoid public commentary on any matters that could potentially impact, or be perceived as impacting, on the election," said Privy Council Office spokeswoman Myriam Massabki.

As a long-serving federal public servant, I am, of course, sensitive to the needs of the government. I would never, ever publicly expose any wrongdoings or malfeasances occurring within the bowels of the civil service, particularly during a federal election campaign.

If, for example, I was aware of the unauthorized expenditure of millions of dollars on some harebrained project, I would keep my mouth shut. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to have the public judge a government on a single, out-of-control program.

And if I knew that there was a departmental section overflowing with featherbedding, do-nothing superannuates-in-waiting, I would remain silent. Frankly, it’s not any of my business why my employer would allow this to happen. There are undoubtedly larger plans and schemes unknown to me that rely on this apparent sloth and waste.

I recognize that the major fuel that government runs on is secrecy. The public might not be able to understand why this is the case but, trust me, it’s the essential element of an efficient bureaucracy or, for that matter, any bureaucracy, whether efficient or not.

If I told you all I know about the inner workings of government, you’d likely get really angry and start yelling things like "Throw the bums out!" and "I’ll never vote for them again!" And that would be just plain wrong.

Because neither you nor I can ever really know the full mysterious workings of the entire bureaucracy. Just because there appear to be inefficiencies or corruption at some level doesn’t mean government isn’t working.

In order to fully assess that, you have to be privy to the big picture. You’re not and neither am I. But I’m sure those at the top can look down on the process and see that all the pieces fit into place to help effectively drive the huge engine of government.

Sure, it may seem devious and deceitful to allow certain processes and expenditures to fly under the radar. But I have no doubt that ministers and deputy ministers are fully aware of these seeming anomalies and know that they, in fact, comprise an essential element of the overall workings of the bureaucracy.

The directive from the PCO spokeswoman is perfectly understandable and acceptable in a modern democratic state. Much as we public servants might like to publicly express our support for one candidate or another, it could be disastrous for the country’s health.

Just imagine what might happen if different government workers spoke out publicly and criticized current or proposed government programs. Average voters might actually believe these workers and tailor their votes accordingly.

But if the whistle-blowing bureaucrats are like me, they don’t have access to the big picture. Thus, they might not know that that untendered multi-billion dollar contract needs to go through in order to buttress a particular company that in turn can provide jobs in a particular riding to ensure the reelection of a specific minister.

As the Ned Beatty character in the movie "Network" says to Howard Beale: "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!" Those without the grander knowledge possessed by the chosen few ignorantly risk great harm to the commonweal by acting precipitously.

The loyal public servant knows that his job is to keep his nose down, his eyes closed and his mouth shut. It is not for him to decide what is good or what is bad. Without the advantage of power, he simply can’t know.

So I might be inclined to say that I’m concerned about the health care system in this country or that I fear for our faltering educational institutions. I might naively want to express my view that we need a change in government in order to get back to serving the common good.

But I know that my limited experience does not qualify me to opine on such grand matters. The government knows the damage that can be done by public servants pretending to be active participants in a democracy and I, for one, am 100 per cent behind them or their eventual successors.

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