Readers will recall attempts earlier this year by the ludicrous Minister of Creationism Gary Goodyear to shut down an academic conference at York University about the Middle East.
I blogged about that at the time, and noted with some relief that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council had politely rejected his request to convene a second funding panel to "review" SSHRC's decision to provide support for the meeting.
It turns out that the folks at SSHRC, one of these formerly arms-length agencies in which Harper's ministers have seen fit to meddle, were braver than anyone at the time gave them credit for.
Goodyear's office, as we now learn, gave every indication that the Minister would not take No for an answer. He was prepared, in fact, to blackmail the agency into submission, although subsequently it appears he was either overruled or else some expert in administrative law whispered urgently into his ear.
Here's the entire text of the press release issued today by the Canadian Association of University Teachers:
Minister Gary Goodyear’s office threatened to withhold federal budget funding for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) over its decision to fund a controversial academic conference, according to an email obtained by CAUT through Access to Information.
CAUT first learned in June that Minister Goodyear had telephoned SSHRC president Chad Gaffield to insist on reconsideration of a peer-reviewed decision to fund an academic conference called “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace” held at York University later that month.
“At the time we considered this personal intervention by the minister so serious we called for his resignation,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “Little did we know then that the phone call was apparently accompanied by a threat from the minister’s office to withhold increases in federal budget funding.”
Marked “Extremely Urgent,” and sent to SSHRC president Chad Gaffield on June 5, 2009, the email is written by SSHRC’s communications manager Trevor Lynn and describes what he has just been told by Minister Goodyear’s Chief of Staff, Phillip Welford:
“He [Welford] said that this is a serious issue and is so serious that it will make it hard for the Minister to recommend increased funding for SSHRC in the next budget."
“This email raises serious questions about how decisions are made about federal government funding for academic granting councils,” said Turk. “Minister Goodyear must be called upon to explain his chief of staff’s actions, and if he cannot provide an adequate explanation, Prime Minister Harper must safeguard the integrity of academic research in Canada by asking for the minister’s resignation.” [Emphasis added]
This is, even for the Harper government, an extraordinary example of ministerial arrogance.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves of the salient principle upheld in Roncarelli (which applies, for example, to Jason Kenney's revocation of a grant to the Canadian Arab Federation because he didn't like the cut of its jib).
The Premier of Quebec at the time, the clerical-fascist Maurice Duplessis, had denied a liquor license to a citizen of that province because he was a Jehovah's Witness. His view--echoed by the Harper regime today--was, in effect, that he could do anything he jolly well pleased because he was the Premier. The Supreme Court disagreed:
In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled "discretion", that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator; no legislative Act can, without express language, be taken to contemplate an unlimited arbitrary power exercisable for any purpose, however capricious or irrelevant, regardless of the nature or purpose of the statute. ..."Discretion" necessarily implies good faith in discharging public duty; there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption. Could an applicant be refused a permit because he had been born in another province, or because of the colour of his hair? The ordinary language of the legislature cannot be so distorted.
Recently the federal court slapped down yet another minister--Lawrence Cannon--who had taken a view quite similar to that of Duplessis. The government argued, unsuccessfully, that he could deny a passport to Abousfian Abdelrazik essentially for any reason that he chose, he was not accountable to the courts, and the Charter of Rights didn't apply.
Now we have another clear instance of executive overreach, if I can put it thus: a minister of the Crown threatening the budget of a granting agency for not bowing to his command. To the head of my old agency, Chad Gaffield, who refused to bow, kudos.
And to Gary Goodyear, one word, in the name of democracy: Resign.
UPDATE: (September 29) And the decline of our international reputation proceeds apace. [H/t reader "dizzy."]