Post-secondary Data Collection—Scientific Research

Hon. Jim Munson: My question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. She spoke about a communications directive going back to 2002. As director of communications for the then Prime Minister, I do not recall trying to muzzle federal scientists, even going so far as to control when and what, if anything, they could say about floods at the end of the last Ice Age.

Yesterday, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents federal scientists, took the unusual step of launching a website to speak up for science, as they describe it. As they said in their press release, the recent decision to end the mandatory long-form census is the latest step in a worrying trend away from evidence-based policy making. Restrictive rules are curtailing media and public access to scientists, while cutbacks to research and monitoring limit Canada’s ability to deal with serious threats and potential opportunities.

Basically, this is all about a gag order on these scientists. If one is going to have a minister or someone who is a director of communications answer these questions or be part of these questions, then why not have the federal scientists who compiled all of this information at least be seen beside a federal minister or an anonymous communications person so that one can deliver that message and have some credibility with the scientists backing one up or, perhaps, not backing one up?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): The fact is, honourable senators, we are not muzzling our scientists.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

Senator Comeau: Unlike the previous government.

Senator LeBreton: We are proud of the work our scientists do, and we should be because we have invested significant amounts of money into research and development. I must confess, colleagues, that I was watching the CBC last night.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

An Hon. Senator: Why would you do that?

Senator LeBreton: I had no other option.

As opposed to the mid-1990s, when there was a brain drain away from Canada, the CBC actually said that Canada was benefiting from scientists coming to Canada from around the world because of our plans.

Senator Di Nino: They actually noticed that?

Senator LeBreton: CBC has to report a fact every once in a while.

We will continue to work closely with scientists to ensure that all Canadians are aware of the great work they are doing.

Going back to the communications aspect, ministers are the primary spokespersons for federal departments and agencies and they need to be aware of the issues in the media which involve their departments. That is obvious. This is the policy that was established in 2002 and we are just following that policy. We have not changed it.

Our government is very proud of the work that is being done by our federal scientists. Obviously, our country’s prosperity depends on our capacity to innovate and compete. We are investing a record $11 billion in science and technology this year.

Much of that is to support science inside the government. We are investing $250 million to upgrade federal labs so that we can continue to serve the needs of Canadians and make our economy stronger.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

Senator LeBreton: For those honourable senators who are shouting, if they want proof of this they should just ask two former Liberal cabinet ministers: Allan Rock and Lloyd Axworthy.

Canada is the top science and research investor in the G7, thanks to our government’s support for our universities and colleges. Despite our investments of over $7 billion per year to encourage business research and development, Canadian business still depends less per capita on R&D innovation and commercialization than in most other industrialized countries.

There was a report out recently that businesses must start picking up their end of the bargain as well. In order to encourage business, we are launching a panel to seek advice on how our government can further improve support for business research and development. The panel, as has been well reported and applauded, is composed of six eminent Canadians chosen for their experience in business, academia and government, as well as knowledge of R&D and innovation practices and policies. Do not say that we are not consulting and we are not consulting experts, because we are.

We deliberately asked distinguished Canadians, who have had actual experience with government R&D programs, to serve on this panel so that they can advise us on how federal support for R&D could be made better.

All of the panellists must comply with the Conflict of Interest Act, just in case honourable senators were wondering.

Their review will provide recommendations to the government on how we can better boost Canadian business, create jobs and bring new ideas to the marketplace for the betterment of all Canadians.

Honourable senators, I am proud of our record on science. I am equally proud of our record on research and development. It is unprecedented. We have done more in this area than any government in the history of the country.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Senator Munson: What was the question again? I just want to make sure the Leader of the Government has time to read more of her cue cards.

It was the office of the Minister of Natural Resources, Christian Paradis, which insisted on pre-approving interviews about the study of a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago. This is a minister whose staff are under investigation for illegally blocking the release of documents under access to information. However, Mr. Paradis is not the only minister involved in this sort of muzzle up. Here is a description that John Geddes of Maclean’s encountered when researching seabirds, obviously another hot topic for the Harper government. It is up there with the Afghan detainees, I guess.

I quote Mr. Geddes, who wrote:

For instance, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a $5-million study into the feasibility of creating an Arctic marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound last year, I tried to do a few quick interviews with federal biologists who study the sound’s abundant seabirds. But the bird guys told me they were required to go through an approvals process that would have prevented them from talking to me on the record quickly enough to meet my deadline for posting an item on the subject on this website that same day.

That was a journalist trying to do his job.

I ask again: Will the government stop its obstructionist tactics and let Canadians have the benefit of their tax-funded scientific research — Canadians are paying for this — on a timely basis, without fear of Big Brother or Big Sister stepping in to censor the information?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, the government is not censoring information. Obviously, a government-wide communications policy which has been in effect since 2002 is the process.

It does not matter if a journalist calls into any department. Obviously, as was also the case with the honourable senator’s government, the minister is the one who is politically responsible for the department. The communications policy is simply that the minister answers for the department. This is not a policy of muzzling anyone. This is a policy that has been in effect for eight years.

It was brought into effect by the previous government under Senator Munson’s beloved Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and the government follows this communications policy to this day. There is nothing more to the matter than that.

Senator Comeau: Talk to the BBC president.