Federal scientist told not to speak about his novel
Government also axes 15 Kyoto research programs
Apr. 14, 2006. 07:40 AM
OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
OTTAWA—The new, heavy communications hand of Conservative Ottawa has reached into the realm of fiction, with an Environment Canada scientist muzzled from speaking about his novel on climate change.
Mark Tushingham's new book is called Hotter than Hell, but yesterday he was plunged into the icy reality of the new Conservative communications regime, where ministers, MPs and the media are encountering strict new controls over the flow of information to the public.
Shortly before Tushingham was due to give a luncheon speech in Ottawa about his novel — a futuristic account of Canada and the U.S. at war over water resources in a globally warmed world — he received an email from the environment minister's office, warning him not to attend the event.
Paradoxically, the incident takes place during the same week the Conservatives unveiled new "whistleblower" protection, designed to shield outspoken public servants from intimidation and threats to their livelihood.
Also yesterday, the government said it was axing 15 research programs related to the Kyoto climate-change protocol and aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases thought to cause global warming.
Sandra Buckler, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications director, says the gag order against Tushingham did not come from the top and Harper told reporters yesterday he was in the dark about the incident. OMG, just like how Bush didn't know about the uranium from niger?
But Harper then added, in a not-so-subtle warning to the public service: "We were elected on a particular platform. Our commitment to the people of Canada is to go ahead with that platform. That will include measures we're going to develop over the next year or so to deal with both pollution and greenhouse gases, and I obviously not only hope but expect that all elements of the bureaucracy will be working with us to achieve those objectives."
Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, in an email, said Tushingham's mistake was in billing himself as a government representative, though he only appeared as such on a Canadian Press advisory to the media about the event. Tushingham's book jacket and the promotional materials merely describe him as an Ottawa scientist. Neither Ambrose nor anyone in her department said they had problems with the scientific or any other premises behind the book.
Tushingham was also warned not to speak to reporters and spent much of yesterday in hiding, said his publisher, Elizabeth Margaris, head of DreamCatcher Publishing. Margaris flew into Ottawa from New Brunswick specifically to introduce her author at the luncheon, only to learn upon her arrival that he was not allowed to speak.
Biographical information in the book says that Tushingham obtained his doctorate in 1989 and "has worked on climate change and other environmental issues since 1981."
Canada has been unable to meet its Kyoto commitment to cut greenhouse gases and Harper, whose party has been much cooler to the accord than the Liberals, has said it is time for a new approach.Yeah, like pretending global warming doesn't exist.
Environmentalists have asked the opposition to bring down the government if it abandons Canada's Kyoto commitment.
Margaris was visibly shaken by the gagging. "Isn't this outrageous?" Margaris said. "This has never happened to me before."
"It's a first for us, too," said Rosaleen Dickson, who organized the event at the National Press Club. It went ahead with a last-minute replacement speaker from the audience. A couple of dozen baffled guests were on hand, some of whom had bought the book but had to do without the author's signature.
Margaris was to get together with Tushingham later yesterday, but he told her he was lying low and cancelled that meeting. Tushingham and his wife were also planning to stay away from their home yesterday evening so the media couldn't find them, said Margaris.
"I just don't believe this," Margaris said. She said Tushingham is worried about losing his job.
The PMO insists that the information chill in Ottawa is more perceived than real — a product of a media culture that got too accustomed to the hyper-availability of former prime minister Paul Martin's regime. Oh here we go.. 'we're not being secretive, it's just you. Now get away from our forbidden meeting room of mystery."
Yet in Ottawa, everyone seems to have a story of lips being sealed, communications shut down or thwarted. Bureaucrats are talking about "the new normal" — a world where every utterance to outsiders or journalists can incur the wrath of the new government. sigh
Ambrose abruptly cancelled an interview with a national columnist this week after her office had already warned she would not take questions on the issue of the Kyoto accord.
Ambrose calls this an unfortunate mixup, but it does fit with the tightly scripted, highly centralized communications style the PMO is trying to establish.