A Lobbyist's Report: On the One Hand, or On Both

[First published in the ACCUTE Newsletter (March 1993): 10-11. I am including as appendices to this text a copy of my December 7, 1993 letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (versions of which were also sent to thirty-nine other leading figures in the government and the opposition parties), and a copy of the Prime Minister's reply alluded to in this article.]

In early December I wrote on behalf of ACCUTE to more than forty people on Parliament Hill (including the Prime Minister and senior members of his government, leading members of the opposition parties, and influential senators) to protest against the proposed merger of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council with the Canada Council and with the cultural and academic programs of the Department of External Affairs. One at least of the replies, which bears the signature of Brian Mulroney and is dated January 15, may strike members of this Association as being particularly revealing.

Four of the six issues raised in my letter—the absence of any adequate rationale for the merger, the lack of consultation with the scholarly and artistic communities, the fact that Part 3 of Bill C-93 does not require members of the governing Council to possess any reputation for expertise in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, and the consequent possibility that this governing Council may be used for patronage appointments—go unnoticed in the Prime Minister's response.

Focussing rather upon the other two—the compromising of the new Council's integrity by the requirement that it conform in “its international functions” to our government's foreign policy, and the question of the government's commitment to adequate funding for humanities and social science research—the Prime Minister's letter claims that

the legislation establishing the new Council will protect the interests of both artists and academics and will maintain the organization's traditional arm's length relationship with the government. It will also strike a right balance by, on the one hand, recognizing the independence of the Council and, on the other, including a provision requiring the new Council to take into consideration the foreign policy of the Government of Canada. Furthermore, the levels of service to the arts and academic communities will not be affected by the merger.

One can recognize, without any need for a nudge in the ribs from the ghost of Roland Barthes or of Michel Foucault, that a text of this kind raises interesting questions with respect to authorship. Although the empirical, the historical Brian Mulroney may haunt the letter written in his name, the words were no doubt generated by a PR flack in the PMO, and the signature by a machine. But the recognition of this 'author' as an institutional function—let us call it PM—doesn't make its illogic any less disturbing.

PM's ploy is a kind of shell-game, a dunce's Hegelianism in which the linking of two mutually destructive terms—the Council's independence and its subservience to government policy—is held to amount to a satisfactory synthesis, “a right balance” (which the letter's concluding sentence promptly rephrases as “greater policy coherence”).

Given how effectively this kind of thinking guts the still notionally accepted principle of an arm's length relationship between government and research or cultural agencies, one should perhaps anticipate its wider application. With this in mind, I am ready to go so far as to believe PM's claim that the merger will not affect “the levels of service to the arts and academic communities”: PM has other means—including an application of this logic of the “right balance”--of dealing with such matters as research funding.

A postscript: On February 23, 1993, Robert Nadeau, the President of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities, made a brilliant and devastating presentation in Ottawa to the Legislative Committee on Bill C-93. He began his remarks by distributing to the Committee a Treasury Board document dated February 20, 1992, which shows the anticipated savings over five years from the amalgamation of the SSHRC with the Canada Council as amounting, Nadeau's words, to “a rather impressive string of zeros. No money is to be saved.” The Treasury Board document claims that 10 person-years (out of a total of 425 in the amalgamated Council) can be saved. But as Nadeau remarked,

it is not necessary to turn everything upside down to trim 10 person-years. It's like taking the proverbial sledgehammer to the pesky fly: you stand a reasonable chance of getting the fly in the end, but you're likely to do quite a bit of damage in the process.

And frankly, to be a little partisan, I don't think the 10 person-years were expected to come from the SSHRC part of this merger. SSHRC has one of the very lowest administrative budgets in Ottawa—less than 8% of its overall budget. That is tight fiscal management for which Paule Leduc deserves full marks. And a strong and well managed agency deserves a better fate than being dismantled in the name of efficiency—especially when ... the officials behind the move haven't any idea what efficiencies can be gained.

The full text of Nadeau's remarks, which are printed in In House/Chez nous, 2.5 (March 3, 1993), are available in ACCUTE's electronic mailbox, along with articles on the subject (dated February 24 and 27, 1993) from The Globe and Mail.