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Lawrence Martin (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

Canada’s political scholars fiddle while Rome burns Add to ...

There was a time when Canada’s scholars played a more prominent role in national political debates. Queen’s University, for example, had such names as John Meisel, George Perlin, Hugh Thorburn and Richard Simeon. They were voices of influence.

Today, although Ned Franks remains at large as a professor emeritus, that kind of firepower no longer exists at Queen’s or elsewhere. Donald Savoie, who specializes in governance issues at the University of Moncton, points out that academics have become less and less interested in our politics and our institutions, leaving journalists to hold governments to account.

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Sharon Sutherland, a Victoria political scientist, did a research project cataloguing scholarly work on issues of parliamentary governance. She found little. Referring to today’s political science studies, she says, “I think the situation is that this very mushy discipline is no longer focused in any way on parliamentary democracy.”

In normal times, this might not be so noteworthy. But these are hardly normal times. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives may not be in the course of dismantling parliamentary democracy, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May alleges, but as academics themselves attest, the integrity of the system has rarely faced such challenges. In recent years, abuses have included contempt for the rights of Parliament, information control taken to unheard-of extremes, the weakening of the committee system, moves toward politicizing the public service, the muzzling of perceived opponents, research and data suppression, alleged vote suppression, the use of taxpayer money for political advertising, the Senate fiasco and other affronts.

Of particular concern to the university community is the government’s anti-intellectual bent, its downgrading of independent research and scholarship. In April, academics finally got around to protesting the philistine ways. More than 70 professors signed a letter of protest sarcastically suggesting that those in sciences and social sciences “should be allowed to embrace the ‘sin’ of employing data in aid of proactive public policy.”

As an indicator of the academic community’s lack of clout these days, the protest letter was ignored by the media.

There aren’t many big names to carry the ball any more. Not a James Eayrs, a George Grant, a Meisel. Well-known voices such as Jack Granatstein, Michael Bliss and Stephen Clarkson still weigh in, but like Prof. Franks, they are past retirement age. No new wave has replaced them.

Mr. Savoie said he is deeply disappointed that so many colleagues have remained on the sideline at a time when “our national political and administrative institutions have never been so fragile.”

Lori Turnbull, an academic who co-authored a prize-winning book on democratic reform, says that in academia, caution rules. Scholars tend to restrict themselves to things that can be empirically proven. As well, there are some who fear that their government grants might dry up. Prominent books on prime ministers like Mr. Harper and Jean Chrétien are left primarily to journalists.

Some suggest the media don’t work hard enough to seek out the academic experts. Stephen Azzi, a political management professor at Carleton who does a lot of punditry, disagrees. He says colleagues routinely reject media opportunities. Academia has been overtaken by specialists who are absorbed in their own little world with its imperative to publish, he says. “They concentrate on a tiny bit of terrain and won’t venture from it.”

As Prof. Sutherland observes, there are exceptions. Academics were active on the recent issues related to prorogation, some have papers in the pipeline on democracy issues, some contribute quality commentaries on television and in newspapers. But it’s a far cry from the 1960s and ’70s, when professors manned the barricades on issues of cultural and economic domination.

Today’s issues are just as important and, given their privileged positions, their Senate-like salaries and their great wads of free time, you might think the pedagogues would show more civic responsibility. Or guts.

High-profile academic Michael Byers says the universities aren’t censoring professors. The problem, he says, is self-censorship for career purposes. The learneds don’t speak out for fear that what they say might hurt them down the line.

They fiddle, you might say, while Rome burns.

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