An Environment Canada scientist is under investigation for allegedly breaching the public service code of ethics by writing and performing a political song that criticizes the Harper government.
Tony Turner, a physical scientist who most recently was working on a study of migratory birds, has been put on administrative leave with pay over allegations that his participation in his song Harperman puts him in a conflict of interest, the union representing him said.
A recording of the song, uploaded to YouTube in June, accuses Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of muzzling scientists and suppressing freedom of the press, among other criticisms. It repeatedly tells Mr. Harper: "It's time for you to go."
Mr. Turner has worked for Environment Canada for almost 20 years and was just months away from retirement when he was put on leave.
Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said the opinions expressed in the song should not constitute a conflict because they don't interfere with Mr. Turner's ability to do research in his field.
"Public servants have the same democratic rights as every other Canadian. To imply that [Mr. Turner] doesn't have the right to express himself through a folk song as a private citizen is really what's at issue here," she said. "It's our belief that Mr. Turner hasn't infracted any laws or policies – and certainly is not in a conflict."
But Tony Dean, the former head of the Ontario Public Service, said the song could be perceived as a violation of the non-political nature of public service, particularly in the context of an election.
"It would appear in this case that the line has been well and truly crossed," he said.
The public sector's ethics code states that federal public servants are expected to "[carry] out their duties in accordance with legislation, policies and directives in a non-partisan and impartial manner." Mr. Dean said the non-partisan nature of the public service offers protection that goes both ways: It prevents government officials from pressing public servants to act in partisan interests, and public servants make a commitment to do their jobs regardless of the political stand of the government of the day.
Mr. Dean said, to some extent, public servants carry their professional, non-partisan roles with them outside work. Making judgments about how to maintain non-partisanship, he said, is a daily part of working in public service, and the very public nature of the Harperman song is problematic.
"If we start to let go of [neutrality], I would be concerned about there being a slippery slope toward situations where public servants are perceived as being aligned in some way, politically," Mr. Dean said. "When we get ourselves into that situation, we start to get back into this business of wholesale changes of public-service personnel at election time. That doesn't serve anybody."
Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, said in an e-mailed statement that the department would not discuss any individual case due to confidentiality and privacy concerns.
"Compliance with the requirements of the Values and Ethics Code of the Public Sector is a condition of employment for every public servant in the federal public sector, regardless of their level or position," he said.
Mr. Turner is a well-known singer/songwriter in the Ottawa folk-music scene, and his biography on his website says he has been a member of the city's Writers' Bloc, a songwriting collective, since 1994.
Andrew Hall, who filmed the Harperman video – a singalong with a backup choir that had almost 60,000 views as of Friday evening – said the song is a "joyful" expression of protest. He said Mr. Turner wasn't acting as a public servant, so there should be a reasonable expectation "to be able to engage in democracy."
"None of our materials say he's a public servant. He's performing as an artist. Besides freedom of speech, there's an issue of artistic expression here," Mr. Hall said.
Mr. Hall and Chris White, who previously worked as the artistic director for the Ottawa Folk Fest, are organizing an Indiegogo fundraiser to hold a crosscountry Harperman singalong in September. They plan to hold the event on Parliament Hill and add participants in other cities.
Mr. Turner said Friday he could not comment due to the ongoing investigation.