A recurring theme on this blog might be distinctions between easily confused concepts. I started out with a post about the difference between faith and belief and I've also written on the difference between theory and fact. Yesterday the CBC reported on a letter sent to Parks Canada employees warning them not to criticize the government and "reminding them of their duty of loyalty". The author of the letter is confusing loyalty with obedience.
This isn't a new confusion. Shakespeare addressed it very well in King Lear, where the aging king rewarded his daughters Goneril and Regan for their fawning and empty praise, and condemned as disloyal his daughter Cordelia who alone was willing to tell him that his actions would lead to his downfall. It is soon revealed, of course, that Cordelia was the only genuinely loyal daughter Lear had.
King Lear illustrates very well the difference between loyalty and obedience. Loyalty, whether to a person or an institution, involves more than simply doing what the object of loyalty might desire or demand; it is a genuine concern for the welfare of that person or institution, a commitment to act in their best interests, including providing needed (but perhaps unwanted) counsel. Obedience, in contrast, is simply carrying out instructions.
So what the government is demanding from its employees is not loyalty but obedience. It orders them not to criticize its policies, and expects them to obey. It doesn't care about the reasons for criticism; like King Lear, it just wants to hear what it wants to hear. (We see this also with the Conservatives' systematic removal of any sort of non-partisan information-gathering or expert advisors from the federal budget. They know what they want to do, and have no interest in anyone suggesting what they ought to do.)
Demanding obedience of public servants is entirely appropriate. The elected government must be able to implement policy by directing public employees to carry it out. That's not controversial at all, and in fact is central to all employment relationships; within the scope of one's employment, one is obliged to obey one's employer's directions. But only within the scope of that employment.
It's not always a clear line, of course. If you're employed as a commercial airline pilot, your job is flying planes and what you do or say on your own time is generally your own business so long as it doesn't impact on your ability to fly planes safely and on time, but if you publicly badmouth your airline and negatively affect ticket sales, even on your own time, you can expect to be fired.
That's the argument that the Conservative government is trying to use in justifying its attempts to exert greater control over the speech of public servants, and superficially it seems reasonable. But there's a crucial difference. Government is not a business, at least not in the sense of a competitive market enterprise pursuing profit. An airline can lose market share and thus profits if its reputation suffers. Government cannot. Government is government, regardless of who happens to form it. A political party can certainly be harmed by damage to its reputation, but so what? No civil servant is obliged to help a party get or stay elected.
Civil servants owe a limited duty of obedience to whatever political party happens to form the government, but if they owe a duty of loyalty it is to the nation and its citizens, not to the political party. Loyalty to the nation demands providing honest counsel, engaging in the democratic process, and saying what one thinks needs to be said. Sometimes that will be at odds with what the party in power wants us to hear. Too bad. We the people don't always have access to all the information we need to make informed decisions around election time, and so it's vital that we hear from everyone who might know something relevant. IT IS NOT for government to control that dialogue!