Opinion: Academics are too easily offended by Jason Kenney’s remarks

By David Marsden

Premier Jason Kenney apparently had the audacity to reject the opinion of a former NDP candidate who regards the dismissal of Alberta’s election commissioner as “corrupt.”

University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas, who ran for the NDP in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections, is not alone in her beliefs. Many Albertans are disturbed by the firing of Lorne Gibson in the midst of his investigation into the 2017 United Conservative Party leadership race.

Party loyalists have been ordered to pay more than $200,000 in fines for their activities during the leadership contest, which Kenney won. No fines or accusations of wrongdoing have been directed toward the premier.

Thomas’s condemnation was cited by NDP Leader Rachel Notley in the legislature last week, and was quickly dismissed by Kenney.

“It is so sad over there that they’re now resorting to quoting NDP candidates like Ms. Thomas as objective sources,” Kenney responded.

The premier’s remark has irritated many academics, who say they view his comment as a threat to academic integrity and freedom. They go so far as to say it could dissuade other professors from contributing their opinions to future public debates.

That would be regrettable, of course. Fulsome public discussions welcome the thoughtful opinions of everyone, academics among them.

If Notley and Thomas imagined that Kenney would reverse course when he heard his actions had been deemed “corrupt” by a scholar, they’re naive, however.

And worrisomely, they’ve suggested that had Thomas been a man, Kenney might have taken the criticism more seriously.

“Women on all sides of the political spectrum are subjected to online and in-person attacks simply for being leaders in their field,” says the letter to Kenney signed by hundreds of academics. “Your remarks add to this troubling pattern.”

Do the professors really think that if the accusation of corruption had been levied by a male, Kenney would have the elections commissioner back in his job by tomorrow?

Invoking the serious matter of misogyny doesn’t reflect well on his critics. Without a doubt, female commenters find themselves unfairly attacked and ridiculed on occasion, and such abuse should be condemned at every opportunity.

But there’s no suggestion that Kenney’s comments were influenced by Thomas’s gender. It’s more likely that he thinks the reorganization of elections oversight is justified, or arrogantly believes he’ll get away with the questionable decisions he makes, because of his popularity.

At its root, this debate is about freedom, as the scholars note. The NDP leader is free to cite the views of an academic who is one of her party’s former candidates, and the premier is free to dismiss her opinion.

Academics can’t demand freedom of expression for themselves and then deny it to others, including publicly elected officials. Freedom shouldn’t be something you profess for yourself and deny to others. Like oxygen, it’s either a good thing, or not.

Kenney would do well to avoid the horrible optics of firing an official who is rooting out mischief in his party’s leadership race. For their part, Canadian academics should grow a thicker skin.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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