As if the punishing cold and snow of this winter wasn’t enough to beat Canadians down, now we have a two-pronged assault on Canada’s central democratic institutions by our own government.
The Harper Conservatives epitomize the concept of the double standard, summed up in the phrase “I can do it but you can’t because I’m better than you.”
There’s an old adage in politics as well as life that where one stands depends on where one sits. In opposition, then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper roundly denounced omnibus bills. In 1995, here was crusading democrat Harper:
“In the interests of democracy, I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and such concerns. We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse?”
The omnibus bill Harper was condemning back in 1995 was just 21 pages in length and altered a mere 11 pieces of legislation. According to the CBC, the latest Conservative omnibus bill weighs in at 359 pages and alters everything from the food and rail safety regimes to the Judges Act, the National Defence Act and the handling of temporary foreign workers.
The government says it is designed to enact measures in last month’s federal budget and has christened the effort with the Orwellian title of the “Harper Government Creating Jobs and Growth While Returning to Balanced Budgets With Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No.1.”
Then, again in opposition a year later in 1996, Harper made a speech in which he said that nobody should have the right to change election laws unilaterally. Rather, he opined at the time, it should be done on the basis of all-party consensus and there should be widespread consultation with other stakeholders.
Today, under Harper, Elections Canada has been suborned and tainted. Worse, its predicament may lead Canadians to believe it can no longer assure an uncorrupted election outcome in 2015. Who, in future, can have much confidence in his or her right as voters to cast their ballot free of insidious Conservative voter suppression schemes.
And who can deny that the telemarketer tinkering in the May 2011 federal election in at least eight ridings – the eight ridings that granted the Conservatives their majority – may cast doubt on the very democratic legitimacy of a government that is more rogue than responsive to fundamental democratic and electoral norms.
Further, once again, parliament is about to sustain another crippling blow delivered by yet one more Conservative omnibus bill. By their very nature, omnibus bills are creatures of an authoritarian state. They shoe-horn the government’s entire legislative plan for the fiscal year into a single, massive, indigestible, deliberately impenetrable and rationally undebatable lump of authoritarian diktat.
Orwell is indeed alive and well. It would be laughable were it not so outrageous and alarming But this, Canadians, is how far our parliamentary democracy has fallen – into mockery, absurdity – and disgrace.
Dr. Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba says the Harper Conservatives are acting true to type.
“They’ve made statements in the past that reflect an underlying free-wheeling philosophy reflective of the market, that you should have minimal regulation. And they feel that in a competitive environment they’ve done better, they’ve raised more money, organized better, focused their message and been successful in this freewheeling marketplace,” he said in an interview.
This leads them to believe they are better than their adversaries and therefore can pretty much do what they want. “They certainly don’t want a cop on the beat who’s out there looking to see if you’ve broken the rules, or bent the rules, because then it gets more difficult for you to play this kind of winner take all politics that they tend to favour,” Thomas continues.
So far at least, he notes, the government hasn’t paid much of a price for its extreme partisanship.
“This could be because pollsters haven’t captured a broader, longer term trend which would say, well, what is my image of this government over time. It’s one that tends to bully people whether it’s attacks on neutral experts . They don’t even contemplate that there are neutral experts. It’s if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Thomas warns, however, that there are risks to the Conservatives’ game plan.
“If the government starts out with the strategy that it will take a very extreme position on a particular issue such as their Fair Elections Act consistent with (Conservative) ideology and with politics understood as permanent warfare and then they put an aggressive partisan like Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre in charge of it, that sends a clear – and negative – message…They must have thought that they could get away with a lot of it.”
But when the constant criticism and the push-back started, Thomas continued, the Conservatives probably decided “we’ve spent enough time and political capital on this so let’s see if we can’t moderate the tone of this a little bit.”
Wake up Canada and Canadians to the authoritarian tendencies of our national government.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.