Back in the days when Canada’s current prime minister was president of the secretive, far-right National Citizens Coalition and waging bitter wars against Medicare and so-called “anti-democratic” gag laws limiting the amount of money private deep pockets could use to buy elections, Stephen Harper sued the Attorney General of Canada.
He sought a declaration that the Canada Elections Act provisions setting limits on third-party advertising should be declared of no force and effect, as they breached the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
In Harper-speak, read that as rights for those with deep pockets and no rights – or voice – for the rest of us.
Of course, our prime minister has never wanted to go down in history as an human rights advocate, except for those humans with money, privilege and the right (read right wing) political viewpoints.
In sync with its former president, the NCC has always been the foremost foe of any attempt to rein in the ability of money to reward more money and to dominate the democratic process. Originally formed to fight Medicare by London Ont. millionaire insurance broker Colin Brown, the NCC has twice been able to strike down federal law limiting third party spending in election campaigns.
On both occasions, it used the Alberta’s more libertarian courts. And on both occasions, Ottawa didn’t appeal the judgements to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Well before the Conservatives came to power, the NCC’s secretive bastion of wealth and privilege was able to show it had real clout and could rightly boast about its ability to shape government decisions and political discourse to favour the same wealth and privilege.
“Universality (in social policy and programs) has been severely reduced; it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy,” Harper told an appreciative audience at the Colin Brown Memorial Dinner in 1994.
“The family allowance program has been eliminated and unemployment insurance has been seriously cut back…These achievements are due in part to the Reform Party of Canada and … the NCC.”
In 1994, the Liberals brought in new rules for Canadian federal election financing. They barred any individual from contributing more than $5,000 in any calendar year to a party and its candidates. Corporations and trade unions were capped at $1,000 per calendar year, the limits on individual donations were subject to an inflation adjustment which stood at $5,200 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2006 and corporate and union donations remained fixed at $1,000.
In 2007, one year after the Harper Conservatives took power with a minority, Parliament passed new – and progressive – limits on political donations, stipulating that only individuals can give money to political parties and their candidates, corporations and trade unions can no longer donate money directly to political parties or candidates, and individuals are currently held to donating no more than $1,100 in total per year to any of the political parties, ridings associations, and individual candidates.
But the honeymoon between the Conservatives and progressive Canadians was short-lived.
Today, eight years after becoming prime minister, Harper now faces a wide swath of civil society groups opposed to his government on everything from shockingly mean-spirited assistance to wounded veterans to wanton disregard for the environment to authoritarian disdain – and deep antagonism -towards the forms and traditions of parliamentary democracy.
Never content with just opposing his adversaries, Harper enjoys pre-empting them, beating them up with a totally unexpected attack.
As prime minister, he frequently uses private members bills to begin the softening up process.
Take, for example, the Conservatives’ visceral – and obviously intensely personal – antagonism to organized labour. Harper is moving swiftly to destabilize and disempower Canada’s trade unions. Using the ruse of a backbench Conservative MP’s private member’s bill as the cover, the legislation will force unions to publicly disclose the names and salaries of all employees earning more than $100,000 a year and reveal how much of their time each spends on political activities, lobbying and other non-labour relations work.
Noticeably missing from this purported concern for union members is any actual changes to ensure workplace rights and protection for Canadian workers. And, of course, there is not the remotest indication of similar disclosures being required from the corporate side of the economy.
What better way to try to weaken, divide and destabilize Canada’s House of Labour than perpetrating a Hobbesian war of all against all by stirring up internal strife between leaders and members and between unions with strong and progressive collective agreements and those struggling with weaker and less robust ones forced to exist on the fringes?
With the Harper Conservatives, it’s always win-win for corporations and the well-to-do and lose-lose for everyone else.
A case in point? Consider this year’s initial $3.1 billion price tag to provide income splitting for wealthy traditional families. Its cost rises to $4.6 billion in 2015-16 – and virtually empties the kitty for everyone else, particularly single parent families.
They are the ones who generally need help the most but by definition will end up with nothing at all.
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.