This is the first in a Series of four articles looking at how the Harper government is undermining democracy, justice and sustainability and what Canadians can do to prevent his political agenda from balkanizing Canada.
We need to protect the political freedoms we have in order to make Canada a more equal and sustainable society. Without robust political freedoms the Harper government will continue to drive wedges between us for the benefit of a few, without regard for what climate change will do to our children.
We see historical examples of elected regimes centralizing power and aggressively attacking their opponents to gain dictatorial-like powers. Our soldiers fought against fascist regimes to prevent this. Canada is not immune to this threat. Our democracy is presently being challenged perhaps more than at any other time. Reductions in voter turn-out and widespread cynicism about crass power plays and the lack of authenticity in politics have already weakened our democracy. There are growing signs that the present federal government intends to use its power to weaken democracy further.
1. CONTEMPT FOR PARLIAMENT
Let’s look at the Harper record so far. While still a minority, Harper led the first Commonwealth government to ever be found in contempt of Parliament. Those cynical about politics may not consider this anything special, but it is. The withholding of information, or misinforming Parliament, fundamentally undermines its ability to keep government transparent and accountable to the people. It is the first big step away from democracy.
Harper’s Ministers appeal to the “supremacy of parliament” as though having a majority of seats justifies dominating Parliament. This ploy was used when Harper dismantled the farmer-elected Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) without following the rule of law. But the supremacy of Parliament does not mean that majority governments can do an end-run on Parliament or existing legislation. A government that acts like a one-party state is not working within the framework of parliamentary democracy.
For Harper it’s all about centralizing control. He has broken his promise to democratize the Senate by appointing a rash of Conservative cronies and defeated candidates to rubber-stamp his legislation. There will be no sober second thoughts in a Harper-dominated Senate. He’s even appointed an unelected person to his Cabinet. Contempt for our democracy was shown with Harper twice shutting down (proroguing of) Parliament to side-step democratic accountability.
2. MANIPULATING ELECTIONS
Elections enable the voice of the people, popular sovereignty, to be expressed. Some politicians see elections as simply a means to obtain power, a means to manipulate voter behavior to squeeze out enough first-past-the-post votes to become government. Harper cleverly uses wedge issues to divide Canadians. His propaganda attack ads on opposition leaders not only manipulate half or non-truths, but his excessive spending in the 2006 campaign contravened the Elections Act. Using the “end justifies the means” mentality, the Conservatives concocted an “in and out” funding scheme that violated spending limits. Laws were broken by senior Conservative officials including partisan-appointed Senators. In accepting a plea bargain whereby the Conservative Party pleaded guilty and individual charges were dropped, the judge said that the breaches were “significant to the democratic process.”
The Harper government first came to power through electoral fraud, then used the inner control of state resources to work towards majority government. Now we find that during the 2011 election last May, which had Harper squeezing out a majority with less than 3 out of 10 eligible voters, more electoral violations occurred. Misinformation about changes in the location of polling stations was systematically sent to thousands of Liberal supporters in 37 constituencies, many with tight races. These “robocalls” have been traced to an Edmonton firm, Racknine, linked directly to the Harper Conservatives. This scam directly benefitted the Conservatives and we will have to wait and see if Elections Canada finds a smoking gun. A rash of by-elections may be on the way.
3. CURTAILING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
To allow informed consent among voters, a democracy requires the free-flow of reliable information. Harper is fundamentally undermining this process. He rigidly controls contact between his Minister’s and the media and scripts the political lines used for public consumption. When the head of the regulatory body, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), called for a shut-down of the Chalk River nuclear reactor due to inadequate safety back-up, she was fired. When the Chief Statistician went head-to-head with the government over the need to maintain the long-form census to provide quality information for better needs assessment of Canadians, he was squeezed out. The Canadian Association of Science Journalists is now raising the alarm that government-employed scientists, paid from taxpayer’s funds, are being “muzzled” by Harper. Harper has even abolished an Access to Information data base (CAIRS). His plan to abolish the per-vote subsidy for political parties would leave him and his powerful corporate funders even more able to monopolize political discourse with expensive attack-ad propaganda.
4. BREACHING INTERNATIONAL LAW
Harper’s contempt for the domestic rule of law is also shown internationally. He has systematically undermined international attempts to negotiate a treaty to avert atmospheric temperatures rising to an irreversible level. He turned his back on Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Accord, which Parliament endorsed. In total disregard for the ruling of the Supreme Court, Harper is the only government which did not repatriate its citizens from the U.S.’s Guantanamo base. His government was among a handful that opposed the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which affirms the “duty to consult” prior to any resource extraction or toxic dumping on indigenous land. Harper refused to sign the UN Declaration designating safe water as a human right and refused funding for First Nations communities facing a desperate lack of safe water. His government has just been singled out for condemnation by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Harper is starting to give Canada a reputation as a “rogue state”.
5. POLITICAL SURVEILLANCE
His government is prepared to be even more draconian. Harper tried and failed several to pass legislation allowing his government to monitor internet activities. Now with a majority, his Minister Toews has introduced Bill C-30 compelling internet providers to give police new surveillance powers without requiring a warrant. This act was brought forward with the deceptive moralistic title – the “Protecting Children from Internet Predator’s Act”, yet it would enable a massive internet sweep of political opponents. The attempt to send a chill among Canadians, with Toews claiming “either stand with us or the child pornographers”, has somewhat backfired; even some libertarian Conservatives have rallied for privacy protections and free speech on the internet.
This legislation needs to be placed aside Harper’s new counter-terrorist strategy which speaks of “violence by domestic issue-based groups…revolving around the promotion of various causes”. It then groups together dangerous neo-fascist white supremacy groups with “animal rights, environmental and anti-capitalist groups”.
Legitimate reform and opposition organizations are already coming under attack. Look at Harper’s Minister Oliver’s preemptive attack on Aboriginal and environmental groups opposing the Northern Gateway Pipeline, calling them “anti-Canadian radicals”; or the detention of 1,100 protesters at the G20 meeting in Toronto in 2010 without cause or arrest.
Harper seems intent on criminalizing those who are standing up for democracy, justice and sustainability. His attempt to militarize Canadian culture is a most cynical ploy. We celebrate our military for fighting against fascism in order to protect the very rights and freedoms that Harper so disregards. His law and order agenda to build-up police powers and prisons and to have government-prescribed sentences, further reduces the separation of power that is fundamental to a democracy.
This should all be a wake-up call for Canadians.
Next week I’ll look at the injustices that will result from Harper’s changes to social policy.