BY Jim Harding
Achieving unity within diversity requires a well-informed and well-intentioned approach to government. Canada’s federation desperately needs such vision and leadership. We can see how a greater good was achieved within co-operative federalism when we trace back the role of Tommy’s Douglas’s CCF, John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives and Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We see such positive results by tracing the role of Douglas’s CCF-NDP and Lester Pearson’s federal Liberals in bringing about national Medicare. Our country now faces severe challenges of sustainability, inequality and diversity that will require us to re-nurture this positive tradition.
But our diversity can also be approached through a more cynical lens which turns diversity into differences and uses these as political wedges. Though there may be a partisan political advantage, more disunity is inevitable. Such is the Harper legacy.
We need to grasp the historical roots of such destructive politics. The June 26, 2012 Alberta Diary, suggests that, “It was English Canada’s deep discomfort with Mr. Mulroney’s vision of Canada as two nations in one country that provided the wedge for the Reform Party under Preston Manning not only to defeat Mr. Mulroney’s constitutional proposals in a national referendum, but to set up the takeover by the Reform Party of the Progressive Conservatives Party in 2003.”
Wedge politics became the raison d’être of Harper’s rise to power. We have seen that he will use any issue – foreign policy, public security, crime and guns, cultural identity, tarsand jobs, even the arts, to play one group off against another. He will jeopardize the workings of our democracy if it serves his narrow partisan purpose.
Coalition governments are commonplace in parliamentary democracies; there are coalition governments right now in Britain, Germany and Israel. They have occurred in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, India, Indonesia, Ireland and Japan. Canada had a coalition government in 1864 and tried another during WWI.
In 2008 Harper was caught in contempt of parliament. With the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition he shut down democratic accountability by proroguing parliament. Doing this to avoid a non-confidence vote was unprecedented in the world history of parliamentary democracy.
Harper used separatism as the wedge issue. Rather than being accountable and transparent about his disregard for the supremacy of parliament he publicly attacked Stephane Dion and Jack Layton as “selling out to separatists”. Having Bloc Quebecois MP’s willing to support a coalition on confidence motions for 18 months didn’t in any way support Quebec separatism, but Harper nevertheless ratcheted up his wedge rhetoric. “This deal that the leader of the Liberal Party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country, a betrayal of the best interests of our economy, a betrayal of the best interests of our country and we will fight it with every means that we have”, Harper said in early December 2008, prior to shutting down the elected house.
He turned the term betrayal around, so that it was not about him betraying Canada’s democratic traditions. He polarized the country while making himself sound like Canada’s champion. He ignored the fact that the majority of voters hadn’t even supported him or his predilection to play such destructive political games. By making it sound like the country, the economy and our national interest were all at stake, he diverted attention from his own anti-democratic behavior.
Reflecting on this crisis, noted Professor of Constitutional Law, Errol Mendes wrote in the Star on Jan. 5, 2010, that “This abuse of executive power is tilting towards totalitarian government and away from the foundations of democracy and the rule of law on which this country was founded.”
WEDGING THE MONARCHY
In 2012 in Alberta Diary journalist, David Climenhaga commented that Harper will “drive deeper wedges, make more dangerous promises, make deals with anyone in his efforts to keep his increasingly unpopular government afloat.” It would have been nice if Harper had stopped using wedges once he had his parliamentary majority, but soon after winning in 2011 he was again using a wedge to try to weaken the opposition. He knew that the monarchy could be a very contentious issue in Quebec. Instead of building on Canada’s identity as an independent country with its own flag since 1967 and constitution since 1982, Harper decided to use the monarchy as a political football.
He insisted on having portraits of the Queen placed in all embassies, high commissions and consulates. Apparently Ministers Moore, Kenney and Baird all backed this move. He brought the term “Royal” back into the title of the Canadian Navy and Air force. This restoration of Canada’s British colonial identity was part of Harper’s attempt to militarize Canadian identity and history, including by elevating the War of 1812 in expensive government ads. But there was more to this than an ideological throwback.
Writing in the Toronto Star on Sept. 8, 2011, Tim Harper (don’t confuse with “Steve”) noted that “The wedge here is the NDP’s Quebec caucus, 59 MPs who represent voters who would be unhappy with this anachronistic nod to our British heritage.” Harper was daring the NDP to express opposition to restoring British symbols because this could weaken the NDPs appeal in areas like western Canada, Eastern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes, where the NDP had some traditional Anglophone support. The NDP could then be accused of being “beholden to Quebec interests”; Harper was already laying the ground for the 2015 election.
Harper has used divisive wedge politics in every conceivable area, from law and order, to war and patriotism, to the economy and environment, to science and evidence-based policy. He uses wedges to try to manipulate voting rights and the electoral system in his favour. (I will explore all these areas in future columns.) Not only does he play on differences between English and French Canadians, but between those who live in the west and east of our country. He plays on and magnifies differences between rural and urban and even suburban and inner-city residents and among Canadians of a diversity of cultural identities. He plays on differences among farmers and among indigenous Canadians. That this cynical pattern compounds disunity among Canadians is undeniable. This is not what Canada is about and it is not what Canada needs as we try to move forward to tackle very serious challenges about the environment, economy and inequality.
We are, however, already seeing that Harper is going to exploit “terrorism” as a highly emotive wedge, intended to elevate the politics of fear, much as he did with crime. This wedge, too, is intended to help Harper avoid being accountable, including for what he’s doing to undermine our parliamentary system. This will be used as a major fund-raising strategy for the coming election, as the Conservatives have done with wedge issues all along. Meanwhile there are shortages of resources in some areas and yet under spending in others areas involved in the government’s counter-terrorist work.
Harper continues to ignore a non-partisan, multi-party call for parliamentary oversight over his counter-terrorist Bill C-51. This legislation could threaten the democratic rights of Canadians who are critical of his vision of Canada as an environmentally rogue Petro State. He’s intent on making “terrorism” into anything that he considers a threat to Canada’s financial and economic security. The stakes are indeed getting higher in the coming 2015 federal election.