Canadian democracy is a mess.
This might be a strange statement coming from a Canadian to American readers. Especially considering the desire many Republicans had after President Obama was re-elected, to relocate to Canada. Americans are also concerned that their democracy no longer works.
In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been working like a very busy little monarch to recreate Canada in his image. Even more troubling, he seems to be doing it with the complicit acceptance of the Canadian media and the Canadian people themselves.
Is Prime Minister Harper all bad? We all know the image of the evil villain, twirling a pencil mustache as he stands eagerly beside a train track, train speeding towards the innocent female victim tied up to those tracks. The evil villain has also foreclosed on the local orphanage and is about to evict all those innocent children.
This, to many, is their version of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper. Does that make them both bad men? Of course not, no one is all bad. However, while researching this article it was much harder to find a list of good things that Stephen Harper has done, than it was to find the bad.
Before you read further, there are several debacles created by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper that are not mentioned in this article. If we covered every issue, such as the F-35 Stealth Fighter Procurement, the Conservative “tough on crime” agenda, or environmental deregulation, this article would become a book. Thus, depending on interest, further articles in this series will become available at a later date.
On February 6, 2013, Stephen Harper will have been Prime Minister for seven years. Over those seven years, public opinion about the man has been polarizing. On the one hand, you have people like former Prime Minister’s Office Communications Director Dimitri Soudas calling Harper, “the greatest Prime Minister Canada has ever had.” Then there are others, who complain about the Harper Conservatives’ penchant for using heavy-handed tactics to govern the country.
Let us look at what Harper has achieved so far. He has kept his promises for the most part. Since earning their first majority government last spring, the Tories have checked-off many of their high profile items from their campaign platform including legislation on the Canadian Wheat Board, human smuggling, the long-gun registry, the omnibus crime bill and the copyright bill. As I will mention later, however, he has not kept his promise of instituting an elected senate.
For the most part, Stephen Harper has avoided major scandals at the hands of his ministers. However, one could also argue that the reason for this is due to his tight rein on everyone in his party. No minister is permitted to state anything publicly unless it is vetted through the Prime Minister’s Office first.
“If success is measured by getting your agenda accomplished, I think for the most part they have. They’re making strides,” says Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., who specializes in political messaging.
Depending on your point of view about guns, Harper did end the long-gun registry that had been opposed by the western provinces for many years and which had originally come into being after the Ecole Polytechnique massacre of 1989, when a gunman shot and killed 14 women with a rifle. That prompted the Liberal government of Jean Chretien to tighten gun controls and create Canada’s first mandatory long-gun registry in 1995. The province of Quebec opposed Harper’s move and has begun a court process to have the decision overturned.
After extensive research and after making every effort to find positive things to say about Stephen Harper, I must admit to coming up a little short. It is not easy to find unbiased supporters for Harper’s agenda. As stated earlier, Stephen Harper has achieved a goal long denied other Canadian leaders – he has polarized Canadian public opinion.
This is quite interesting, since polarization of political parties is currently the bane of the American people. Of course, there is an old expression, ‘divide and conquer’, which should be considered as an effective strategy for the Conservative Party of Canada. Perhaps this is the goal of those in power on both sides of the border.
John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, expressed a fundamental value of democracy this way: “[We shall have] a government of laws, not men.”
This statement affirms what we know intuitively – that those who exercise power over us are not free to do whatever they wish with the power we temporarily and conditionally assign to them. They are subject to limits set by law. And they are bound by the principles of democracy not to use their power to pursue personal agendas or vendettas. Harper can be seen as a classic example of what Adams was warning about. His is a government of men, not laws – doing whatever he wishes, regardless of democratic tradition and convention and historical precedent. It is why many commentators have labeled Harper as a radical and not a genuine conservative.
Speaking of the Prime Minister, Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, “Stephen Harper doesn’t play well with others. The numbers from the last session of Parliament speak for themselves–the Conservatives systematically shut out people who do not subscribe to their narrow, rigid ideology.”
When Harper was elected with a majority government (a large number of seats in the House of Commons) retired Canadian astronaut and Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said, “Stephen Harper’s arrogance and obsession with control and power has only gotten worse since he got his majority. The Conservatives are relying far too heavily on moving committees in camera whenever possible.
That means Canadians are being shut out of discussions about laws that affect them and their families. This is fundamentally wrong.”
“The free flow of information is essential to a democracy, just as oxygen is essential to a human body. Citizens can’t make good decisions at the voting booth if they don’t have the facts, and the arguments, on all sides of the issues.” The Montreal Gazette – Feb. 14, 2009.
One of the biggest problems with this picture is not just what Stephen Harper is doing to Canadian democracy, it is that the Canadian media are doing little to inform the people about Harper’s behaviour. It is not entirely their fault. Harper has not made it easy for them.
In a system where ordinary citizens determine who has state power through elections, their electoral decisions can only be well informed if they are based on government transparency regarding its actions. Whether that information is sought by individuals, civil society groups, researchers, or journalists, democracy cannot function as promised if information is systematically denied by the government of the day.
While no government in the past 20 years has a clean record of transparency and enthusiastically providing information (often used to criticize it) the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has been widely accused of taking secrecy to obsessive levels.
Control of the Media and Access To Information:
The Harper government has discovered an effective method of slowing down the distribution of information. They have made more and more of it subject to the access-to-information (ATI) process – in other words, information that has traditionally been made available as a matter of course for the public and the media is now placed behind the barrier of ATI.
According to Sun Media columnist Greg Weston, the Harper government has “forced virtually all government information to flow through access to information and, in so doing, (has) completely overwhelmed the system to the point where it is now dysfunctional.”
If manipulating the rules of ATI doesn’t do the job, the government can always resort to pushing the question into the courts, which both delays the issue indefinitely but can also end up in an out-of-court settlement in which the details of the case are kept secret.
The easiest way to block access to information you want to keep secret is to simply delay producing the information by seeking repeated and/or lengthy extensions of the time necessary to “find” and produce it. Foreign Affairs (Department) took an average of 132 days to meet requests and Public Works 126 days.”Another popular method of thwarting public and media efforts is to unilaterally charge large fees for the “preparation” of information.
In addition to the above, Stephen Harper’s government has used this list to avoid providing information: charging hefty fees, refraining from writing down communications so that there is no public record, intentionally being obtuse, extensively censoring documents or labeling them ‘sensitive documents’ and thus exempt, and leaving it to the applicant to challenge the result with a complaint to the Information Commissioner or the court.
Under the Harper government, Canada’s standing in the world has plunged dramatically in many areas, and the area of freedom of information is a strong example of this loss of international standing. Two academics in the UK have studied freedom of information legislation in five countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Where did Canada place? You guessed it, last!
The irony that Stephen Harper has such a tight fisted control on information is not lost on The Toronto Star’s Carol Goar: “The list goes on. Harper has stymied parliamentary committees, removed outspoken government watchdogs and obstructed Access to Information requests. He has prorogued Parliament twice.” More about the concept of Prorogation later.
Ironic, yes, because when Mr. Harper was opposition leader, he said:“Information is the lifeblood of a democracy.
Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions and incompetent or corrupt governments can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.” So, which are you, Mr. Harper, incompetent or corrupt? Or, both?
On May 23, 2006, some two dozen journalists from the Parliamentary Press Gallery walked out of a news conference even before the prime minister had shown up. They did so in protest over efforts by Harper’s deputy press officer, Dimitri Soudas, to exercise control over who would ask questions.
Reporters had to sign up if they wanted to ask a question and then Harper could choose whom to answer. Americans would likely wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, this happens at the White House all the time. However, this was not at all like the practice that had existed for decades in Ottawa where the media itself made such decisions.
Should a government antagonize the media? It has always been my understanding that if you, as a politician, would like the media to cooperate with getting your message out to the public, you maintain a good relationship with them. Apparently, I was wrong.
In May, 2006, the Press Gallery had a meeting with Harper’s very tough press officer, Sandra Buckler. If the gallery had any illusion that there was simply a misunderstanding with a new prime minister, Buckler disabused them of the idea.
Hill Times journalist Sean Durkin wrote: “Sandra Buckler did everything she could to antagonize the press gallery, prompting its president, Emmanuelle Latraverse, to call an end to the meeting after 20 minutes. Buckler made it clear she didn’t care about any of the gallery’s concerns, and indicated that even more plans were in the works to control the flow of information to reporters and limit their access to government.”
Harper had suggested to The Western Standard that breaking the gallery’s control of the news was “good for democracy.” But as the Toronto Sun’s Alan Findlay told the Ryerson Review of Journalism, when government tightly controls access to information it is the government that escapes accountability by deliberately making it impossible to ask the tough questions. “Not returning calls, not holding press conferences, cherry-picking reporters for interviews – all make it difficult to collect and scrutinize government information.”
Harper does not enter the House of Commons through the front door, but takes a circuitous route through back halls and stairways, thereby avoiding any press who might ask him a question he does not want to answer. There are not even any photo-ops anymore – the Prime Minister’s Office sends a constant stream of favourable photos of the prime minister to media outlets across the country almost every day. Thus, Canadians never see the hard side of Harper – just the warm caring Big Brother image he wants the country to see. According to some veteran reports, Harper’s deputy communications director Dimitri Soudas keeps a blacklist of reporters who will not be recognized for questions.
Shut Down Parliament:
You are the leader of a country, and you are not happy with the way the opposition is behaving, or you are embarrassed by the behaviour of one of your departments. What do you do? If you are Stephen Harper, you shut down the House of Commons so that no one can criticise you. In Canada, this is called “Proroguing Parliament”.
Harper Prorogued Parliament twice, once to stop the opposition parties from instituting a vote of non-confidence that would have forced an election, and the second time was to avoid embarrassing questions about military abuse of Afghan detainees.
“Who does he think he is? The king, here?” asked Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. During the televised debates of the 2011 federal election campaign, he told Harper, “You are a man who will shut down anything you cannot control.”
Columnist John Ibbitson, normally an eager fan of Harper’s policies, could barely contain himself, writing: “No other legislature among what Winston Churchill called the English-speaking peoples would tolerate such treatment.”
Even The Globe and Mail editorial board, which overlooks most of Harper’s outrages, was shocked and stated in an editorial: “Canadians are right to wonder how the prime minister’s insulting prorogation ploy fits with the Conservative commitment to restore public trust in government.”
To understand the concept of Prorogation, you need to remember that Canada was once a colony of Great Britain. Everything that happened in Canada was at the pleasure of the crown or whomever was king or queen at the time. When the king or queen was not on Canadian soil, a representative was needed to keep an eye on things.
So as the Governor General was appointed. The Prime Minister was required to ask permission of the Governor General to either dissolve parliament, which would lead to an election, or to prorogue parliament which puts an end to the parliamentary session, killing all bills being debated until the Governor General receives a request by the Prime Minister to reconvene Parliament.
Thus, “prorogation of a Parliament results in the termination of a session. Parliament then stands prorogued until the opening of the next session. Prorogation is a prerogative act of the Crown, taken on the advice of the Prime Minister. The concept of perogation is not the issue. The issue is that Stephen Harper has chosen to use this method to shut up those who would criticise him by this method.
Get Rid of or Manipulate Watch-Dog Agencies:
The Canadian Federal Government is more than just Parliament. It also consists of many arms-length and independent agencies that are designed to be beyond the political control of the government. They were established in large measure to ensure that the areas they oversee are not politicized by the government of the day and that democratic accountability is ensured. Most report directly to Parliament, not to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and so are normally beyond the PMO’s control.
They are generally given wide leeway to get their work done and their reports are not vetted or edited by the government. But a determined occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office can undermine, weaken and attack that independence in various ways. The government can refuse to co-operate, the PMO has the power to appoint the heads of these bodies or the boards, and it has the power to cut the budgets of such agencies – all without any reference to the House of Commons, even in a minority situation. Stephen Harper has used all these methods to weaken agencies whose work raises questions about his government’s policies or actions.
Kevin Page, a veteran public servant, heads the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), and in June 2009, following a long and protracted public battle with the government, told The Toronto Star that the Conservative government was doing its best to shut him down. “This is a litmus test for democracy,” said Page, referring to the government’s decision to slash his budget from $2.8 million to $1.8 million. He said that in his battle over his budget he was reminded of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s legendary comment: “Democracies die in darkness.”
Since Harper’s election, the budgets of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission and the Military Police Complaints Commission have been slashed. Lesson: Get rid of any avenue of complaint so that police can do whatever they want at the expectation of the government.
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission:
Another high-profile case of government political interference in a quasi-judicial agency was the direct intervention in the Canadian Nuclear Regulatory Agency (CNRA) – responsible for monitoring the safety of all nuclear reactors in Canada, including the Chalk River, Ontario reactor which produces medical isotopes.
In November 2007, a crisis developed over the decision by Linda Keen, president of the CNRA, to extend a regular maintenance shutdown when safety violations were discovered by CNRA inspectors. The shutdown caused a worldwide shortage of isotopes.
In December 2007, Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn wrote a three-page letter to Keen threatening to fire her and questioning her competence. Keen fired back (after Lunn’s letter was leaked to the media) accusing Lunn of political interference in an independent body and pointing out that he had no authority, as minister, to fire her as president. Opposition parties called for Lunn’s resignation and backed Keen for applying the letter of the law to an issue as important as nuclear safety.
Prime Minister Harper publicly pointed the finger at Keen as the cause of the crisis. But many close to the issue accused Lunn of failing to act weeks before he did, when he was first informed of the potential isotope crisis. His decision to fire Keen was seen as a diversion from his own culpability.
Parliament ended up passing legislation over-ruling Keen and the reactor was restarted. Keen was fired by the federal government in January 2008 by an Extraordinary Order in Council passed by the cabinet. Keen told a Liberal Party forum in January 2010 that she had warned of a chill effect on independent tribunals: “… Are we in an era where tribunals must be more interested in meeting the needs of the government than in doing their jobs?”
Lesson: If you want to keep your job, shut up and do what you are told, and prepare to be a scapegoat for an unethical government. The Stephen Harper view of independent government watchdogs: They either sell out or get out. At this point, consider that if there is a next Chernobyl, it will likely be at Chalk River. And, you read it here first, folks.
Other areas where Stephen Harper has wrecked havoc are –
Ignoring resolutions passed in Parliament by majority votes. The attack on women’s rights and equality by cutting funding to women’s groups. Interference with the fair election process in closely contested ridings throughout Canada. Conservative supporters were found to be misleading voters so that they could not vote for a party other than the Conservatives. This is currently under investigation by Elections Canada. There are many more instances of this behaviour, but you get the idea.
The Senate :
The Canadian Senate is modeled after the British House of Lords and consists of 105 members appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each of the four major regions receiving 24 seats, and the remainder of the available seats being assigned to smaller regions.
The four major regions are Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces. The Queen and the Governor General hold the power to appoint senators, although, in modern practice, he or she makes appointments only on the advice of the prime minister. Senators originally held their seats for life; however, under the British North America Act, 1965 (now known as the Constitution Act, 1965), members, save for those appointed prior to the change, may not sit in the Senate after reaching the age of 75. Prime ministers normally choose members of their own parties to be senators, though they have sometimes nominated independents or members of opposing parties.
Thus, although the name is the same for American and Canadian Senators, the process is not. The longer a party like the Conservatives remain in power, the more likely Senators are to retire and can then be replaced by those loyal to Stephen Harper’s way of thinking. It is common practice for governments in Canada to “stack the Senate” in their favour. Also, it is in Harpers best interest to appoint younger Conservatives to the Senate to keep them in place longer; something not done in the past by any party.
The reason that the Senate has become a sore point with many Canadians is that, before being elected, the Conservatives promised an elected Senate as part of Parliamentary reform. Stephen Harper said: “I don’t plan to appoint senators; that’s not my intention.” (Stephen Harper, Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, January 14, 2006)
What he did:
Harper Appoints 18 Senators (Canada.com, December 22, 2008)
Harper appoints 9 to Senate (Toronto Star, August 27, 2009)
Ontario’s Runciman among 5 new senators(Toronto Star, January 29, 2010)
Harper appoints BC Lions owner David Braley to senate(680 News, May 20, 2010)
Harper a hypocrite for appointing senators, say most Canadians (Angus Reid poll, July 24, 2010):
Harper takes control of Senate with 2 appointments (Canada.com, December 20, 2010)
There will always be disagreements about the direction of the country – unanimity in terms of actual social, economic, cultural and foreign policies is impossible. But the system we use for ensuring an honest competition between those different views of the country must be sacred. There must be a level playing field; a government of laws, not men – or we simply no longer have democracy.
That is why, in this unique situation in Canadian history, all Canadians who are dedicated to democracy – no matter what their political beliefs – must come together at the earliest opportunity to remove Harper from power. His many violations of democracy and the dangerous precedents they set are a threat to democracy itself.
There are many Canadians who like the policies of the Harper government and are willing to turn a blind eye to the violations of democracy that are being used to achieve them. But what goes around comes around: by allowing these precedents to be set, the next government – with or without a mandate – could use those precedents set by this prime minister to implement policies that the majority does not support or want.
But perhaps the most important democratic reform we can call for is electoral reform, which would eliminate the feeling of many voters that their votes are “wasted.” Our current first-past-the-post system means that a party with as little as 40 per cent of the votes can achieve a majority government, and a party like the Green Party can achieve nearly 7 per cent of voters’ support and not get a single seat (meaning that nearly a million people have no voice in Parliament).
In fact, Canada is among just a tiny handful of Western democracies that still uses this arcane, elitist system of electing governments. Most countries now have some form of proportional representation – that is, a system that guarantees a political party the same percentage of seats in parliament as it receives in percentage of the popular vote.
Stephen Harper’s reign as prime minister must come to an end as soon as possible. But beyond that, his record of running roughshod over democracy tells us that we have to put in place reforms that make such abuse of power, if not impossible, then much less likely. No single reform can address all of the many different kinds of abuse we have witnessed over the past four years. We need restrictions on the power to prorogue; we need to protect watchdog organizations from being undermined by the prime minister of the day; we need to ensure that Access-to-Information really is about access and is not subject to partisan intervention from ministers or the Prime Minister’s Office. Executive dictatorship – the complete dominance of Parliament by the Prime Minister’s Office– would be a thing of the past.
Excellent article Pat. Thank you.
My counterpoint discussions are rather simple with one exception; I was shocked to learn that the Canadian Senate is made by political appointee as lifetime positions, rather than being directly elected in Canada by the citizens. In the United States we had the same problems Canadians are facing with such cronyism for over 135 years until the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1913.
Both in Canada under a conservative like Prime Minister Harper, and in the United States under a liberal like President Barack Obama, the Main Stream Media (MSM) is neatly “Under the Thumb” of their current leaders, not doing their jobs of bringing important topics to the attention of their respective citizens.
Regardless of both leaders being political opposites, they are using the exact same tactics to suppress the truth in order to further their own political agenda, while most of the MSM sits idly by “bowing, bending and scraping” to obtain access for their respective media outlets. The results are tragic with voter participation at all time lows in both countries with the electorate constituents disgusted by the hiding of the truth.
Here in the United States with voter turnout averaging only thirty-three percent, our recent coronation, excuse me, inauguration of President Barack Obama came at an estimated cost of at least $50 MILLION dollars on wasteful celebrations and parties, rather than taking such monies and putting them to good use, say helping to feed starving citizens, or training the poor for good jobs.
To make matter worse, here in the United States, the liberal MSM praise President Obama for having a more “modest” inauguration, yet he spent over $10 MILLION dollars more than the last President, George W. Bush who the liberal media lambasted for spending $40 MILLION! Both are wasteful spending! For goodness sakes, does the media think the citizens do not know when they are not being told the truth!?
Back to the subject of voting, the only method to remove these “Goldbrickers“, is to vote them out. In Australia, where voter turn-out is always over 90%, thanks only to wise choices by that government that make voting mandatory under law, I recently had several conversations with liberals of several countries, off and on the Internet. who say making voting mandatory is wrong.
Yet these same people, inadvertent hypocrites in my opinion, are the very ones who support forced mandatory public education and here in the United States that forced health care (at huge tax rate increases in correct? What is wrong with this picture is these types of people, sadly, fail to see that making the one thing mandatory, voting, is the solution to greater involvement in making meaningful contributions to society!
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We will be back with another expose February 03, 2013. Its a doozy affecting people all over the world, not simply on the North American continent where we have focused to date.
Stay tuned as Kenn from RockwaterReports announces more of our new Real News series in the future!
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