Manipulating and Muzzling the Media
Harper’s undermining of the Access to Information Act
Public access to information
about what government is doing
is at the heart of democratic accountability.
It has been called democracy’s oxygen.
In a system where ordinary citizens
determine who has state power
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.
Many journalists and others trying to prise information out of the current government have written about their experiences. In addition, W.T. Stanbury, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, wrote an article for The Hill Times in June 2009, that pulled together the many examples ~ and the various methods ~ of the Harper regime’s efforts at maintaining a tight grip on information.
One of the methods of slowing down the flow of information, if not stopping it altogether, was the practice of designating certain requests as needing “special handling.”
Information Commissioner Robert Marleau “found that there is ‘amber lighting’ or special handling applied to access to information requests coming from specific groups.… It turns out that, yes, journalists [are included], but Parliamentarians, lawyers, immigration lawyers, a whole series of other users were in a worse situation than the media,”
Yet, according to the Canadian Newspaper Association’s own analysis
“more than one in four of all requests designated for special handling comes from media requesters, even though fewer than one in six requests overall come from the media. In fact, media requests are about twice as likely to get the tougher treatment as requests overall.”
The vice grip on information, and the deliberate undermining of the Freedom of Information Act led to Marleau (who was appointed by the prime minister) telling Canwest News Service in February 2009:
“A lack of leadership at the highest levels of the Conservative government has contributed to a ‘crisis of information management’ that has slowed the disclosure of public records to a trickle.”
Another method of slowing down the distribution of information is to make 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.
Harper sued the Liberal Party over allegations it made about the government regarding the Conservatives’ efforts to persuade independent MP Chuck Cadman to vote with the Conservatives to defeat the Liberal minority government. The suit was launched March 8, 2005 and effectively closed off any access to information about the issue. An out-of-court settlement (the Conservatives were seeking $3.5 million) almost a year later locked the information away forever.
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. As reported in a Hill Times editorial of March 2, 2009:
“Access to Information Commissioner Robert Marleau released a scathing report on how quickly 10 federal institutions responded to access to information requests in the last fiscal year. He gave six of them failing grades.… Foreign Affairs 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. According to David Akin of Canwest News Service “Two legal experts say the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) violated Canada’s Access to Information laws when it decided to systematically charge ‘preparation fees’ before responding to Access to Information requests…”
The department assembled over 160,000 pages to be released but refused to put them on the public record because those requesting the information abandoned the request due to cost considerations.
And on Feb. 8, 2010, the Harper government was caught breaking the law regarding the ATI Act. A Conservative political operative working for Public Works Minister Christian Paradis forced the Department of Public Works to break the Access to Information Act and deny the full release of a report to The Canadian Press. The department was in the process of mailing the material out when the aide rushed into the room and ordered bureaucrats to “unrelease” the documents.
Controlling the message, managing the media
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. It was like the White House, not at all like the practice that had existed for decades in Ottawa where the media itself made such decisions. This was the showdown, just four months after Harper had won his first minority government.
It was a battle that the press gallery would lose. Indeed, some believed that the whole confrontation was staged by the Prime Minister’s Office in the hopes for such a confrontation, a theory given some credence by an interview Harper gave later to the rightwing Alberta-based Western Standard magazine.
Harper told the magazine: “Well, I’ve got more control now I’m free to pick my interviews when and where I want to have them.”
The Press Gallery also had a meeting with Harper’s very tough press officer, Sandra Buckler, in May 2006. She had worked for Harper for years and prior to this for the Reform Party’s Preston Manning. 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.”
By the end of the first year of the Harper government ~ SEVEN MONTHS had passed without a single news conference or scrum ~ things were no better. Chris Cobb, a political writer for The Ottawa Citizen, told The Review:
“Mr. Harper has adopted a communications strategy unlike any Ottawa has seen before. Government-by-surprise is part of a Harper communications package that also includes tight control over public statements from his cabinet ministers, and a muzzle on senior bureaucrats, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial communications advisers.”
One of Harper’s strategies was to virtually ignore the Ottawa press gallery altogether and communicate through local and regional media, where reporters would not have the contacts and collective information sharing that the Ottawa reporters had. It would be easier to get an intermediated message through to the public by giving interviews to reporters who did not normally cover national politics, and who would be less able to ask questions based on the deep background their Ottawa counterparts might have.
Some predicted that cutting off the press gallery’s access to the prime minister and to information would cause them to dig harder and do investigative pieces, resulting in better journalism and more exposure of Harper’s government. But it didn’t turn out that way for the most part.
Harper is now well known for being brutal in his treatment of those he sees as enemies in the media and for rewarding his friends. And it works.
According to Robin Sears, a political strategy consultant, “...there is little appetite for a non-government-driven news agenda at most news organizations, so independent or investigative stories are not encouraged. Finally, it is hard work to find, develop, source and write stuff on your own, so few people try.”
Sears’ analysis turns out to be right as Harper’s iron discipline has largely worked, according to Ekos pollster Frank Graves. The Parliamentary Press Gallery has given up the fight and little has changed since the reporters walked out in March 2006. If anything, things have worsened.
The prime minister does not even enter the House of Commons for Question period through the front door, but takes a circuitous route “…ducking down through a narrow hallway, behind the public gallery, atop the west side of the Chamber, down a small staircase, and then scuttling into the government lobby through a back door across from the Speaker of the House of Commons’ chamber,” according to Hill Times reporter Tim Naumetz, writing in November last year.
There aren’t 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 Beatles fan playing the piano at the National Arts Centre.
According to Naumetz, press gallery veterans believe that Harper’s deputy communications director Dimitri Soudas keeps a blacklist of reporters who will not be recognized for questions.
A Personal Agenda
Harper’s obsession with reforming the Senate
Whatever Canadians feel about the Senate, for the vast majority it is not a priority, indeed it does not show up in any poll that asks Canadians to name their most important issues. But an elected and equal Senate has always been a priority for Stephen Harper and was a key plank in the Reform Party platform when Harper was its policy director.
The Conservatives had it as part of their platform in 2008, but Harper, once again, seems disdainful of the fact that only 38 per cent of Canadian voted for Senate reform by voting for his party. As with so many items on his agenda stymied by the opposition, the prime minister has expressed anger that the opposition parties are blocking his way on Senate reform, and on this issue he has demonstrated again that the end justifies the means.
It is both ironic and hypocritical that Harper, in his quest for a democratic senate, is prepared to run roughshod over democracy to get it. He denounces the Senate, for example, for “blocking” or “delaying” his legislation on a whole range of issues.
But the job of the Senate (elected or otherwise)
is precisely to provide “sober second thought”
to the legislation passed by
the House of Commons and is not a rubber stamp
for the government of the day.
And with the evidence that this prime minister is more controlling than possibly any other in Canadian history, it is even more incumbent on the Senate to play the role of a check and balance on the power of the executive ~ the prime minister.
In both the 2006 and 2008 elections Harper pledged not to appoint Senators as vacancies arose. Yet Harper is so determined to behave as if he has a majority that he will do anything in his power to achieve an elected Senate.
On Dec. 22, 2008 ~ at the time his government was facing defeat by the Liberal-NDP coalition – he appointed 18 new senators, the largest number ever in a single day. He stated that this was to prevent any potential coalition from appointing senators:
“If Senate vacancies are to be filled… they should be filled by the government that Canadians elected rather than by a coalition that no one voted for.” Coalition governments are normal in parliamentary democracies and Harper’s complaint notwithstanding, a majority of Canadians actually did vote for the coalition parties, taken together.
On January 29, 2010, Harper repeated his performance, appointing five new senators and in so doing, achieving a plurality in the Senate (more seats than the Liberals but not an absolute majority due to several independents). All were appointed in a highly partisan atmosphere, and all have almost certainly pledged to support his vision of a reformed senate. But as conservative Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin pointed out:
“There’ll be no pretense of the Senate as a collection of honourable citizens trying to provide a different take on legislation. It’ll be a lapdog kennel.… Harper is setting up a stark partisan division of the Senate with surprising gusto given he’s a leader who promised to reform it into an effective and elected regional counterbalance to the Commons.” All of these senators can serve until they 75 ~ even if the rules change in the meantime.
It is still not entirely clear what a final Senate reform package would look like but when he was the Reform Party’s policy director, Harper espoused the view that the Senate would have a veto over legislation passed in the House of Commons.
Given his aversion to any active role for government, this rearrangement of the Houses of Parliament could work to Harper’s ideological advantage over time. It could conceivably produce a situation of continuous deadlock whenever different parties controlled the Senate and the House of Commons.
Not only did Harper violate his own promises and principles in his appointments, his threat to implement the change with a simple parliamentary resolution, without any reference to the provinces, promised to create a constitutional crisis.
Most of the Atlantic provinces immediately challenged the prime minister, as did Quebec. But for Harper it was just another occasion for brinkmanship ~ in your face politics, showing contempt for other elected first ministers and risking a constitutional crisis in which the Supreme Court would have to rule on the question.
Stephen Harper’s vendetta against the Canadian Wheat Board
There is no more dramatic example of Stephen Harper’s determination to remake the country than his sustained attack on the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). Harper ~ aided by his agriculture ministers Chuck Strahl and, later, Gerry Ritz ~ bent and broke the law more times trying to eliminate the CWB than he did regarding any other institution.
Harper’s personal campaign against the Wheat Board goes back to his time in the Reform Party and extended through his stint running the rightwing National Citizens Coalition, where he ran an extremely expensive campaign attacking the board. As soon as he was Prime Minister, he took it up again.
The CWB, established in 1935 to protect farmers from the gouging of middlemen and grain companies, is what is called a “single desk” seller ~ it has a monopoly on the selling of wheat and barley produced by Canadian prairie farmers. By selling the entire western Canadian crop, the CWB has enormous leverage in the marketplace (it controls up to $7 billion in grain stocks) and gets the best price possible ~ resulting in an annual boost to farmers’ profits of about $600 million (when you factor in the CWB’s economic influence on western rail transport fees the advantage jumps to more than $1.5 billion).
The attack on the board is purely ideological and Harper, backed by the private grain industry, claims it is about “choice.” But the “market” is monopolistic itself: 73 per cent of it is controlled by four giant grain companies. Contrary to the arguments of the government, you could not have both systems operating simultaneously: the single desk would lose its market power if farmers could sell to private companies.
The CWB is run by farmers who elect a majority of the board members (the government appoints the remainder). Farmers have consistently voted in favour of maintaining the CWB monopoly ~ in spite of the campaigns against it.
Ignoring the repeated elections of pro-CWB farmers to the board, Harper made it clear on numerous occasions that regardless of farmers’ support he intended to crush all dissent, stating in June 2008:
“But the bottom line is this. Mark my words. Western Canadian farmers want this freedom [an open market] and they are going to get it. And anybody who stands in their way is going to get walked over.” In Dec. 2008, five months later, yet another election confirmed the CWB’s monopoly over the selling of wheat and barley.
This was in spite of an intensive Conservative campaign in support of anti-CWB candidates. Five prairie Conservative MPs had campaigned for these anti-CWB candidates, using tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars.
This followed a legal change in the regulations by the government that restricted candidate spending to $15,000 but explicitly permitted anyone else (other farmers, corporations, politicians) to spend an unlimited amount supporting candidates. The five MPs refused to report their spending to the election co-ordinator.
It seems that the Conservative MPs somehow had access to the CWB mailing list, a fact investigated briefly by the RCMP on a complaint from the National Farmers Union. They dropped the case because they could not “guarantee” a conviction, according to former NFU President Stewart Wells.
In 2007, the government had attempted to end the CWB’s monopoly over the sale of barley, using an Order in Council ~ essentially a cabinet edict. But a federal court ruled that was illegal. Another court ruled against the government on another issue: it declared illegal the Harper government’s gag order against the CWB, preventing the CWB and its chairman from publicly defending its own institution. (The government eventually won a court appeal of the ruling.)
The court ruling against the Order in Council (any change had to be passed by Parliament) did not faze Harper. In response he stated:
“[The ruling] does not change the determination of the government of Canada to see a dual market for Canadian farmers. I hope the wheat board will start working with the government to make sure this is going to happen, ‘cause it’s going to happen one way or another.”
The list of dirty tricks used by the government to undermine or destroy the CWB is a long one. The National Farmers Union (NFU), the principal defender of the Board in its long fight to survive, provided this chronology of attacks on the CWB:
● Then-minister, Chuck Strahl, holds a closed-door meeting in Saskatoon with anti-CWB organizations (July 27, 2006);
● Minister Strahl appoints a “Task Force” on the CWB stacked with industry-linked, CWB-opponents (Sept. 19, 2006);
● Minister Strahl issues a gag order on the CWB ~ it cannot publicly defend its single-desk mandate (Oct. 6, 2006);
● In the middle of a CWB board election, Minister Strahl summarily cuts 16,000 farmers from the CWB directors’ elections voters’ list, out of a total of 44,000, with no consultation with the board (Oct. 17, 2006);
● Strahl begins firing incumbent government-appointed CWB directors and replacing them with anti-CWB directors (Oct.-Nov. 2006);
● The government fires CWB CEO Adrian Measner (32 years with the board) for refusing to obey the gag order and refusing to promote the government’s position of “choice”(Nov.-Dec., 2006);
● The government conducts a sham “plebiscite” ~ unclear question, no public voters’ list, no spending controls, and no guarantee of ballot secrecy. Some farmers received multiple ballots (Jan.-Mar. 2007);
● The government introduces a Cabinet Order in Council to strip barley from the CWB mandate (Apr. 21, 2007);
● The federal court rules the government’s actions illegal (July 31, 2007);
● The federal government appeals (Aug. 30, 2007) and loses, again (Feb. 26, 2008);
● The Harper government introduces legislation, Bill C-46, to fast-track removal of barley from the CWB, to terminate farmers’ right to vote on removals, and to create a CWB-harassment mechanism in the form of an arbitration system (Feb. 29, 2008);
● Another ministerial letter of instruction forced the CWB to remove thousands of legitimate voters from the initial voters’ list for the fall board vote. These farmers were never directly contacted by anyone to tell them that they had been removed (July 2008).
The government also attacked the CWB on other fronts: legal actions, a staff purge, and attempts to pressure CWB directors. During the 2006 board elections (won overwhelmingly by pro-single desk candidates), Conservative-friendly advertising agencies solicited phony letters to newspapers to create an illusion of producer support for the gutting of the board.
The CWB still currently enjoys its single desk monopoly on wheat and barley (and farmers enjoy their $600 million to $1.5 billion in extra yearly income). All the anti-CWB legislation introduced in the House has been defeated by the opposition or died on the order paper as all three opposition parties have worked hard to defend the board.
But Harper has not given up. On the record, Conservative MP David Anderson has said that the government should sacrifice the board in the current WTO negotiations, and Alex Binkley, writing in the Manitoba Co-operator, claims the government has new legislation ready to introduce.
It is almost certain that they will use a tool they have used twice before: trying to further suppress the eligible voters by introducing a minimum volume of deliveries to qualify, an anti-democratic move aimed at small farmers.
Failing to Protect Canadian Citizens
Refusing to seek clemency for Canadian death row inmates overseas
Ronald Smith is a convicted killer who has spent years on death row in Montana State Prison.
The Harper government refused to seek clemency for Smith from the U.S. government. It had been Canadian government policy since the abolition of the death penalty in Canada to seek clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in other countries.
The logic is straight forward: if Canada does not believe Canadians should face the death penalty here, then they shouldn’t face it elsewhere. There were no exceptions.
The Harper government’s new policy stated that it would decide to seek clemency on a case-by-case basis, based on the particular circumstances including the nature of the crime and whether the host country is democratic and respects the rule of law.
Once again, it seemed that Harper’s personal preferences trumped Canadian law and tradition by inserting subjective criteria for deciding a Canadian citizen’s fate.
Harper knew he couldn’t execute prisoners in Canada so he took the opportunity to ensure that at least some Canadians would face the penalty he preferred. The practice of seeking clemency was not written in formal legislation but until Harper’s election, all other prime ministers had recognized the practice. It was not clear under the new rules who would be making such subjective life and death decisions.
The Canadian Bar Association, at it 2007 annual meeting, denounced the new policy: “The case-by-case approach invites arbitrary and discriminatory decisions, implying that the death penalty may be appropriate for some Canadians,” stated the resolution passed unanimously. “It puts the administration of justice into disrepute,” association president Guy Joubert said.
Not only was the new position a violation of years of practice and not debated in Parliament, it also revealed a government either ignorant of the potential consequences or dismissive of them. The Bar Association pointed out that based on the new policy, Canada would only seek clemency if it determined that the country in question was not democratic or had a flawed justice system ~ declarations that would hardly encourage that country to co-operate in the request for clemency.
The Omar Khadr case
One of the best known and notorious cases of Stephen Harper’s contempt for the law and the rights of Canadians ~ key concepts in any democracy ~ is the case of Omar Khadr. Khadr was just 15 years old when he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2002, at the height of the illegal U.S. invasion of that country.
While he clearly fit the UN’s accepted definition of a child soldier, he was charged with “murder, conspiracy, and support of terrorism” by the U.S. for allegedly fighting back against U.S. soldiers (he was shot in the back three times). He was sent to the now infamous Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He has been awaiting trial for almost eight years. He has, for several years, been the only prisoner from a western democracy who has not been repatriated by his government.
Despite international consternation, calls for his repatriation from dozens of sources in Canada ~ including the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International, the Harper government has absolutely refused to budge from its position.
Its only explanation is openly ridiculed by legal experts: that Canada will wait until Khadr goes through the legal process in the U.S. Of course, even the U.S. courts have ruled that the “legal process” followed in Guantanamo is a violation of the most basic principle of habeas corpus.
Canadian courts have been ruling on various aspects of Khadr’s case for almost six years ~ and every lower court ruling found in favour of Khadr demand that the Canadian government be forced to bring him home to Canada.
On April 23, 2009, federal court judge, James O’Reilly, ordered the government to seek Khadr’s return, concluding it failed to ensure his treatment complied with international human rights norms. That decision was upheld by a two-to-one decision by the Federal Court of Appeal on Aug. 14, 2009.
Judge O’Reilly found that Canada had been complicit in tortures, which included sleep deprivation and the use of vicious dogs to intimidate him, by virtue of their refusal to take an active role in protecting him from such abuse. This placed on the Canadian government a constitutional “duty to protect” a Canadian citizen imprisoned abroad.
While the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the lower court’s decisions this past January in a unanimous ruling, it had extremely harsh words for the Canadian government and made it clear that the government had to act to end the violation of Khadr’s constitutional rights, or the court would force it to.
The court unanimously upheld Khadr’s claim that his Charter rights had been violated, stating:
“Canadian officials questioned Mr. Khadr on matters that may have provided important evidence relating to his criminal proceedings, in circumstances where they knew that Mr. Khadr was being indefinitely detained, was a young person, and was alone during the interrogations.
“Interrogation of a youth to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges ~ while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel and while knowing the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the U.S. prosecutors ~ offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”
Khadr had been interrogated twice in 2003 and 2004 by Canadian officials from CSIS and DFAIT (the foreign affairs department) who knew that he had been "softened up" (pre tortured to make him more maleable) in the days before by the extended use of sleep deprivation.
The Supreme Court also pointed out that the breaches of Khadr’s rights were on-going since the information obtained in violation of his rights could still be used against him in the U.S. proceedings so that: “…the effect of the breaches cannot be said to have been spent.”
But the court seemed to be responding to veiled threats from the Harper government’s lawyer in the case who warned the panel of judges not to intervene in ~ or “micromanage” a foreign policy matter that could create serious difficulties in relations with the U.S.
On February 3, 2010, the PMO stated it would not seek the repatriation of Khadr. If the prime minister does not follow the court’s explicit order or takes perfunctory action that does not substantively remedy the situation, he could create the crisis the court sought to avoid by “...leaving the government a measure of discretion in deciding how best to respond.”
The court was clear that if the government does not substantively address the Charter of Rights violation: “...courts are empowered to make orders ensuring that the government’s foreign affairs prerogative is exercised in accordance with the constitution.”
A publicity shot before the last election.
This man oozes insincerity.
Security certificates ~ Violating the Charter of Rights
It is difficult to know exactly why Harper is so ferocious in his determination not to bend to the law, broad legal opinion, or opposition arguments when it comes to matters connected with Islamic terrorism.
Some have suggested that it is his way of demonstrating to the U.S. the Canadian government’s dedication to the “war on terror.” This phrase has been banished from the Obama White House but Harper still uses the term and seems to still be proving his loyalty to George W. Bush.
Others have speculated (citing as well, Harper’s carte blanch support of virtually any Israeli action in the Palestinian territories or Lebanon) that his Christian fundamentalism makes him hostile to Islam and not just terrorists.
Whatever the explanation, there is no area more subject to Harper’s studied disdain for democracy, human rights and civil liberties than the area of Canadian national security. Harper has demonstrated that he will fight every case, no matter its particulars, to the last possible battle ~ often in the Supreme Court of Canada. This was true with the Khadr case and also with the issues surrounding so-called security certificates.
Security certificates are a legal mechanism by which the Government of Canada can detain and deport foreign nationals or any non-citizen living in Canada for various reasons, including being a perceived threat to national security. The certificates have been around in one form or another for over 20 years but used primarily since the 9/11 attacks.
Those held under these certificates are denied the same legal and constitutional rights enjoyed by Canadian citizens and one of the most egregious aspects of the certificates was that neither the defendant nor his lawyer were allowed to see the evidence justifying their detention.
They were faced, effectively, with indefinite detention, fighting in the courts for their rights, or the alternative: being deported to their home countries many of which were known to use torture. The effect of the certificates was that individuals could be deported based on secret intelligence presented to a federal court judge at closed-door hearings.
The certificates were challenged on constitutional grounds by three of the alleged Al Qaeda-linked detainees ~ Algerian-born Mohamed Harkat, Moroccan-born Adil Charkaoui and Syrian native Hassan Almrei. The Harper government had refused to engage the men or their legal counsel, rejecting claims of rights violations, and the men were forced to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, alleging that the certificates violated various sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The court found in favour of the men, striking down the security certificate system but giving the government a year to change it so that it was in compliance with the Charter. The court recognized the need for national security and the principle of the certificates, but found in a unanimous 9-0 decision that this could be accomplished with greater attention to the rights of the detainees.
On Feb. 22, 2008, just one day before the court’s deadline for changes, the Harper government complied with the order by signing into law amendments to the security certificate process that introduced a “special advocate”: lawyers who could view the evidence against the accused. It was, however, the absolute minimum required to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision; the lawyers would be chosen by the justice minister (the same one who defended the certificates), and the lawyer would see only a summary of the evidence. He or she could reveal nothing about this evidence to their client ~ even to seek clarifications or corrections.
The Abousfian Abdelrazik scandal
The case of Canadian citizen Abousfian Abdelrazik demonstrates dramatically just how perverse the Harper government can be when it comes to its determination to be tough on terrorism. Most Canadians are aware of the case and the multiple, bizarre twists and turns it took before this man ~ never charged with anything ~ was finally repatriated to Canada after spending six years marooned in Khartoum, Sudan.
The Harper government looked not only callous in its treatment of Abdelrazik, it looked inept, giving one reason for keeping him in the Sudan one day and when that rationale fell apart, providing a totally different rationale, and then, yet another. It was as if they could not even be bothered to spend a little time getting their lies and deception in order.
For over a year Abdelrazik had been living in the lobby of the Canadian embassy, a form of recognition that he was a Canadian citizen. He had been released, for a second time, by the Sudanese government because they had no evidence that he had committed any crime. The government even offered to provide a plane to fly him home if the Canadian government would contribute to expenses. It refused. The Sudanese government ~ hardly a paragon of democracy ~ was more embarrassed by the situation than Abdelrazik’s own government.
When the government claimed that Abdelrazik could not return because he was on a United Nations (UN) no-fly list, the UN quickly pointed out that this was not a barrier to his return. Richard Barrett, co-coordinator of the UN’s Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring team told The Globe and Mail:
“Whether it is Abdelrazik or anybody else, it is up to the state in question whether they want to allow the person to come back or not.” The monitoring team oversees United Nations resolutions establishing the blacklist on which Abdelrazik was placed in 2006 (at the request of the U.S.). Barrett said the travel ban exemption allowing for the return of a citizen is so clear that governments need not even apply for permits.
When that reasoning was dispensed with, the government stated it would still not provide a travel document because all the countries that a flight would pass over would also have to agree to an exemption from the no-fly list. This, too, was declared untrue by the UN Barrett stated: “The overflight states don’t come into it and they haven’t ever come into it.”
Earlier in the saga, Foreign Minister Lawrence Minister Cannon had made a promise in writing that Canada would provide a travel document if an airline could be found that would fly him to Canada.
But when an airline was found, Cannon casually reversed his position with no explanation. Even when more than 200 Canadians raised money for a ticket for Abelrazik, the government initially refused to budge ~ even though it now had no rational whatever to fall back on. They were simply refusing because they could.
In this particular case, the only motive of the Harper government seemed to be to kowtow to the U.S. and its tendency to put tens of thousands of people on terrorist watch lists. Abdelrazik, 47, was cleared by both CSIS and the RCMP, presumably the security organizations that a Canadian government would listen to. But the Bush administration, giving no explanation, had him placed on the UN Security Council terrorist blacklist, and refused to take him off. Harper ignored Canadian security services in favour of those of the U.S.
On June 4, an Ottawa judge ordered the federal government to issue travel documents and ensure Abdelrazik was able to return home within 30 days. The government did not appeal and Abdelrazik finally returned to Canada on June 27, 2009.
Harper Attacks Rights
The attack on human rights
On Jan. 11, 1999, while he was on leave from formal politics and running the National Citizen’s Coalition, Stephen Harper told the right wing BC Report newsmagazine, that:
“Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society… It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff.”
With this extremist view on human rights it should come as no surprise that in the first year in power Harper eliminated one of the most effective and innovative programs promoting and facilitating human rights ~ the Court Challenges Program (CCP).
The CCP, established in 1978, provided funding for individuals challenging government legislation that was discriminatory (it expanded its program after the Charter came into existence in 1982). Here is what the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto said of the program:
“The rationale behind the program lies in the fact that access to justice requires significant financial resources which are beyond the reach of most individuals and groups, particularly those most marginalized. Without financial support to test the constitutionality of questionable laws, constitutional rights are only protected for the wealthy that have the resources to access the courts.”
In short, the CCP made constitutional rights accessible ~ that is, they made them real rather than theoretical. The CCP was instrumental over a period of 20 years in advancing the rights and equality not only of women (including First Nations women) but of gays and lesbians, and the disabled.
“The program has also enabled many community-based agencies to undertake court challenges regarding laws and policies that negatively affect racialized communities, immigrants and refugees, and other disadvantaged groups in Canada.” Even the CCP-funded cases that lost in the courts often led, as a result of the high-profile challenges, to changes in legislation.
Prime Minister Harper cannot get rid of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but by eliminating the modest ($5.6 million) budget of the CCP he has effectively made challenging discrimination in Canada a luxury available only to those with access to a quarter of a million dollars ~ the amount it can cost to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The attack on women’s rights and equality
No other part of society has suffered from Harper’s contempt for democracy and his determination to turn back the clock as women. After three decades of (admittedly uneven) progress towards equality and full human rights, women have experienced the full force of Harper’s visceral disdain for the notion of women’s equality. It is one of the most shocking and dangerous examples of Harper’s assault on democracy.
Democracy is not just political parties, voting and Parliament ~ it is a whole array of institutions and traditions of the country and the evolution of norms in society. Specifically, it encompasses human rights and civil liberties. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a relatively new institution in Canada but when it was enacted it both reflected and helped establish in law the changes that Canadian society was already going through.
One of the most critical areas of change was that of women’s rights and equality. The Charter merely recognized that Canadian society had moved on from the period where women were treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against as a matter of course.
Like the earlier, decades-long struggle of women just to get the right to vote, this was a classic example of how society changes through the influence of powerful democratic movements ~ the feminist movement in this case ~ and how the law is then forced to catch up. It could not be any other way.
Contrary to what the political right likes to say, this was not “social engineering” from the left, some conspiracy by a “liberal elite” ~ it was social change created from the bottom up by women throwing off decades of discrimination. Indeed, even before the Charter became law, the federal government, in 1981, ratified the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ~ a convention that reflected the strength of the global women’s movement.
In the very first year that Stephen Harper was prime minister he moved in a myriad of ways to reverse the course of progress for women and he has not stopped since then. In his first year in power the Harper government summarily cancelled the national child care program that the previous Liberal government had spent years negotiating with the provinces ~ their partners in the planned multi-billion dollar program.
This program was hardly a radical proposal ~ Canada is one of the most backward countries among western developed nations regarding early childhood education. This program would simply have begun to close the gap. According to Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Childcare Advocates of B.C.:
“Other countries are able to provide childcare for up to 100 per cent of children between the age of three and six. Other countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, even England and the United States, invest more per capita in early-childhood-development services than Canada does.” The universal program was “replaced” by a taxable $100 a month payment to parents of kids under six, a pittance compared to the cost of professional childcare (but an approach recommended by the right wing group REAL Women).
As referred to above, Harper then eliminated the Court Challenges Program amongst whose major beneficiaries were women. At a forum in Vancouver, organized after the September 2006, announcement that the CCP would be eliminated,
Gretchin Brewin listed some of the advances made because of the program: “...pregnancy discrimination is (now) actually considered sex discrimination. … “implied consent” ~ meaning what a woman wears ~ cannot be cited in court to justify sexual assault... men accused of sexual assault are no longer entitled to unfettered access to the personal records of their accusers. (And) human-rights law now prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
The government also closed 12 out of 16 regional offices of Status of Women Canada across the country as well as eliminating the $1 million Status of Women Independent Research Fund. Changes were imposed to the criteria for funding for the Status of Women Canada’s Women’s Programme which precluded support for advocacy or lobbying for law reform. That meant that dozens of women-run NGOs would no longer receive funding because virtually all of them combined advocacy with the provision of services ~ such as women’s shelters advocating for an end to violence against women.
One of the most cynical and callous acts by the Harper government was its decision ~ again, with no reference to Parliament and no consultation with women or women’s organizations ~ to simply refuse to take the issue of pay equity any further than the law already allowed. Harper, breaking a promise made in the 2006 election, simply rejected recommendations from a federal task force to move toward what is called a “proactive pay-equity system.”
Shelagh Day, one of Canada’s foremost feminist and human rights scholars, told a Vancouver forum in December 2006: “The Harper government has come forward a few months ago and simply said they’re not going to do anything on pay equity. The law will stay the way it is.”
In 2009, the Harper government introduced the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act but according to human rights advocates the bill emptied “...the right to pay equity of its meaning. The new legislated criteria for evaluating ‘equitable compensation’ will reintroduce sex discrimination into pay practices, rather than eliminate it.”
The law (passed by stealth by placing it in the 2009 budget where it could not be voted down without forcing an election) introduced additional criteria that would allow public sector employers to consider “market demand” in determining compensation ~ meaning higher pay for men even if the work was of equal value.
While women’s groups organized forums across the country to draw attention to the assault on 20 years of progress, Harper has not listening to them. He was, however, listening to a group that had demonstrated its full support for himself and the Conservatives during the election: REAL Women.
Responding to the $5 million in cuts to the Status of Women, REAL Women stated: “This is a good start, and we hope that the Status of Women will eventually be eliminated entirely since it does not represent ‘women,’ but only represents the ideology of feminists.”
It also congratulated the government for canceling the “troublesome” Court Challenges Program and revealed the “social engineering” argument so often used by the right: “...the Court Challenges Program was a profoundly undemocratic use of taxpayers’ money to restructure society …The elimination of the Court Challenges Program will go a long way to promoting democracy in Canada.”
If there was any doubt that it was Stephen Harper’s personal determination to set back women’s equality, Garth Turner, a Conservative MP who eventually left the caucus, told the Georgia Straight:
“[Harper] said, ‘We have determined a series of cuts… which will be announced…. They are our position. And… anyone [who] has got any problem with that ~ who says anything about it ~ is going to have a short political career.’ He said that in caucus.”
Which one only sends men to be killed?
Gotta have the Timmy's even over in war zones, a taste of Canada!
Political Advocacy Under Fire
The war on Insite and the Harper government’s obsession with punishment
Insite is the first supervised safe injection site in North America and describes itself as “…a safe, health-focused place where people can go to inject drugs and connect to healthcare services ~ from primary care to treat disease and infection, to addiction counseling and treatment.”
While it has always been controversial ~ it has an exemption from federal drug laws so users and staff cannot be charged ~ the provincially-funded project has been so successful that the otherwise very conservative government of Gordon Campbell, the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Police Department and even Health Canada are all strong supporters of the program. Culturally, it represents a huge advance in attitudes towards drug use and users by a public highly aware of the limits of criminalization.
It has dramatically reduced drug use on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, has saved scores of lives (over a one-year period Insite dealt with 200 overdoses without a single death) and has resulted in many referrals to drug rehab programs. It treats addiction as a disease, as do the vast majority of Canadians. Its cost effectiveness has been calculated as high as a $4 return for every government dollar spent.
But despite its popularity it has been in the Harper government’s gunsights from the beginning. Starting with denying the program long-term constitutional exemption (providing only short extensions starting in September 2006) the Harper government has defied the democratic will of the community and the province by trying to shut it down. For Harper and his government it seems drug use is a crime that must be punished ~ full stop.
A very extensive, peer review study of Insite by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, recognized as one of the world’s leading research organizations, had no impact on the Harper government. It still refused a three-year extension and said it was waiting for more research on the program before making a final decision.
In April 2008, supporters of Insite (which was facing a federal government closure deadline of June 30) decided to launch a B.C. Supreme Court challenge of the federal government’s legal authority to shut the project down. Arguing that the site addresses a public health crisis supporters won the first round in May 2008, when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to close Insite, ordering it to change Canada’s drug laws to allow Insite to operate.
Still the Harper government would not budge, and appealed the decision. In January of 2010, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision stating: “Like palliative care, it is a form of harm reduction with benefits for both the patient and the community.”
Score one for democracy.
On February 9, 2010, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced that the federal government was appealing to the Supreme Court of Canda.
Contempt for international law and international relations
Canada signed and ratified the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change, yet Harper simply dismissed the Accord when he became prime minister, and stated that his government had no intention of following its dictates, and, without any debate in the House of Commons, declared that Canada’s position would be whatever the position of the U.S. turned out to be.
No other government in the world has signed, ratified and then simply refused to acknowledge the Kyoto Accord. It was not brought before the House of Commons for a debate or vote, presumably because in a democratic forum such a reversal would have been defeated.
While the full details of the Afghan detainee torture scandal have not yet been revealed, there is strong evidence (backed up Harper’s prorogation of Parliament to avoid further revelations) that it was not just the military commanders in Afghanistan who treated the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners with disdain.
It seems extremely likely that it came from the highest levels of the Harper government. Of course, the previous Liberal government was also guilty of turning a blind eye to these violations of international law, but the Harper government has been accused of a cover-up and has demonstrated disdain for due process in getting to the bottom of the violations ~ aggressively attacking the character of its own senior intelligence officer, refusing to call an inquiry, and ignoring a parliamentary resolution to hand over key documents.
In almost every international forum, the Canadian government has either mimicked the positions taken by the U.S. or pursued its own right wing, narrow corporate interests agenda. On the issue of asbestos we have attracted outrage from around the world for our leading effort to keep asbestos from being listed as a dangerous substance under the Rotterdam Accord. Canada has also taken a lead role (with just two other countries, New Zealand and Australia) in preventing a ban on the anti-farmer terminator seed technology.
Canada joined the United States and Argentina in a WTO trade complaint against Europe for its decision to ban GMO food ~ a demand made by an ever-increasing majority of EU citizens.
Some of these reactionary positions were inherited from the Liberal regimes of Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien , but some are new. Harper has angered France and other EU countries by simply abandoning, with no explanation either at home or internationally, its decades long commitment to development in Africa. Canada had been a close partner with Europe in this regard.
With much of Latin America slowly emerging from a period of neo-liberal economic disaster, and an earlier period of U.S.-supported dictatorships, Canada is pulling in the opposite direction. Latin America has never been a major area of interest for Canada until now and instead of engaging the newly emerging consensus, Canada is playing the role of turning back the clock and supporting the U.S. and its one remaining client state, Colombia. It has also supported the U.S. (one of just three governments to do so) in its recognition of the military coup government in Honduras ~ a development that has alarmed experts who had concluded that the era of military coups was truly over.
In the Middle East, Canada is now seen as even more aggressively pro-Israel than the United States ~ a radical departure from Canada’s traditional, even-handed approach. The government has engaged in a de-funding witch hunt against any organization that criticizes Israel: eliminating funding for Kairos (the ecumenical group working on development and human rights in many countries around the world), stacking the board of Rights and Democracy (an arms length international human rights organization) with pro-Israeli members, and withdrawing funding from UNWRA, the UN agency that provides aid, education and other services to Palestinian refugees.
Harper’s public statements have also made this new policy clear ~ as when he called the wanton destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure in the July 2006 war, “a measured response” to the kidnapping of a handful of Israeli soldiers. Harper refused to protest the Israeli air force’s repeated bombing of a clearly marked UN post at which a Canadian UN peacekeeper was killed.
These are all substantive changes in Canadian foreign policy, yet none of them were ever the subject of official debate or discussion in the one democratic forum where Canada’s place in the world should be discussed: the House of Commons.
Attacking political advocacy
Political advocacy, which by its nature involves critiquing and criticizing governments, is arguably one of the most crucial activities in any healthy democracy. Taken together, the organizations involved make up civil society ~ that part of society that provides citizens with opportunities to engage in their democracy year round, not just at election time. Such activity is already severely restricted in Canada.
Groups with charitable status ~ environmental organizations, anti-poverty groups, progressive think-tanks, women’s organizations ~ cannot spend more than 10 per cent of their staff time on advocacy activity on pain of possibly losing their charitable status.
Loss of this status ~ which allows the organizations to issue tax receipts for donations ~ could have a devastating impact on their finances. This rule was implemented under a Liberal government, but in the year before the 2006 election there was a flood of complaints to Revenue Canada about such advocacy, complaints that many groups suspected were generated by Conservative supporters.
Many environmental organizations were audited ~ that is, investigated by Revenue Canada for how they spent their money and staff time. It is by all accounts a very intimidating and time-consuming process. Preceding the 2006 election, all charities received a warning letter from the Charities Division of Revenue Canada, saying that they should not comment on or participate in elections.
It had an immediate chilling effect on advocacy from groups with charitable status. Virtually all charitable groups responded cautiously ~ they interpreted the warning to mean a charity could not even publish a survey on party policies.
In recent months, the Harper government has taken the suppression of such advocacy up a notch. According to a February 13, 2010 article in The Globe and Mail, the government has been issuing warnings to groups about the political positions they take:
“An official with a mainstream non-governmental aid group said that Keith Fountain, policy director for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, gave a verbal warning that the organization's policy positions were under scrutiny: ‘Be careful about your advocacy.’”
The ecumenical group Kairos, involved in development work and human rights advocacy around the world, saw its $7 million grant summarily canceled even though it had been approved by and developed in co-operation with senior officials of the government. The reason: pro-Israeli groups had falsely accused the organization of supporting a boycott of Israel.
Large groups like World Vision, Oxfam and CARE as well as smaller Anglican and Mennonite aid agencies get the bulk of their development money from CIDA ~ the Canadian International Development Agency for which Oda is responsible. They also do advocacy work with their own, privately raised funds.
The Canadian Council for International Co-operation, the umbrella group which includes aid organizations in its membership, claims its members have received “…veiled warnings about positions that clash with Ottawa's on issues such as climate change, free trade with Colombia, or the Middle East… .”
Alternatives, a Montreal-based group, is apparently going to have its $2.1 million in CIDA funding eliminated, according to a National Post story. Since the story was published, CIDA has refused to respond to inquiries from the group. Its apparent misstep: suggesting a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis instead of the conventional two-state solution (which most commentators now consider effectively dead).
Other groups, as mentioned elsewhere in this study, have also been targeted politically and completely shut down for their advocacy work: the Canadian Policy Research Networks, the Law Commission of Canada, the Court Challenges Program, and the advocacy activities of Status of Women Canada. The group Rights and Democracy experienced direct political interference through the appointment of a hand-picked majority of board members who set out to change the group’s traditional philosophical stance.
These are not normal times. Canada’s democracy is in crisis. We have a prime minister and a government that have demonstrated they are unfit to govern. But crises also present opportunities ~ opportunities to ensure the same crisis is not repeated.
The latest shutting down of Parliament by Stephen Harper was a wakeup call for Canadians who expressed their outrage on the streets, in letters-to-the-editor, on talk shows, and in the polls ~ driving the Harper Conservatives down 10 percentage points in popularity. Our democratic system ~ while not always abused the way Harper abuses it ~ has been exposed as extremely vulnerable to any prime minister who has power, and not just majority government power.
Tremendous damage can be done to the fabric of the country by a prime minister with a minority in the House of Commons, and support from a minority of Canadians, if he or she is determined to bend and break the rules meant to protect democracy.
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 sacrosanct. 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.
We must get back to a democratic equilibrium whereby all the political parties and their leaders do politics by the rule of law.
One of the consequences of having no rules is political chaos: with society and its government policies being wrenched first this way, then that ~ with no stability, no certainty, and no time for reflection or consensus building. Politics that, in normal times, have been characterized more by relative consensus than by constant partisan warfare is not intended to dominate people’s lives.
It is meant to provide a context and atmosphere in which people can live their lives and communities can thrive ~ with security, confidence and a sense of continuity. The current political atmosphere, created largely by Harper (though not exclusively ~ his bad behaviour often brings out the worst in other politicians) provides none of these things.
Politics at its best encourages people to get involved ~ they see the exercise of democracy as being in their interest, something they believe will respond to their needs, and a process in which they can trust. When they quit feeling that way, democracy cannot work.
It could be argued that democracy today is clearly not working because so many people are opting out. In the last election, fewer people voted than in any other federal election in Canadian history ~ just 59.1 per cent of the population cast a ballot. That means that four in 10 citizens no longer believed that democracy had anything to offer them or meant anything to them. That is amongst the lowest in the developed Western democracies and is reaching crisis proportions.
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.
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 Greens 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.
If we had a system of proportional representation, the parties that could put together a coalition based on a mutually acceptable package of policies would have the constitutional authority to form the government ~ not the party that simply received the most seats in a minority parliament.
If the last election had been run on such a system, the Conservatives would have had just 116 seats, not the 143 that has allowed them to govern the country as if it had a majority. The Liberals would have had 81, not 77; the NDP would have had 56 seats instead of 37 and the Greens 21 instead of none. The Bloc would have had 31, not 49. Under these circumstances, the Conservatives could not possibly have governed as no other party shares its ideology or policies. One possible scenario would have been a Liberal-NDP-Green coalition (total seats: 158) representing more than 50 per cent of Canadian voters.
But however it was worked out, the coalition government would have represented a much larger proportion of Canadians ~ and their values. Executive dictatorship ~ the complete dominance of Parliament by the Prime Minister’s Office ~ would be a thing of the past because the prime minister would have to negotiate every major policy decision with at least one and possible three other parties. There would be no ideologically rigid government because no single party, regardless of ideology, could impose its agenda on Parliament (except in the extremely rare situation in which a single party received more than 50 per cent of the vote). Combined with other reforms that would make parliament – rather than the prime minister – supreme, proportional representation would restore the true meaning of democracy to Parliament.
As Canadians will remember, we almost had such a government in December 2008 when all three opposition parties declared their lack of confidence in the Harper Conservative government. The Liberals and NDP announced their intention to form a coalition government for 18 months based on a limited set of policies they agreed upon. The Bloc Québecois agreed to provide critical support. Just 43 per cent of Canadians supported the idea of a coalition or a more informal opposition accord. But this was not a true test of a coalition government. Many Canadians understandably opposed the coalition because its leader, Stéphane Dion, had just been soundly rejected in the election. They did not want him to become prime minister through the back door.
Electoral reform is some ways off. Only the NDP and the Green Party have it in their election platforms. Yet we do not have to wait for an official change in the electoral system to achieve something similar. It would appear that Canadians fundamentally do not trust the current system, even if they are still undecided about a new one.
Canadians show no signs of giving any party the level of support required for a majority government. That means we will face the same dilemma after the next election as we face at the moment: another government by a party (Conservative or Liberal) with a minority of seats and support form a minority of Canadians. Unless we demand of the opposition parties that they go into the next election with a pledge to form a coalition government that represents the majority of Canadians and their values.
That could serve as the litmus test of the proportional representation system and its catalyst. If it worked to the satisfaction of Canadians, if it reduced the partisan bickering, if it put serious restrictions on the executive power of the Prime Minister’s Office, if it produced policies and programs that reflected our values, it would become the consensus position of Canadians ~ and the default position of any political party that wanted their support.
If you managed to read this entire piece, thank you. Canadians, we have no time to waste. By the way, do you have ANY idea it was for me to not comment at least 100 times throughout it all? I will wind up with one last comment. Years and years ago we had a Liberal majority and Harper was, if I remember correctly, the only Conservative in the house. At that time I also saw on line a small photo of him at the Chateau de Rothschild with Lord R. I knew immediately, he was just one, but that he was our next Prime Minister. A cold feeling because I despised him even back then. Call it an instinct. He has surpassed my every bad dream and then some.