Murray Dobbin has been a freelance journalist, broadcaster and author for thirty-five years. He is also a leading activist and analyst in the movement against corporate globalization. He has written extensively on various trade agreements and their impact on democracy and on neo-liberalism’s attack on social programs. He is a past executive board member of the Council of Canadians and author or Word Warriors.
“Many of our most serious problems as a country can be traced to the apathy and non-involvement of Canadians in public affairs and to decisions that too frequently ignore the popular will. We believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.” ~ Stephen Harper, Reform Party foundational document
On January 23, 2010, thousands of Canadians in more than 60 towns and cities across the country demonstrated their anger over the shutting down of Canada’s Parliament by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. At the same time, more than 220,000 Canadians also joined a Facebook protest called Canadians Against the Prorogation of Parliament.
It was the second time the prime minister had summarily locked the doors to the people’s house ~ the House of Commons. It was clear to most commentators, including columnists and editorial writers normally sympathetic to the Harper government, that the reasons for the shutdown were purely partisan: it ended the opposition’s persistent and effective questioning about the government’s complicity in the torture of Afghan “detainees” in the first years of the Afghan war.
Prorogation would also allow Harper to appoint five new senators unopposed, and, more importantly, dissolve the current senate committees and form new ones with Conservative majorities.
This cynical move by Harper was preceded by two other less dramatic assaults on democracy: the government’s refusal to obey a parliamentary resolution demanding documents related to the Afghan investigation, and the decision by the Conservative members of the parliamentary committee investigating the issue to boycott the hearings, thus bringing the process to a halt.
Pundits had widely predicted, even in the face of polls hinting at growing opposition, that Canadians didn’t care about something as arcane as “prorogation.” They were practical people, concerned about bread-and-butter issues ~ jobs, the cost of living, and their mortgages. But something happened with this latest expression of disdain for democracy. It was the last straw.
If it is true that Canadians are slow to anger then the outpouring of rage at Harper’s move demonstrated that they finally had enough. It turns out that Canadians actually care a great deal about democracy and as arcane as the word is, they had no trouble figuring out that “prorogue” means to shut down, to suspend, and in this case it meant the government trying to escape the consequences of its actions.Just days after the demonstrations, a report by the Institute of Wellbeing ~ the “Democratic Engagement Report” ~ revealed what the authors called “a huge democratic deficit.” The report reinforced the spontaneous outpouring of anger at the shutting down of Parliament.
“At a time when people are demanding greater accountability and transparency, they see their government institutions becoming more remote and opaque. Too many Canadians feel that their voices are not being heard; that their efforts to influence government policy are ignored…”The list of Stephen Harper’s assaults on democracy is long and unprecedented, not only in Canada, but very likely in all of the English-speaking parliamentary democracies in the world. But how to explain such an attitude on the part of a politician who, after all, was elected democratically to run his country?
His contempt for what Canada had become led directly to his contempt for democracy (this is, after all, what produced the things he hates) and his willingness to subvert democracy any time it frustrates his long-term goal:
TO DISMANTLE THE CANADA THAT
THREE GENERATIONS OF CANADIANS HAVE BUILT.
This is his ultimate goal ~
not to govern,
not be the leader of a political party,
not even to be the prime minister.
These are simply the necessary steps
on the way to achieving the power necessary
to undo what past governments have accomplished.
He is the only prime minister in Canadian history
to openly detest his own country:
its efforts at egalitarianism,
its social programs,
its wealth redistribution,
its peacekeeping history internationally,
and its attempts at promoting and preserving its unique culture.
Harper has made this clear on numerous occasions and by the career choices he has made outside politics. He once quit federal politics in frustration to head up the National Citizens Coalition, the most right wing lobby group in the country (motto: “More freedom through less government”), which was formed in the late 1960s to fight Medicare.
On December 8, 2000, when he was president of the NCC, Harper told The National Post:
“Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” This sneering contempt for the very things that Canadians hold dear is the flip side of his attraction to positions from the far right of American politics.
In a speech to a right wing American think-tank, The Council for National Policy, in June 1997, Harper ridiculed all Canadians:
“I was asked to speak about Canadian politics... it’s legendary that if you’re like all Americans, you know almost nothing except about your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians.” The whole speech was full of such insults and sarcasm about his own country, its political system and other political parties.
Indeed, the prime minister doesn’t seem
to accept that there is
a separate, distinct Canadian nation.
Harper was asked in a 1997 CBC interview, “Is there a Canadian culture?”
He replied: “Yes, in a very loose sense. It consists of regional cultures within Canada ~ regional cultures that cross borders with the U.S. We’re part of a worldwide Anglo-American culture. And there is a continental culture.”
Harper simply cannot accept
or acknowledge the things
that make Canada unique
~ and different ~
from the United States.
Canadian social democracy,
Harper the master strategist is constantly
calculating every step toward that objective ~
how to maintain power long enough
to accomplish his goal,
how quickly he can move to implement it,
how much Canadians will tolerate in terms
of policies that contradict their values,
how he can change the political culture
through social engineering,
what the opposition parties will do,
and how to keep hidden,
from the media and the people,
his actual agenda of radical change.
If the end justifies the means, then accepting the fact that you have a minority government and all this normally entails is simply accepting a barrier to your ultimate objective. If you recognize, as Harper must, that your goals fly in the face of what the majority of Canadians want, then you must circumvent that majority in any way you can.
Why? Because Harper knows that
the majority of Canadians
will never support his goal
of turning back the clock
and creating in Canada
a completely unfettered free-market society.
By definition, to achieve such a goal it is necessary to do so by stealth, by undemocratic means ~ or give up on the goal altogether.
This study is intended to examine the most serious violations of democracy committed by the prime minister and his government. Some are clearly more serious than others. But taken as a whole they add up to a dangerous undermining of our democratic traditions, institutions and precedents ~ and politics.
THESE VIOLATIONS ARE NOT ACCIDENTAL, THEY ARE NOT INCIDENTAL, and they are not oversights or simply the sign of an impatient government or “decisive” leadership. They are a fundamental part of Harper’s iron-fisted determination to remake Canada, whether Canadians like it or not.
Harper surrounded by the Chabad Lubavitch who love photo ops with every politician on Earth. This does not bode well for the common folk at all.
SOCIAL ENGINEERING FROM THE RIGHT
One of the most popular concepts on the political right over the years has been the notion of “social engineering.” The phrase is intended to describe a process by which liberals and the left “engineer” society ~ that is, set out to remake it ~ by implementing government programs, intervening in the economy, and redistributing wealth so that there is a measure of economic equality (in a system defined by inequality). The implication is that these changes were undemocratic ~ imposed by politicians, intellectuals and bureaucrats.
Yet right wing social engineering is exactly what Stephen Harper intends to do, and has already done in many ways. We are now a far more militarized culture than when he came to office four years ago ~ with an aggressive “war-fighting” military.
OUR FOREIGN POLICY IS NOW IN LOCK-STEP WITH THE U.S.
This has never been debated in Parliament nor has the Conservative Party actually run on such policies. In spite of the fact of widespread support for new social programs such as universal child care and Pharmacare, these programs are ruled out by the Harper government. While his minority government status has so far prevented an assault on Medicare and the Canada Health Act, Harper is on record as supporting increased privatization and two-tier Medicare.
This is true social engineering if by that term we mean the illegitimate remaking of Canadian society and governance. When all the social programs and activist government programs that the prime minister objects to were implemented there was widespread public support for them. Governments were responding to social movements demanding these things: unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized university education, Family Allowances, public pensions, old age security.
These programs were not imposed by a cabal of liberal and socialist intellectuals and bureaucrats ~ they were rooted in the expressed values of Canadians.
Harper’s determination to remake Canada in the image of unregulated capitalism is illegitimate because it aims at dismantling what decades of democratic engagement has created. It is even more outrageous given the fact this fundamental shift is being undertaken by a government that received support from less 23 per cent of the eligible voters in Canada.
Canadians have not changed their minds about these programs and values ~ if anything, support has been reinforced by the perceived threats to these gains. These things are the fruits of democracy ~ its ultimate litmus test. Harper’s plan to rid the country of this legitimate evolution of social and economic change is true social engineering, and profoundly anti-democratic.
While the prime minister has a minority government he cannot fundamentally change the country’s direction through legislation as the opposition can vote him down. But the quirks of minority governments allow him to control spending regarding any program and he does not have to raise the question in the House of Commons at all. That means that he can keep legislation on the books establishing various institutions but in effect make them disappear by canceling their budgets, as he did with Law Commission of Canada (LCC).
Eliminating the LCC was an important policy decision that arguably should have been the subject of debate in the House ~ eliminating it by canceling its budget was legal, but not democratic.
There are numerous examples of Harper using his control of the purse strings of government, engaging in right wing social engineering. One of the most prominent examples is his attack on culture ~ a favourite target of right wing regimes. The Bush administration also attacked culture in the U.S. because writers, filmmakers, playwrights and artists are often the most effective social critics.
In Canada, governments have always played a major role in funding the arts. But in the run-up to the November 2008 federal election, Harper announced $40 million in cuts to Canadian arts programs. In the short term, it backfired, costing Harper many seats in Quebec which takes culture more seriously than anywhere else in Canada. But the cuts were not reversed and the country will change as a result. While $40 million does not sound like much it sustained thousands of cultural workers, and funded thousands of artistic creations reflecting the country.
ANOTHER TARGET OF HARPER’S ENGINEERING IS PURE SCIENCE. The January 28, 2009 budget implemented huge cuts to three of the most important and prestigious grant-making agencies in the country;
~ the Canadian Institutes of Health Research,
~ the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and
~ the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
A large percentage of scientists and academics working in Canada rely these agencies to fund their research. The budgets were reduced collectively by $113 million over the following three years. Genome Canada was expecting approximately $120 million to kick-start new international research projects (some led by Canadian researchers).
Instead there was no mention of the project ~ and no money. The government also implemented $35 million in cuts to the National Research Council, one of the oldest such bodies in Canada and one of the most highly respected science agencies in the world.
Why Harper would attack science in this manner (he massively increased spending on physical infrastructure for science institutes and universities) was not revealed. In the U.S., the Obama administration is putting billions into exactly the kind of research the prime minister is cutting ~ citing the need to be internationally competitive.
The fundamentalist political base of the Conservative Party is openly hostile to science and Harper’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, is an evangelical Christian. Asked if he believed in evolution, Goodyear replied: “I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” Months after the cuts, the Genome Project announced it was forced to abandon its participation in an international stem-cell research project – research opposed by evangelicals.
ANOTHER AREA TARGETED BY HARPER FOR RE-ENGINEERING WAS THE WHOLE AREA OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND EQUALITY and, more broadly, the defense and enhancement of human rights (see below for more details). Both these social developments in Canada over the past 40 years have been denounced and resisted by the same Christian fundamentalist community that is the core voter base for the Harper Conservatives, as it was for the party’s predecessor, the Reform Party.
The Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) described its mission this way:
“… to create knowledge and lead public dialogue and discussion on social and economic issues important to the well-being of all Canadians Through more than 700 publications, CPRN’s work touches on many of the major socio-economic challenges facing Canadian society. We analyze important public policy issues in health care, supports to families, learning opportunities, job quality, and sustainable cities and communities.”
It was ranked as the most influential policy institute in Canada. The CPRN also led Canadian research institutes in its in-depth values surveys of Canadians ~ surveys that showed Canadians to be highly supportive of activist government, democracy and social programs. It was recognized as a “champion of citizen engagement.” The Harper government eliminated its funding. On October 29, 2009, it was forced to close its doors.
Combining just these examples it is hard not to conclude that Stephen Harper wants to try to remake Canada at least partially in the image of Christian fundamentalism ~ a country devoid of modern culture, hostile to science, disdainful of human rights and dedicated to reducing the role of government and public engagement in democracy.
NOTE: Harper’s militant pro-life agenda and China. You read that right! Harper has been doing nothing but suck up to his pro-life socially conservative far-right Christian fundamentalists by ignoring China because it has the highest rate of abortions in the world. Meanwhile Harper has been silent on the genocide of Gazans and Afghan detainees.
TREATING HIS MINORITY GOVERNMENT STATUS
AS A MANDATE FOR HIS ENTIRE PROGRAM
Prime ministers in Canada govern at the pleasure of Parliament, not the other way round. Everyone understands intuitively that if you have a minority government you must co-operate with the other parties and compromise, or persuade them to your way of thinking. That’s what minority means. But from the day in 2006 that Stephen Harper achieved his status as prime minister he has treated this underlying principle with contempt.
Once in power, it seems that Harper forgot that only 38 per cent of voters voted for his party and that 62 per cent voted against him and explicitly for the other parties in the House of Commons. For Harper, once he got his hands on state power he was determined to use it even if that meant running roughshod over the rules of Parliament.
The prime minister’s determination to use his power would see him demonstrate contempt for virtually every aspect of Canada’s democratic institutions, traditions and precedents, the majority of Canadians who did not vote for him, the opposition political parties with legitimacy equal to his own, for the various watchdog agencies tasked with making our system of government transparent and accountable, for the media, for his own MPs and cabinet ministers and for institutions of Parliament other than the House of Commons ~ the Senate and House Standing Committees. He treats the checks and balances of Canada’s political system as somehow perverse and unacceptable impediments to his agenda.
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 simply affirms what we know intuitively ~ that those who exercise power over us are not free to do anything 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 implicitly 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 for this reason that many commentators have rightly identified Harper as a radical and not a genuine conservative.
STEPHEN HARPER’S MODEL GOVERNMENT:
ALBERTA’S ONE-PARTY STATE
Harper’s ideological approach to politics and his contempt for parliament are exacerbated by another feature peculiar to this Alberta-based politician. He has always admired the way things are done in Alberta and once wrote a commentary in The National Post proposing that Alberta put up a “firewall” around the province to protect it from the federal government.
Alberta has for decades been effectively a one-party state. While the Conservatives (and Social Credit before them) don’t get all the votes in elections, they get the vast majority of the seats and the meaningful political debates take place within the governing party and the cabinet ~ not between the government and the opposition.
Politicians who want to exercise power join the Conservatives. If there is a precedent for Harper’s pernicious attitude towards democracy, it is found in Alberta, where the government demonstrates some of the characteristics of a monarchy: an entitlement to rule and an arrogant disdain for dissent.
As William Neville, a former Progressive Conservative, pointed out in a Winnipeg Free Press commentary on Harper’s latest prorogation:
“Harper’s office sent a memorandum to all its parliamentary supporters listing all the wonderful things that ministers, Conservative MPs and senators are doing ~ and, by implication, able to do ~ because Parliament is not sitting. Essentially, Harper is suggesting that government gets better the less Parliament does.”
That argument was made explicit by no less an authority than one of Harper’s senior ministers. Jason Kenney, who holds the portfolio for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, commented on January 23, 2010, “As a minister, I often get more done when the House is not in session.”
Alberta’s one-party state government is an aberration in Canada and in most English-speaking parliamentary systems ~ but at least in Alberta, governments achieve a large plurality of votes in elections.
The first prorogation of Parliament,
December 4, 2008
On any given political issue, the majority of Canadians polled generally say they are only slightly aware of the issue and its implications. But it is fair to say that in late 2008 when Stephen Harper first postponed a confidence vote in his government and then asked Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to shut down Parliament in order to avoid the vote entirely, the vast majority of Canadian were paying attention.
It was high drama, as high drama as Canadian politics gets, and it was all rooted in Harper’s personality and his ruthless approach to politics. Every few months, it seems, the prime minister loses control of the message and does something that reminds people of who he really is.
That happened when he announced that as part of his 2009 budget he was going to repeal the legislation that provided government funding for political parties running in the federal arena. The funding was put in place as part of Jean Chrétien ’s radical reform of elections spending laws that banned both corporations and unions from contributing to federal political parties.
In exchange for this lost funding, which was seen as giving interest groups too much power over elections and democracy, the government would provide $1.75 (indexed to inflation) annually for each vote that a party received in the previous election.
Harper calculated that the Conservatives with their huge party membership did not need the money. More to the point, both the Liberals and the NDP depended on it ~ the Liberals in particular were deep in debt. It was a ruthless and transparent manoeuvre designed to crush the opposition before the next election was even called. And it was extremely cynical ~ he had never criticized the program publicly and nowhere in the party’s policies was it even mentioned.
Harper, though he had spent years railing against limits on corporate spending, had actually toughened up the spending law passed by the Chrétien Liberals.
Harper’s strategic genius let him down this time. He assumed that the move to cancel government funding of elections ~ contained in his new budget ~ would be passed by the opposition because none of the parties would dare precipitate another election (just three months after the last one) by voting against the budget ~ the only way to defeat the measure.
He apparently never imagined that the opposition parties would respond the way they did with a plan of their own to bring down his government on a motion of non-confidence.
There didn’t have to be an election ~ there could be a new government made up a different configuration of MPs in the existing House of Commons. The three leaders held a news conference to announce their plan to replace the Harper government with a Liberal/NDP coalition, which would be supported on a limited number of issues by the Bloc Québecois. For once, it seemed, the opposition could act with even greater boldness than the prime minister. But it wasn’t enough.
When Harper’s strategizing fails him, his ruthlessness and boldness are called upon to rescue him. First, Harper postponed the confidence vote. Then he did what no other prime minister in Canadian history (and possible British parliamentary history) has ever done: he went to the governor-general and asked her to prorogue Parliament simply to avoid a confidence vote. There was no other explanation offered. In what will go down in the history books as one of the most controversial, and ill-considered decisions by a Governor General, Michaëlle Jean complied. Parliament would be shut down for three months. Harper had saved his government.
NOTE: According to Harper, Parliament had to be dissolved because it had become “dysfunctional.” When translated from Harperspeak, that means “insubordinate.” How dare Members of Parliament challenge his government’s policy! How dare they demand the government be accountable!
With Stéphane Dion as Liberal Party leader there is no doubt the coalition government would have presented itself to the same Governor General and she would have been bound by parliamentary rules and convention to accept it. But once Parliament was shut down, the coalition began to falter.
Opinion polls were opposed to it by a wide margin ~ but mostly, it was revealed later, because Canadians did not want Dion, who had just been decisively rejected by them in an election, to get the PM’s office by other means. Michael Ignatieff, the leader-apparent of the Liberals after Dion stepped down, was cool to the idea of a coalition and firmly rejected it after being appointed leader in January 2009.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what Harper did and why. His minister of democratic reform, Steven Fletcher, made it official when he declared that prorogation “is a valuable parliamentary convention and it prevented the catastrophic coalition of the Bloc, the Liberals, and the NDP.”
But one question remains and it is as important as Harper’s decision to ask for prorogation: was Michaëlle Jean following constitutional law by agreeing to Harper’s request? If she was, then the prime minister seems alone in his responsibility for cynically thwarting democracy and setting a precedent (which he, of course, was the first to take advantage of a year later).
But if she was wrong, then the precedent is conceivably even more damaging because it has her seal of approval, when it shouldn’t have, and actually sets a constitutional precedent, not just a political one. In other words, if it can be shown that she should have refused, then the fact that she did not represents new constitutional law: proroguing to avoid a parliamentary vote of confidence is now acceptable. Harper’s damage to democracy would then be much greater than even acknowledged.
Some pundits and commentators, many defenders of the PM in general, made the claim that Jean had no choice: she is bound by convention to take the advice of the prime minister and not become engaged in the politics of Parliament. But this view does not stand up to scrutiny. Andrew Heard, associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, argues persuasively that the Governor General should have refused Harper’s request and asked the coalition to form a government.
First, there is the convention that Governor Generals should not intervene in politics, but, in Heard’s words, “...must allow ample room to let the elected politicians try and resolve crises between themselves.” But Heard points out that, given the literally unprecedented manoeuvre by Harper, Jean could not avoid getting involved in politics: “…the Governor General’s decision was actually going to be a substantial intervention in the political process regardless of whether she granted prorogation or not. Indeed her decision to grant Mr. Harper’s request has in fact prevented our elected members of parliament from resolving the issue in a timely fashion.”
There are several constitutional principles to which Jean should have availed herself to defend parliamentary democracy. First, she had access to the fact that using prorogation in this manner is highly questionable constitutionally. Second, says Heard, “Only the elected members of the House can determine who has the right to govern in a minority situation.” By asking the Governor General to shut down Parliament, Harper was asking Jean to determine who had the right to govern ~ subverting the role of the House of Commons. She could have refused.
It is the Governor General’s explicit role to “...protect the state from serious abuses of power by the government for which there is no judicial remedy.” That is almost an exact definition of what Harper’s request meant ~ it was a virtually historic, unprecedented abuse of power and Jean should have “protected the state” from the abuse by saying no.
Heard further points out that the Governor General is bound to act on any constitutional advice “...offered by a prime minister who enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons [my italics].” But that is just the point: Harper clearly did not have the confidence of the House. Not only was the request arguably unconstitutional, “The prime minister’s authority was also greatly undermined by the existence of a signed agreement for an alternative government supported by the majority of MPs…”
Heard further argued that “The Governor General can only refuse advice if she can appoint an alternative government. Opposition leaders had written to the governor-general several days ahead of her meeting with the prime minister. She was clearly informed that the majority of MPs intended to vote no confidence in the current government and of their commitment to support an alternative government for a minimum of 18 months.” She was well within her constitutional powers and convention to reject Harper’s request and invite the coalition to form a government.
With this precedent, any prime minister in the future can demand prorogation whenever he or she thinks they may lose a vote of confidence ~ and they can prorogue for periods much longer than a couple of months. Says Heard: “This precedent is a damaging and dangerous consequence of the Governor General’s decision. If this precedent stands, no future House of Commons can dare stand up to a prime minister without danger of being suspended until the prime minister believes the House has been tamed.”
- The second prorogation of Parliament,
December 30, 2009
It did not take long for the prime minister to take advantage of the precedent set, at his behest, by the Governor General. Just over a year later, after facing weeks of mostly bad press over the Afghan detainee torture issue and relentless questioning by opposition members of the International Affairs committee, Harper casually shut down Parliament once again.
The government was losing control of the situation, something Harper is unaccustomed to. The government’s strategy of attacking the character of an extremely credible witness with impeccable credentials had backfired ~ two-thirds of Canadian polled believed diplomat Richard Colvin and not Foreign Minister Peter McKay or other government spokesmen. And more than 100 former diplomats, many of them ambassadors, signed a letter criticizing the government for its vicious attacks on a public employee who was just doing his job.
The opposition knew it was closing in on possibly explosive information as the government refused to hand over uncensored documents directly related to Colvin’s testimony ~ documents that had been released earlier but with huge swaths blacked out.
Harper must have known that refusing to comply, as he did, would quickly lead to charges of contempt of Parliament over which he would have little or no control. In addition, the committee would have begun calling Conservative cabinet ministers to testify, something Harper was not willing to risk: they could not refuse to testify and could conceivably have been forced to testify under oath.
For a man accustomed to controlling everything, it was a situation he could not strategize out of. So, in the middle of the Christmas-New Year’s break, on December 30, 2009, he again asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to shut down Parliament. This time he didn’t even bother with the niceties of parliamentary protocol by formally making the request in person ~ he asked for prorogation by phone, a transgression that C.E.S. Franks, a professor at Queen’s University, called “an affront to the dignity of the office of Governor General.” Nevertheless, Jean again gave Harper what he wanted.
There was an additional bonus to the second prorogation for the prime minister, it facilitated Harper’s campaign to take control of the Senate. In 2009, he appointed more senators in one year than any prime minister in Canadian history. And in January 2010, he appointed five more, giving him a plurality in the Senate.
By proroguing Parliament, Harper also dissolved the existing Senate Standing Committees, formed when the Liberals were in charge. He could now start afresh ~ establishing new committees, with Conservatives in the majority and, given the heated partisan atmosphere surrounding their appointments, ready to rubber stamp anything Harper sends their way.
By now, most Canadians are familiar with the details of the shutdown, and the extremely weak excuse Harper gave for shutting the doors of Parliament. Claiming that he needed time to “recalibrate” his government’s policy dealing with the ongoing problems in the economy, Harper said little about the 36 pieces of legislation that died with prorogation.
It seemed to put the lie to his repeated accusations against the opposition that they were frustrating and delaying the government’s legislative agenda. The 36 bills, all of which would have to be restarted from scratch, including bills considered priorities for Harper that dealt with getting “tough on crime,” represented half of all the work carried out by Parliament since the 2008 election.
According to Scott A. Ross, a Liberal blogger whose musings appear in The National Post newspaper, the cost of proroguing Parliament this time (assuming that only five of the 36 bills being considered would actually have become law), including paying MPs and senators for accomplishing nothing and the cost of producing the bills that won’t become law, was $130,407,733.
It is rare that anything like a consensus develops on political issues in Canada, especially amongst the pundits, editorialists and academics routinely commenting on events. But the second prorogation by Harper set alarm bells ringing cross the country, and drew out scores of concerned members of the usually quiescent elite in Canada.It was clear to virtually every commentator that Harper had calculated his move to avoid tough questioning from the International Affairs committee on the government’s complicity in torture in Afghanistan.
By shutting down Parliament, prorogation also shuts down the Senate, and all the committees of both houses. All the committees must be reconstituted after Parliament resumes sitting, meaning that the prime minister could delay appointing a chair to the offending committee for a long time. The “recalibration” was treated as a joke. Harper was so contemptuous of parliamentary rules he could not even bother to develop a believable cover story.
More than 175 professors of political science signed a letter denouncing the prorogation. Written by Daniel Weinstock, who holds a Canada research chair in ethics and political philosophy at the University of Montreal, the letter said, in part:
“Given the short-term, tactical, and partisan purposes served by prorogation, and given the absence of any plausible public purpose served by it, we conclude that the prime minister has violated the trust of Parliament and of the Canadian people.
“We emphasize, moreover, that the violation of this trust strikes at the heart of our system of government, which relies upon the use of discretionary powers for the public good rather than merely for partisan purposes. How do we make sure it serves the public good? By requiring our governments to face Parliament and justify their actions, in the face of vigorous questioning.” The letter appeared in many daily papers across the country.
The shamelessness of the move even attracted attention in other countries, a rare event for politics in Canada, with the arch-conservative business magazine, The Economist, publishing a scathing editorial entitled “Harper goes prorogue” attacking the prime minister: “Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr. Harper’s move looks like naked self interest,” said the editorial.
It ridiculed the “recalibration” argument, saying Harper’s government “cannot apparently cope with Parliament’s deliberations while dealing with the country’s economic troubles and the challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic Games.” The magazine had endorsed Harper in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Even 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.”
One of the benefits of Harper’s four-year reign, for those supporting his conservative policies, was that Canadians were becoming less and less engaged, and more and more disillusioned with federal politics. But the second shutdown of Parliament threatened to change all that.
What started out as a simple Facebook page expressing outrage, turned virtually overnight into Canadians Against the Prorogation of Parliament ~ an Internet protest that eventually garnered over 220,000 names. It also spawned an on-the-ground movement which, in the space of two weeks, organized demonstrations in 61 communities on January 23, 2010, the Saturday before Parliament had been originally scheduled to resume. Some 25,000 people braved winter weather to denounce the government and demand democracy. The movement is not going away.
The arrogant sneering Harper we have come to know and despise, a few months before the Vancouver Olympics.
In contempt of Parliament: Refusing to hand over documents on Afghan torture
Just before Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for the second time, on December 30, 2009, he had already demonstrated his contempt for Parliament by ignoring a direct majority vote in the House of Commons demanding that the government produce uncensored documents relevant to the allegations made by diplomat Richard Colvin.
Colvin’s testimony about the government’s complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees prompted a storm of protest and subsequent stonewalling from the government. In January this year, University of Ottawa constitutional law professor Errol Mendes told an informal hearing of the parliamentary committee looking into the Afghanistan detainee issue that
“The executive is really placing itself above Parliament. For the first time that I know in Canadian history, the executive is saying we are superior to Parliament. This is… an open defiance of Parliament. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Mendes left little doubt about how serious this defiance of Parliament was:
“The refusal to release the uncensored documents is a violation of the Canadian Constitution. This is the equivalent to a defiance of a judicial subpoena. The Harper government, if it does not respect its constitutional obligations, will be in contempt of Parliament.”
Conservative officials, up to and including the prime minster could be called before the Bar of the House where the House would determine what punishment to impose ~ punishments which include possible expulsion from the House.
Senior Minister Stockwell Day
responded for the government,
telling the opposition
if it wanted the documents
it should go to court.
Thwarting democracy: The guide to subverting parliamentary committees
While many Canadians may not be aware of the work of parliamentary committees most days, these deliberative bodies are actually a key feature of parliamentary democracy ~ and get more actual substantive work done than often occurs in the House of Commons. While the latter is increasingly taken up with partisan bickering and point scoring, the work of the committees is to examine legislation in detail, debate possible amendments and, perhaps most importantly, call witnesses (subpoena them if necessary) to give testimony relevant to the issue at hand.
The committees (both the House and the Senate have them), reflecting all the legislative areas the government is engaged in, provide the only effective public access to law-making in Parliament. In that sense they are amongst the most democratic features of Parliament. Committees can call witnesses and witnesses can ask to be heard. While committee deliberations are only rarely reported in the media, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s high-profile investigation into the Afghan detainee issue demonstrates the kind of power and influence they have if they wish to use it.
In the latter case it also demonstrates that a committee can be used to check the power of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The PMO did everything it could to thwart the Military Police Complaints Commission in its investigation of the detainee issue, including intimidating witnesses, such as diplomat Richard Colvin, and preventing them from publicly testifying at the commission’s hearings. By opening up the issue and calling on Colvin to testify, the opposition circumvented the power of the PMO and revealed information critical to the public’s understanding of an important issue.
The committees’ membership reflects the parties’ strength in the House of Commons (or Senate) so the Conservatives have a minority on all committees. The prime minister’s principal power rests in the fact that he can choose the committee chairs (which he does, reneging on a promise to allow them to be chosen by the committees).
One of the most persistent complaints that Stephen Harper levels at the opposition is the committees’ alleged “delays” and “disruption” of his government’s legislative agenda. Yet as is the case so often, it betrays Harper’s lack of appreciation of the fact that he heads a minority government. In most such situations, governments wanting to keep the confidence of the House engage in some level of compromise. But Harper’s contempt for the opposition parties and of democracy itself leads him to brand their legitimate review of legislation as interference.
In the spring of 2007 he moved to fix the problem.
On May 17, 2007, Don Martin, a prominent small “c” conservative columnist with The Calgary Herald, received a secret document that demonstrated Harper’s solution to opposition intransigence ~ Sabotage! It was a 200-page guidebook provided to Conservative committee chairs only, which, according to Martin: “…tells them how to favour government agendas, select party-friendly witnesses, coach favourable testimony, set in motion debate-obstructing delays and, if necessary, storm out of meetings to grind parliamentary business to a halt.”
NOTE: Harper wanted his ducks in a row before the collapsing U.S. banking system and other economic factors started to have an effect up here, to say nothing of the effects of Canada’s self-defeating military policy.
The book was handed out to the Conservative chairs a couple of days before at a meeting with government whip Jay Hill – a meeting where, according to Martin’s sources, Hill “…lavished praise on the chairs who caused disruptions and admonished those who prefer to lead through consensus.”
Besides its inherently anti-democratic thrust, the guidebook also revealed yet more evidence of the degree of control that Harper exerts over the government ~ whether MPs, cabinet ministers or committee chairs.
Among the suggested tactics in the book, according to Martin:
• Procedural notes tell the chairs to always recognize a Conservative member just before a motion is put to a vote “and let them speak as long as they wish” ~ a manouevre used to kick-start a filibuster as a stall tactic.
• The guide says a “disruptive” committee should be adjourned by the chair on short notice. “Such authority is solely in the discretion of the chair. No debate, no appeal possible.” By failing to appoint the vice-chair to run the meeting, the adjournment will last until the chair is ready to reconvene the committee.
• That the Conservative Party helps pick committee witnesses. The committee chair “should ensure that witnesses suggested by the Conservative Party of Canada are favourable to the government and ministry,” the document warns.
One high-profile example of the tactics being used was the decision last December of the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee examining the detainee issue, to walk out, along with all his Conservative colleagues, thus making it impossible, under House rules, for the committee to continue its work.
The “in-and-out” elections spending scandal
Following the 2006 federal election, revelations about possible rule breaking by the Conservatives led to a developing scandal called the “in-and-out” affair. The scheme involved a sleight of hand through which the national party was able to increases the amount of money it was reimbursed under the Elections Canada spending rules.
Candidates winning a certain percentage of the vote are entitled to a 60 per cent refund of the money they spend. But many ridings cannot spend up to their limit ~ especially those in marginal ridings where Conservatives had no chance of winning.
The Conservative Party had reached their national advertising limit of $18.3 million, so it transferred $1.3 million dollars to 67 riding campaigns that had not hit their own $80,000 limit. The party then had the ridings immediately return the money to the party, claiming that it was being used to purchase advertising and creating receipts on photocopied letterhead of the ad company, Retail Media, used by the national headquarters.
Retail Media’s CEO told investigators that “the invoice must have been altered or created by someone, because it did not conform to the appearance of invoices sent by Retail Media to the Conservative Party of Canada with respect to the media buy.” The ads were arranged for by party headquarters and were identical to its national ads except for small print identifying the local candidate.
A stake through the heart?
A silver bullet?
The scheme was discovered by accident when an investigator from Elections Canada became suspicious after a naïve official agent for a candidate revealed the transfer arrangement. Several other examples were discovered. In 2007 Elections Canada refused to reimburse candidates $1.1 million for television and radio ads. The Conservatives almost immediately launched a lawsuit against Elections Canada.
Commissioner of Elections William Corbett has been conducting a separate investigation into the matter for more than two years. In April 2008, his investigators raided the Conservative Party’s headquarters in Ottawa and seized boxes of documents and computer files E.C. investigator Ronald Lamothe’s affidavit noted:
“..a deliberate ‘in-and-out’ scheme conceived to move money from national coffers into and out of the accounts of local campaigns, which have their own spending limits, in order to skirt the national spending limit...
Funds were transferred into and out of each of the bank accounts of the 67 campaigns ... entirely under the control of and at the direction of officials of the Conservative Fund of Canada and/or the Conservative Party of Canada...
The purpose of the in-and-out transfers was to provide participating candidates with documentation to support their reimbursement claims for these election expenses.”
After the raid, the opposition parties began grilling Stephen Harper in the Commons about the in-and-out scheme ~ upon which he dared them to make the accusations outside the House. They also raised the issue at the Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The partisan acrimony resulting from the investigation resulted in chaos at the committee ~ the chair, Gary Goodyear, was removed by a vote of non-confidence for filibustering, and Jay Hill, the Conservative whip, ultimately refused to appoint another chair unless the opposition parties ceased discussing the issue.
The partisan fighting ended only when Harper called another election at the end of August ~ in the process violating his own fixed elections dates legislation.
On January 18, 2010, Federal Court Justice Luc Martineau in Ottawa set aside the chief electoral officer’s decision not to approve $1.1 million in Conservative Party expenses challenged by Elections Canada after the 2006 federal election. No decision to appeal has been announced at the time of this writing.
The court decision does not affect Commissioner of Elections William Corbett’s investigation, which could result in a referral to the director of public prosecutions for possible charges.
Ignoring resolutions passed in Parliament by majority votes
There have been several motions passed in the House of Commons as non-binding resolutions. While they cannot force the government to act, these resolutions actually reflect the will of Parliament as they can only pass if a majority votes for them. The Harper government has ignored all such resolutions.
One, a resolution calling on Canada to allow war resisters to be allowed to stay in Canada permanently as conscientious objectors, was actually passed twice ~ once in June 2008 and again in September 2009.
The Canada Border Services Agency has continued to routinely enforce deportation orders of U.S. war resisters. Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Yaver Hameed believes that
“the contradiction between the non-binding parliamentary motion that allows war resisters to stay in Canada versus the Canada Border Services effecting deportation orders to war resisters reveals a lack of commitment to our basic democratic values.”
Since the resolution was passed, several war resisters have been sent back to the U.S. and subsequently to prison. Sixty-three per cent of Canadians polled support giving sanctuary to war resisters.
In June 2007, an NDP sponsored resolution, first debated and passed by the Standing Committee on International Trade, was debated for three hours in the House of Commons. The motion called for a formal letter of agreement to be signed with the U.S. and Mexico to ensure that bulk water will never be defined as a good or service under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
As NAFTA critics and the majority of the committee pointed out, the federal government or the provinces could face multiple NAFTA lawsuits if governments, under current NAFTA rules, tried to prevent the bulk export of water. The motion passed the House of Commons by a vote of 134 to108, with all Conservatives voting against. The government ignored the resolution despite the opposition of the vast majority of Canadians to such exports.
Undermining and manipulating arms-length commissions and watchdog agencies
The 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, 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.
Some of the principal examples:
The Parliamentary Budget Office
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.”
Page had reported in October 2008 that the war in Afghanistan had cost $18 billion ~ drawing widespread media attention to something Harper would have preferred to keep buried. The prime minister was reportedly furious at the revelation.Then, in November of that year, he released a report predicting (correctly) that the government has headed for a deficit. The cutting of Kevin Page’s budget came as a surprise ~ even Conservative MPs connected to the process, had suggested a budget increase.
Page and his office provide independent analysis on economic trends, and closely examine government estimates and spending. The PBO works directly with the Commons and Senate finance committees as well as the public accounts committee.
“Our budget is cut and I am in an almost impossible situation. ... I cannot carry out my mandate,” Page told The Toronto Star on June 24, 2009.
The RCMP Public Complaints Commission
Given the virtual collapse of accountability and the highly questionable actions of the RCMP over the past few years, if ever there was needed a strong oversight body it is now. That is what the RCMP Complaints Commission is supposed to do and its head, Paul Kennedy, was apparently doing his job too well. While the prime minister could not intervene directly in the commission he could, and did, refuse to renew Kennedy’s four-year mandate. This occurred on Nov. 18, 2009.
Kennedy was very critical of the RCMP’s indiscriminate and often lethal use of tasers and also targeted the practice of police investigating themselves in the case of serious incidents involving the public. (Former Harper political operative and friend, Ken Boessenkool, has been a lobbyist for Taser International.)
This past January, Kennedy told a Liberal Party forum that he “...feared that Canada’s international reputation could be affected by the way independent overseers are being silenced ~ since many nations have long looked to Canada as an example of a country willing to be self-critical.”
Kennedy saw the government’s choice for his replacement as someone who may not be nearly as aggressive in pursuing the mandate of the office. Ian McPhail, appointed for one year as interim chair, is a real estate lawyer with ties to the Conservatives going back to 1970. While Kennedy saw his job as making the RCMP accountable, McPhail says his responsibility is to understand how “an administrative agency should operate.” According to The Globe and Mail, McPhail believes “…the CPC chair does not have to be an expert in criminal law or civilian oversight in general.”
The Military Police Complaints Commission
Of all the independent commissions and agencies that have annoyed Stephen Harper, none seem to have disturbed him as much as the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC). Its principal focus has been on the torture scandal surrounding the handover of Canadian-captured Afghan detainees to the Afghan security forces ~ notorious for their record of torture and abuse of prisoners.
The commission’s determination to get to the bottom of the scandal has resulted in almost unprecedented stonewalling, harassment of potential witnesses and refusal to co-operate on the part of the Harper government.
The conflict between Peter Tinsley, the commission’s chair, and the government came to a head in October 2007, when Tinsley suspended the hearings in the face of three government motions seeking an adjournment. Just weeks before, written testimony by Richard Colvin (the Canadian intelligence officer now famous for testifying at parliamentary hearings into the affair) was sealed at the behest of the government ~ direct interference in its deliberations which made independent review of Colvin’s testimony impossible.
The government tried successfully at that time to prevent Colvin from testifying at all before the commission, and government lawyers threatened to impose national security restrictions on virtually all government witnesses the commission sought to call. The government, by the spring of 2008, had placed severe restrictions on thousands of pages of documents requested by commission counsel.
This refusal to co-operate with the commission continued through 2008 and 2009. Commission counsel Freya Kristjanson told The Globe and Mail in October 2009:
“Since March 2008… when the chair announced that this panel would hold a public interest hearing, the commission has not been provided with a single document by the government.”
Tinsley’s term as chair was not renewed when it ended in late 2009 and to date there has been no replacement named. He is hardly a soft liberal in terms of his background. A lawyer, he was a United Nations war crimes prosecutor in Kosovo, a former director of the Ontario Special Investigations Unit looking into police incidents resulting in death or serious injury, and served in the Canadian Forces for 28 years.
Regarding the government’s behaviour towards him, the commission and the parliamentary hearings into the torture issue, Tinsley told The Hill Times: “
We have now, with the prorogation, moved to a point that one could say Parliament has been dismissed. For one, like myself, who believes that fundamental to our legal structure is the supremacy of Parliament, that’s very disturbing, so I would use the term dictatorial, in a metaphorical fashion.”
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 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.
“... Are we in an era where tribunals must be more interested in meeting the needs of the government than in doing their jobs?”