There are moments of pristine clarity in the life of some governments. Moments when one particular act, though relatively modest in its isolated impacts, becomes the final piece to the puzzle, where a certain image of the government is gelled in the public mind, and becomes nearly impossible to shake.
Usually, the straw to break a government’s back goes far beyond questions of left and right, of this policy over that. On these issues there will always be a constituency to come to the government’s defence, and legitimate debate will continue to both gain and lose the government support. But when the question is one of fundamentals, when it touches to the core of our principles as a democratic society, then a party in power must beware. The backlash will be enduring and unforgiving, and the effect on the party in power will be crippling, often fatal.
For the previous Liberal government, this moment came with the sponsorship scandal. For Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, it might very well prove to be prorogation.
This was about far more than the procedural act itself. Those who argue that past governments routinely invoked prorogation are correct, but miss the point entirely. The image here was of a beleaguered prime minister, who, facing grave and mounting questions on human rights abuses in Afghanistan, chose to bolt the doors to the elected House of Commons (where he holds only a minority of seats), and in the manner of kings past, declare the matter closed. Indeed, if anyone still needed any confirmation of Harper’s motives, they just got it in the Throne Speech and budget, which effectively promised more of the exact same. This, despite the government’s claim that it had to so thoroughly “recalibrate” its agenda that it could not do it while the House was sitting.
But prorogation was above all a symbol. One of an arrogant government which thinks itself above the tedium of public scrutiny, of an autocratic government which bulldozes its way to its objectives, regardless of public opinion or the niceties of democratic consultation. Of a destructive and dangerous government, which pays no thought whatsoever to the health of our institutions and the vibrancy of our democratic life, nor to the principles on which this country was built and nurtured over centuries.
The list of abuses is staggering. The latest, dealing with the ever-escalating imbroglio at the Rights and Democracy agency, saw the Harper government breaking yet again with tradition by completely ignoring the unanimous opposition of all three opposition parties and imposing a former Canadian Alliance candidate as the new head of the Montreal human rights organization. The three senior directors who led the unanimous staff rebellion against the Conservative-appointed board members, criticized for imposing their pro-Israel views on the independent agency, have now been fired. Rights and Democracy now joins a long list of independent agencies stifled and sabotaged for not toeing the government line, from the RCMP complaints commission, to the Nuclear Safety Commission, to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to the Military Police Complaints Commission investigating Canadian complicity in human rights abuses in Afghanistan. Elections Canada, the Senate, the courts, the media and even private citizens have all been targeted for daring to criticize the governing party.
The access to information system is sputtering under intense political interference and left gasping for air. Parliamentary motions and laws passed by majority are routinely ignored, and parliamentary powers mocked. A year ago, the government sought to handicap the opposition parties by starving them of funding, leading to the first prorogation crisis. All the while, political propaganda has taken on new heights, with larger than ever budgets devoted to selling the government’s message (who could miss those “Economic Action Plan” signs posted outside every building?), including an unprecedented propaganda campaign claiming credit for Canada’s Olympic successes and extolling the virtues of Harper, our “strong leader.”
Voters can respect a divergence of opinion on policy. Attack the very ability of the citizens to question or affect these debates in the future however, and a line must be drawn. No democracy can afford to take these gains for granted, and Canada is no exception.
What voters await now is a cogent and credible alternative from Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, one that would seek to permanently strengthen the just authority of Parliament and its arms-length agencies in the face of an ever more autocratic Prime Minister’s Office. The Liberals must doubtless share the blame in degrading Parliament over the years to its lowly position today. As an outsider however, Ignatieff is arguably the most credible leader in this regard in some time. He must now prove to us that he is serious about reform.
Harper’s government is certainly not the first to heighten its powers at the expense of our democratic rights, though it is, without a doubt, the worst. If one positive thing can come of so destructive a record, let it be that it is also the last.