Harper is bad for our democracy

With a federal election likely occurring soon, now is a good time to reflect on the impact of the five years of Stephen Harper’s leadership. There is no shortage of material for such an inquiry, but right now one thing in particular comes to mind: the negative impact his government has had on our democracy.

There is also no dearth of material here, but the most recent and one of the most egregious (if subtle) is the recent re-branding of the Government of Canada as the “Harper Government.” You might think this doesn’t mean much, but it is actually a very serious matter. We must distinguish between the Government of Canada as an institution and the parliamentary party which currently forms a ministry to direct the actions of government. The institution of the Government of Canada is for all Canadians and should be above and beyond party politics and partisanship.

In defiance of this, the prime minister has branded the institution with himself. Can we expect enormous pictures of his face to soon adorn all public spaces? It is true that the government of the day is often referred to in the press by the name of the current prime minister, and ministers often refer to the government in this way as well. Indeed, Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister’s spokesman, defended this policy on the basis that the Chretien government referred to itself in this way in official releases. But this is not true. In official releases and documents, the government is referred to as the Chretien Government only in quotes from ministers. The official name and branding of the government was always the Government of Canada.

The blurring of the lines between the institution of government and partisan politics is a theme of Harper’s regime. The television commercials touting the government’s Economic Action Plan are thinly-disguised propaganda for Conservative policy. What should be merely informative pieces designed to let Canadians know how they can take advantage of government programs are instead extended advertisements for the wondrous benefits which Harper has bestowed upon us. The Conservative party is thus able to advertise with taxpayers’ money.

These are just the latest in Harper’s affronts to democracy in Canada. For a prime minister who came to power with promises of accountability, democratic renewal and high ethical standards, we have seen exactly the opposite. He is famous for his strict control of ministers and the messages they convey. He has further consolidated the power of government in the Prime Minister’s Office, a trend which, though it began with previous ministries, he has only exacerbated. This tight grip makes ordinary MPs less effective in the Commons and less able to faithfully represent their constituents. Backbench MPs should have a greater degree of autonomy and be able to exercise this, especially in parliamentary committees where backbenchers and opposition MPs have the ability to wield influence and check the government’s power. In the United Kingdom, for example, this is actually the case, but in Canada MPs have been increasingly wedded to the party line — especially if one sits on the government benches.

The Harper ministry is notorious also for its poor response to access to information requests, both delaying the release of requested documents and heavily redacting the ones which are released. Government opposition to the release of documents pertaining to the 2009 Afghan detainee abuse issue amounted to defying parliament’s right to obtain such information as it requires to hold the government accountable. Fortunately, the Speaker of the House ruled in parliament’s favour, but there have been continuing problems in making public the information contained within the documents.

The list goes on. Harper stacked the senate with huge numbers of appointees at a time so he could gain a majority in that chamber, then used that majority to unprecedentedly kill off bills passed by a majority of the House of Commons. He prorogued parliament twice to save his own skin. The first time he did so, during the 2008 parliamentary dispute, there was the affront to democracy and our political system that was the blatant spreading of falsehoods regarding the nature of the opposition coalition’s attempt to form a new government. (Whatever you may think of the prudence of the opposition’s attempt, it was absolutely not “undemocratic,” “unconstitutional,” or a “coup d’etat.”) Consider also his party’s so-called “in-and-out” campaign financing scheme from the 2006 election, recently deemed by a federal court as a breech of election spending rules. All of this is more evidence of an obsession with winning and gaining advantage at all costs, even if it means acting undemocratically and outside the rules. Harper will do whatever it takes to get ahead — neither the truth nor democracy will he let stand in his way.

If we do go to the polls in the coming months, our choice is clear. If we want to stand up for democracy in Canada, the Harper Conservatives must be sent back to the opposition benches.

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