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Stephen Harper and the almost unlimited power of a majority government

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What a strange fuss it caused. There was our Prime Minister in France last week, thoughtfully instructing an attentive new socialist president exactly how to run his country, when he decided to underline some well-known views on how he likes Canada to operate. (Stephen Harper loves sharing government info with Canadians when he's not actually in Canada.)

Asked about his environmental critics getting government funding, he replied, more generally: "If it's the case that we're spending on organizations that are doing things contrary to government policy, I think that is an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money and we'll look to eliminate it."

This is an important statement, no doubt about it, but it's hardly a revelation. Its significance is that no other prime minister in the past half-century has dared to articulate the same principle. Since the concept of government funding of civil society first emerged in the 1960s, both Liberal and (Progressive) Conservative governments have swallowed their ambivalence and accepted this remarkable enhancement of Canadian democracy.

It meant back then the emergence of what we call non-governmental organizations -- NGOs -- curious new creatures, often progressive in outlook, that were independent of government, often critical of government, yet dependent on it for much of their funding. But every government since accepted that such enrichment of a pluralist democracy trumped their irritation at being attacked by groups they were funding (with public money, of course).

Until Stephen Harper. Mr. Harper really doesn't appreciate people who disagree with him and he'll be damned if he'll help them spread their unwelcome views. As he said in Europe.

What was new in Europe was that the Prime Minister articulated his position so explicitly. What's not new is that he in fact started changing the rules right after his first minority victory in 2006. If you dissented on the issues Mr. Harper obviously cares most passionately about -- scoffing at global warming, Israel, the mining and energy industries, women who weren't too pushy -- you were chopped liver.

Many will recall such high profile cases as Kairos, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, Match International, Pride Toronto and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, all of which either had their government funding peremptorily ended or, like Rights and Democracy, were destabilized and then terminated. But these were just the ones that made some news.

Concerned Canadians have tried to assess the magnitude of the government's attack on dissenters and Voices-Voix, a coalition of organizations and individuals "united in defence of democracy, free speech and transparency in Canada" has tried to publicize it. In a list compiled before the 2011 election, intrepid researchers Judith Szabo and Pearl Eliadis came up with what they called "Harper's Chopping Block." They organized it into two categories. One consisted of "organizations and watchdogs whose staff have been fired, forced out, publicly maligned or who have resigned in protest." This grouping then comprised a dozen listings, some well-known (the forcing out of Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran, the maligning of foreign affairs whistleblower Richard Colvin), others less so and already sadly forgotten.

The second category, "Community organizations, NGOs and research bodies reported to have been cut or defunded," was much longer, numbering about 75 groups. These too ranged from the well-known and national (Canadian Arab Federation, Canadian Council on Social Development, Climate Action Network) to the community-based (South Asian Women's Centre, Sierra Club of British Columbia, Alternatives of Quebec, Brampton Neighborhood Services, Alberta Network of Immigrant Women, and so many more). I'm certain those who check out the list will be shocked by both the number and quality of those cut off. And that was before the Harper government declared war on the entire environmental movement.

Perhaps not all these almost 90 cases merited public funding. But there's little doubt the government was deliberately crippling many of Canada's best and brightest, including many groups who upheld the country's good reputation abroad that the Harper government was cavalierly undermining. In any event, the groups weren't targeted because of their actual achievements, which were often exemplary.

Something entirely different was going on here. In the words of Amnesty International Canada's Alex Neve, this was part of the government's systematic "campaign against advocacy and dissent," a campaign that has only deepened since last year's majority election. And the message Stephen Harper was sending home from Europe was that there's more to come. Your government is after dissidents, folks.

For those who believe I'm exaggerating, you owe it to yourselves to read Alex Neve's recent brief-but-comprehensive report of the Harper government record to date when it comes to democratic rights and values. It'll shake you to your roots.

There is a fundamental issue of democracy here. There should be no illusions about the almost unlimited power of a majority government in Canada. Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, has nothing like the unilateral power of Stephen Harper. It may have taken a little longer for the Prime Minister to pass his omnibus "budget" than he liked, but pass it will, as will everything else he wants to do. None of the defunded organizations will get their money back. None of the silenced watchdogs will get their voices back. Environmental groups will soon feel the full wrath of this petrol-fixated government.

This is hardly an original conception of majority rule. Pierre Trudeau shared it too. Once he won his majorities, Mr. Trudeau argued, he was free to act as he chose; if people didn't like it, they could vote him out at the next election, Until then, buzz off (or words to that effect). Mr. Trudeau's reputation will forever be scarred by his imposition of the notorious War Measures Act, but even he accepted that Canadian democracy was strengthened by a vibrant, enabled civil society. So did those tough old warriors Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien.

For 2,500 years, political thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill to Lord Acton -- the same Acton who understood that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" -- warned against the danger in a democracy of the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the minority count for nothing. The issue has especial resonance for Canada. Where a formal majority is actually gained with a minority of the vote, as is the norm in this country and as Stephen Harper did in 2011 with 40 per cent, the minority is actually the majority of the citizenry.

You might think the leader of such a government would practice a modicum of modesty in imposing his whims on the country. You might call it practicing democracy.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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