What's at stake in this election

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First, my own story. Back in '07, when the Harper government was new, I got under its skin with a column that went viral in fisheries circles on both coasts, attacking proposed changes to the Fisheries Act that had most of the industry in a fury.

Shortly after, I got a call from Randy Kamp, parliamentary secretary to the fisheries minister and an MP from B.C., who aggressively demanded that I tell him where I got my information and rang off with "the government of Canada is unhappy with you."

Keep in mind that in many, if not most, countries on the face of this Earth, a phone call like that from a government official to a journalist constitutes a death threat.

I was disturbed, but also baffled. I'd had governments unhappy with me for 40 years and never heard the like, and nothing in the Canadian tradition explained it. So I assumed this was just one out-of-control individual who didn't know his job.

I checked with people I know in Ottawa. They told me emphatically: "That's them. That's them exactly!"

Since then, through a rising crescendo of deceit, manipulation, corruption and assaults on parliamentary democracy, the "that's them exactly!" has become abundantly clear. But let me stick to fisheries as a subject of instruction.

Two years ago, the government was proposing a fishery treaty with the European Union -- one drafted by the EU itself and that opened the door to the EU, the main predator of stocks off Newfoundland, possibly having a say in how fish are managed inside Canada's 200-mile limit. Canada's veterans of international fishery negotiations, going back to the 200-mile-limit and the UN Law of the Sea, raised the alarm, calling it a sellout.

The Senate and Commons fisheries committees both agreed and called for revisions. The government pressed on. Then, on Dec. 10, 2009, the House of Commons rejected the treaty, 147 to 142.

Then -- note this -- the very next day the government signed the treaty anyway.

That such a flagrant violation of parliamentary process should not only happen, but happen unreported by the mass media (except by me in a column for this newspaper) as though it was normal business not worthy of attention makes me wonder how far we are from that notorious category of countries we usually decry as "corrupt and authoritarian."

Scott Parsons, one of those veteran negotiators, speculates that the reason for this treaty is the proposed Canada-EU free trade agreement -- fisheries peddled off for something else. Indeed, this free trade agreement is another thing that shouldn't be going on out of sight, and certainly not by this government.

(In a connected note, the Canadian Health Coalition is alarmed that the EU is demanding, as part of the agreement, an extension of drug patents that would add $3 billion annually to Canada's drug bill. Pharmaceuticals are Europe's main export to Canada. The CHC wants people to pressure the government. Good luck with that. Doubly so if Harper returns with a majority.)

Meanwhile, caught in a barrage of scandals, manipulations and abuses of trust, not to mention being judged in contempt of Parliament, the prime minister's defence is that everybody does it, so it's no big deal.

Thus, there is no more even the pretence of principle, and not even the hollowest political rhetoric promising improvement. By definition, the sovereign can do no wrong, and the subject is taboo. Harper is now, by his own admission, calculating that the decline of the democratic instinct is to his political advantage, and he's encouraging it. If people don't vote out of disgust, good. That increases the voting weight of his zealous base. Governmental ethics may be in a fetid swamp, but who cares? His message is that those who bother to vote can ignore the bad odours with a clear conscience and enter the booth with a happy face over the tentatively improving economic statistics.

In addition to the alarming numbers proclaiming that they will not vote, we have some waverers saying we need majority government at all costs to break the impasse. Are we longing for a one-man show by a guy who can make the trains run on time, and who can also do the little things like reducing fish habitat protection through a manipulative new Fisheries Act on behalf of his industrial friends? The possibilities are endless.

You may have noted that the decent guys in the Harper government aren't running again -- Chuck Strahl, Jay Hill, Jim Prentice, Stockwell Day -- leaving the ship ever more firmly in charge of the hachetmen from the old Mike Harris government in Ontario, running things with their Bush/Cheney handbook. If we vote for this (or worse, not vote at all) we'll get the government we deserve. Are we that pathetic?

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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