Fear, politics and a Conservative majority

| May 4, 2011

Two years ago, at a conference on families, social policy and work-life balance, I was asked to write an op-ed piece about my research on the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

I agreed, but hesitated when it came time to submit.

The more I read about the tactics used against public servants, about the kinds of organizations funding various Conservative candidates (including at least one with ties to the U.S. National Rifle Association), and about the climate of disdain for political process, the more I began to wonder: what might be the retribution for publicly admonishing the ideas and policies of Prime Minister Harper's government? I was embarrassed to tell my colleagues that I was scared to criticize the Conservatives in a popular forum. I feared that the organized anti-choice movement might confront me, or worse, my kids. I feared that the deep divisions fostered by the Conservatives between rural and urban Canadians about gun control would elicit a response from someone confrontational, and in my imagination, potentially violent. I worried that my reputation would be attacked. I worried that my government would not tolerate dissent.

Monday's election showed that Canada in 2011 is very different than Canada in 2006. Take, for example, the federal leaders' debate. In 2006, the key issues were childcare, same-sex marriage and abortion. In 2011, the only time women were mentioned was in reference to their being killed by guns. While we did not see massive legislative changes in Ottawa over these five years, the institutions of governance are profoundly altered. The way judicial nominees are vetted has been changed because of Conservative mistrust of judges and their interpretations of the Charter of Rights and Freedom's equality provisions. The Court Challenges Program was axed. The organized voice for women in federal government was all but axed, and the word equality has been removed from its mandate. The prime minister has made the most senate appointments in Canadian history, entrenching a Conservative vision of the country. Government agencies such as Statistics Canada have had their methods questioned and changed on ideological grounds. The removal of the long-form census and its questions on unpaid work guarantees that women's work in caring for people is made invisible when services are cut. On questions of democracy (prorogation or contempt of parliament), we continually heard "Canadians don't care about that." Five years of electioneering seem to have made us so cynical that we expect little and are shocked by nothing.

I am more fearful than ever of the path ahead, and for its implications for critical voices. The next four year will bring huge changes. First: the Conservative vision for Canada --"open federalism" -- will remake the Canadian state. "Open federalism" is one way of saying: no national welfare state infrastructure, no national standards for social programs, and provinces/territories should just figure it out. In the U.S., this has worked out roughly as: my state competes with your state for the lowest wages, lowest taxes and "best" workfare or prison labour. It is a race to the bottom for workers, public services and quality of life, and it begins with the kind of decentralization a majority Conservative government will enact.

Second: socially conservative visions of family forms and morality will play a starring role. The Reform-Alliance-Conservative vision of family life does not support gender equality, child care or pay equity. Most families have two earners, and the poorest families are mothers with children; wishing we could go back to June Cleaver's time leaves the most vulnerable at risk for poverty and violence.

Third, recalling the 2006 leaders' debate: women's reproductive freedom will be limited. Seventy-five per cent of the conservative caucus are members of the parliamentary pro-life caucus. They have and will introduce private members bills limiting abortion. They have not yet been able to legislate on the issue here, but they made sure that our international maternal health initiative didn't let a woman in the developing world talk to a doctor about abortion. While the prime minister says the issue is not going to come up, under a majority, women's reproductive rights are not safe.

Kate Bezanson is a small business owner, a mother of two, and a professor of Sociology at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario. She works in the areas of social and labour market policy, comparative and Canadian political economy, feminist and welfare state theory and international development.

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