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Tories' Senate gambit shows Harper still runs the party and the party still holds Parliament in contempt

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Stephen Harper

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The Conservative Opposition's threat to use its majority in the unelected Senate to thwart the Trudeau government's plan to repeal two anti-labour laws passed when Stephen Harper was still prime minister is a very telling indication of that party's true commitment to the principles of democracy.

It is also a powerful signal of who remains in control of that party -- viz., Harper himself, not the supposedly kinder, gentler Rona Ambrose or any of her likely successors.

Bills C-377 and C-525, as they are still commonly known, were a couple of vindictive anti-union gestures dressed up as "transparency" and "choice."

"Transparency" in particular was a favourite Harper government stratagem used against many groups who found themselves on the former prime minister's extensive Enemies List, including unions, First Nations, civil society groups and research groups that didn't share his ideological dogma. "Choice," in the context of unions, is code for no choice at all if one wants to choose collective action.

C-377, which is almost certainly unconstitutional for targeting activities explicitly protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, started out as a private member's bill, thereby avoiding the usual parliamentary scrutiny that might have fixed its significant flaws. It moved forward with Harper's support and the advice of his strategic brain trust.

Its goal was to use taxation law to tie unions up in expensive and time-consuming bureaucracy with the aim of sabotaging their effectiveness as representatives of their members and advocates for a different model of society than the harsh market fundamentalism favoured by the Harperites.

As we saw during the Harper decade, tax law was also used by the Conservatives in other ways to harass those who didn't share the government's views, for example, environmental groups and think tanks that didn't have the correct ideological credentials.

Bill C-377 also violated privacy laws in most Canadian provincial jurisdictions by requiring publication on a public website of private information about union employees down to a very junior level.

Harper's first attempt to push the bill through the Senate in 2012 foundered when some of his own party's senators did their job and used the Upper House as it was intended by the Fathers of Confederation, as a chamber of sober second thought.

The Conservatives eventually whipped the Upper House into shape and finally pushed the bill through a few weeks before the election in which Canadians turned them out of office.

Bill C-525 was designed to make it easier for anti-union employers to get away with illegally obstructing union organizing in federally regulated industries such as broadcasting, banking and telecommunications.

It is fair to say Harper personally and his party generally harboured a powerful hatred for unions, and we can argue about whether those views were justified.

We can also argue about whether Bill C-377 in particular was a well-drafted piece of legislation, although the Canadian Bar Association, the federal privacy commissioner and various appalled provincial governments were on record that it was a legislative and constitutional mess.

But it's not possible to argue that the Conservative government that passed it didn't have a majority, and therefore a mandate from Canadians to implement the policies it believed in, at least insofar as they were constitutional. It is equally impossible to argue that the Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elected to replace the Conservatives on Oct. 19, 2015, doesn't have a majority, and therefore the same mandate.

So, obviously, whether the Conservatives want to hear it said aloud, we Canadians can no longer claim to have a working democracy if any piece of legislation can be blocked by unelected Tory senators.

Assuming they are not simply being obstreperous to see what they can get away with, it's interesting that the Conservative Opposition would even consider provoking a constitutional crisis over what, in the great scheme of things, are relatively insignificant laws.

Yes, they have serious implications for the rights of working Canadians and the unions that represent them, but in most regards both laws hardly represent major structural change as would revision of laws about how Canadians elect their government, such as the single-transferable ballot being considered by the Trudeau government.

If they were going to pick a hill to die on, as the saying goes, by using an unelected and widely despised historical relic like the Senate to thwart the will of the people through their elected legislature, wouldn't you have thought the Opposition party would have picked an issue like the way we choose our governments rather than an unconstitutional strategy for harassing unions?

If nothing else, you could argue the former poses an existential threat to the CPC.

If the Conservatives had vowed to use the Senate to block the election process legislation, most Canadians probably wouldn't have approved, but we would be able to understand the arguments under the circumstances of provoking a constitutional crisis over such a significant change.

Using such an extreme measure to block a much less fundamental change shows a deeper level of contempt for democracy in general and Parliament in particular.

In other words, it strongly indicates that nothing has changed since Harper supposedly left the job of leader of the CPC.

This is evident in other ways as well, of course. The Conservative Opposition caucus's bitter style and pervasive heckling in Question Period after promising, as Conservatives habitually do, to set a better tone, is just another example.

The Senate threat, however, reveals not only that the authoritarian Harper remains the de facto leader of the Conservative party -- rather like Vladimir Putin during the years Dmitry Medvedev was officially the president of Russia -- but the absolute depth of the Conservatives' contempt for Parliament, democracy and Canadians.

The leaders of the Conservative Party of Canada clearly remain convinced that they are still the rightful rulers of Canada and that any group or institution that tries to oppose them is illegitimate -- and that includes the Parliament of Canada and the Canadians who elected it.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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