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Protecting our civil liberties (or securing us within the privacy of our home)

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A month has passed since G8/G20 and the Conservative government is mired in yet another scandal. While substantive questions emerged during the G8/G20 meetings regarding the suspension of protesters (and bystanders) rights, now we find the Conservatives retrenching themselves as Canadian crusaders for civil rights. Defending the public from the proclaimed perils of intrusive government in the form of the mandatory long form census, the Conservatives are appealing to populist sentiments.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response by statisticians, researchers, and commentators, this is a calculated political maneuver, designed to exacerbate cultural rifts between vast sectors of the public and a liberal elite. Stripping data from the hands of government bureaucrats as well as progressive lobby groups restricts the terrain of policy debate to purely ideological grounds. This has enraged those who make handling data and developing rational policy prescriptions their profession, as a voluntary census no matter how large suffers from systemic biases in the data. But it also appeals to the commonsense of average citizen, who, although subjected to the census, remains alienated from modern technologies of governance.

While a month ago, the Conservatives were subject to public scorn due to their outrageous security spending and authoritarian restrictions on civil rights, they have now effectively repositioned themselves as the defenders of the public against governmental intrusions into the lives of citizens. The seemingly contradictory direction of these two positions should give us reason to question the motivation and honesty of any Conservative claims to act as the guardians of civil liberties.

This was after all the government that spent over a billion dollars on the combined G8 and G20 meetings. The $930 million spend on security dwarfs previous summit security spending. According to the figures compiled by Kirton, Guebert, and Tanna at the Monk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, the security costs for both the 2010 G8 and G20 meetings exceeded the security budgets for any previous G8 or G20 meeting.

Splitting the estimated security costs of the G8 and G20 summits in accordance with the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the costs come out to $325.5 million for the G8 and $604.5 million for the G20. This represents $309.4 and $574.6 million US for summit security costs for the meetings in Huntsville and Toronto respectively. For comparison, security spending was only $98.7 million US for the last G20 summit in the States and a relatively minor $28.6 million US for the 2009 G20 meetings in the UK. Italy spent $124 million US for the last G8 summit. Suffice it to say, the level of security spending and securitization accompanying the G8 and G20 meetings in Ontario was unprecedented.

The full extent of the police abuses of human rights at the G20 meetings has yet to be fully detailed, but a clear pattern of human rights abuses has clearly emerged. There were over a thousand arrests, including journalists, substandard conditions at detention facilities, and clear instances of police brutality. Further, extensions of the Public Works Protection Act, poorly publicized before the meetings, worked to boldly extend police powers, at least within the perimeter of the G20 summit security fence. Yet the police shamelessly pronounced and acted upon what appear now to be fictional further extensions of their powers to search and arrest people without warrant beyond the security boundary. The extensive record of these systematic abuses of police power remains to be documented. This documentation, however, has been impeded by the government's failure to call a formal inquiry.

Instead the government shrewdly positioned summit security as a necessary defense against an unruly anarchist threat. Beyond the black bloc (and police agent provocateurs), Crown prosecutors are imputing that protest organizers are themselves culpable, allegedly guilty of conspiring to organize events centred on the destruction of property. Thus, organizing itself is being criminalized. Launching a legal offensive against radical organizers, based on evidence collected through an extensive under-cover operation, the government is positioning itself as the protectors of Canadian values. Central to their campaign is the proclaimed sanctity of property.

While the legal merits of the case appear dubious, through appealing to the commonsense understanding of the need to respect property, the government is effectively positioning activists as beyond the pale of civilized society. The destructive elements of the G20 protests, who sought to make a statement against consumerism, financial institutions, and police authority through smashing windows and burning cars, effectively played into these government designs. Rather than fundamentally challenging the base economic relationships underlying capitalism, or disrupting the governing commonsense, activists are now forced to defend liberal democratic freedoms and focus our energies on court support and fund raising for legal defense.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government has courageously crafted a census crisis in which they can figure as the defenders of civil liberties. This strategic move, however, is not simply disingenuous politicking. Rather it can be seen as emblematic of the ways in which the Conservatives are seeking to further reconstitute the meaning of Canadian citizenship.

The liberties they are defending are personal liberties, the right to privacy, while the liberties they have been undermining are public liberties, the right to participate in political demonstrations. Prime Minister Harper wants us to be free to add an additional bedroom to our house, or spend our evenings watching television (while our wives do the housework), without government interference. We can be individual consumers.

What the prime minister will not bear is the presumption of a right to enter the political arena and contest the value or effects of his political commonsense. This is what underlies government decision to squash protest and entangle organizers in the courts, strip critical NGO's of their funding (the latest being the Canadian Council for International Cooperation), and inhibit information access to progressive policy advocates through undermining the statistical validity of the census data.

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