Right out of the gate in the 2011 federal election, the Harper campaign has managed to frame the terms of debate as the threat of a “coalition.” The media are largely giving the Conservatives a pass on this, allowing them to repeat the “Big Lie” as though it were true. With “coalition” now read pejoratively (21 times in one of Harper’s media cross-nation opportunities on March 28), too many Canadians are ignorant of the fact that coalitions are not illegitimate, unparliamentary, or unconstitutional. Coalitions do, however, require elected members to work collaboratively rather than with the toxic opposition the Conservatives have demonstrated.
Prorogations, however, for the sole purpose of permitting the prime minister and cabinet to avoid facing the House of Commons, are highly problematic. Hold this thought.
The factors taking Canada into this election were not, as the Harper regime argues, opposition parties plotting “coalition” at the expense of a benevolent budget, but rather the Conservatives’ demonstrated contempt of Parliament. All opposition parties found themselves unable to gag down the government’s repeated abuse of our parliamentary and democratic processes, and its utter lack of honesty on key files. Well-respected (and retiring) Speaker Peter Milliken found the Conservatives in contempt of Parliament, a first in Canadian history and indeed, a first in the entire Commonwealth. Supporting the government in these circumstances is akin to a battered spouse going back to the batterer to give him one more chance (to do it again).
Mr. Milliken ruled that the Conservative government failed to provide the House of Commons with the information to which it is entitled, about the spending involved with its defence (pricey single-sourced jets) and law and order (pricey ineffective counter-productive jails) policies. He suggested that the Conservative government chose to give misleading information to Parliament. Parliament is charged with holding the political executive, that is, the prime minister and cabinet, accountable, but Parliament cannot do this without the timely and accurate information to which it is entitled. The Harper regime rendered Parliament unable to do its job for the people of Canada, yet now claims Her Majesty’s Loyal and other opposition parties were the ones who failed.
This contempt of Parliament issue should be the primary issue in the election. It is corrosive of our democratic quotient, but it is consistent with the fierce control and partisanship the prime minister has exerted over his caucus and neutral meritocratic civil servants alike. For example, scientists serving Canadians in federal departments have been gagged; senior agency managers such as Linda Keen, the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, have been fired; whistleblowers such as Richard Colvin have had their reputations trashed; and neutral reliable information that could challenge government spin has been eliminated in the case of the long-form census. We’re witnessing “l’etat, c’est moi” approach to democratic government. And this contempt is consistent with the refusal of the prime minister to face the House of Commons non-confidence motion in Dec. 2008, preferring instead to obtain the governor-general’s dispensation for the prorogation which brought many Canadians into the streets in protest. That contempt was expressed again in the bizarrely heavy-handed “security” enforced against Canadian citizen protests during the G8/G20 summits in Toronto.
This latest expression of contempt of the government for its parliament and its peoples is an indication of poor democratic health, but it is only one of a number of manifestations of that malaise. The widening gap between the very rich and the working and very poor is another measure of democratic and moral failure. The increase in propaganda at the expense of environmental science is another. The demonization of political opponents is a third. The lack of a serious medium and long term national economic strategy, other than obeisance to “the markets,” is a fourth. The lack of policy attention to the social supports we all need, such as childcare, elder care, palliative care, and rational affordable health care is a fifth. Our collective inability to provide appropriate education, from post-secondary education to the trades, is risible. Our national lack of concern for Aboriginal peoples is an international embarrassment. We could go on.
Political institutions and their processes also matter for democracy: Canada’s plurality (first past the post) electoral system is responsible for an astonishing lack of democratic representation, and for the production of unrepresentative governments. It is through this system that the Harper regime hopes to consolidate its hold on Parliament. With a proportional representation system — advocated by scholars and by the illustrious Law Reform Commission of Canada (its funding axed by the Harper regime) — almost all votes, all political flavours, would culminate in the election of a proportional number of representatives. Such Parliaments must work together. The tactics of the Harper regime are inimical to the healthy functioning of our current system, and would be intolerable with a PR system. (Interested readers are referred to the LRC and to Dennis Pilon, The Politics of Voting, Emond Montgomery Press 2007).
The consequence of toxic levels of anti-democratic contempt has left many Canadians questioning the health of public politics. But they must do more than sit back on the sofa and change the channel. That would be contemptible. As we watch brave people in the Arab Spring risk life and well-being to obtain democratic change, we may want to collectively maintain our own democratic practices with rather more vigour.
Joyce Green is a professor and Mike Burton is an MA scholar in the department of political science at the University of Regina.