Majority! Who cares?

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/opinion
Published Tuesday Jan. 11, 2011.   Lawrence Martin

Majority! Who needs it?

If that isn’t Stephen Harper’s motto, it should be.

Mr. Harper celebrates his fifth anniversary in office next month – and if there’s a lesson, it’s that majority governments are overrated. Mr. Harper has run his minority as if he won a landslide. He’s overrun the checks and balances in the system to the point where he has the system pretty much under heel.

Examples of his dominance are everywhere you look.

The giant public service bureaucracy that he feared was Liberal dominated has been brought under his wing through a vetting system that effectively gagged the bureaucrats. For the foreign service, it’s been much the same.

He inherited a Liberal-dominated Senate but now has a Conservative majority due to his patronage appointments. He has the media, which he looked on with disdain on taking office, now licking from his soup bowl – so much so that he’s actually beginning to like the media.

Government agencies, tribunals and watchdogs have been put under Mr. Harper’s thumb through dismissals, intimidation tactics and the appointment of lapdogs. And despite his minority, the Prime Minister has been able to impede the access-to-information system – one of the most important tools of democracy – to the extent that studies now rank Canada as an international laggard in freedom of information.

The vulnerability of a minority government has allowed Mr. Harper to impose such discipline over his formerly unruly caucus that the party is now likened to a garrison structure whose members click their heels at his every utterance.

During Mr. Harper’s minority, he has put together a fundraising operation that dwarfs those of his opponents and gives him broad advantage over the Liberals.

The Liberals had a large advantage in ethnic and immigrant communities, but the Conservatives have made significant inroads, a foremost example being the Jewish community. It used to tilt Liberal but is now solidly in the Harper camp. The latter has been accomplished through changes in foreign policy, changes that the minority government has had no problem effecting.

Another important element in the power infrastructure is religious activism. Under the radar during the Harper years has been the rise in influence of the religious right. Although it’s by no means comparable with the religious presence in American politics, Mr. Harper has opened the door to evangelicals, and they constitute an important political advantage for him.

Minorities, by definition, are supposed to provide more clout for Parliament. But Mr. Harper has found ways to assert his authority over Parliament, whether it be by shutting its doors via prorogation, trying to deny it documents, or making the committee system dysfunctional through a variety of heavy-handed tactics.

Viewing the degree of authority, command and control that this Prime Minister has been able to effect with a minority, he should have no regrets over its limitations. To achieve his paramountcy, Mr. Harper has resorted in dozens of instances to overreach and to abuse of power. But democratic standards in this country have declined over the years and – to date, at least – he’s been able to get away with it.

The story of his first five years has been less in policymaking than in taking over control of the infrastructure of power in a way that few prime ministers ever have and in a way that, should he win the next election convincingly, he could be invincible.

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