Harper rewrites the rules of democracy

Posted on September 27, 2012 in Governance Debates

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TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
September 25, 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Prime Minister Stephen Harper caught Canadians off-guard in April when he sprang a massive, multi-part budget implementation bill on the nation.

Bill C-38, weighing in at 425 pages, went far beyond enacting the provisions of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s 2012 budget. It changed 70 different laws covering everything from environmental reviews to the role of charities. It authorized spending cuts worth $5 billion without telling the public where the axe would fall. (Treasury Board President Tony Clement was to provide details later — but still hasn’t.) The legislation was rammed through the House of Commons before MPs had finished scrutinizing it.

Harper’s implicit message: I have a parliamentary majority. I’m setting the rules now.

His rules strike at the heart of responsible government. He has decided to tax Canadians without allowing their elected representatives a chance to speak for them.

They violate a fundamental tenet of democracy: the government acts with the consent of the people. Canadians never gave their assent to Harper’s just-trust-me approach. In fact, hundreds signed petitions opposing both Bill C-38 and the use of omnibus legislation (massive, multi-part bills.)

They contravene his own pledge of “open government.” Canadians are still in the dark, five months later, about what the Tories cut. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is doing his best to find out, but his effort to get budgetary documents have been stymied.

Now the government is poised to do it again.

On the opening day of Parliament’s fall session, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan announced the first order of business would be another omnibus bill. He wouldn’t say how big it would be or what it would include. All he would disclose is that it would focus on the economy and give the government more latitude to sign free trade deals, export resources and offer business-enhancing tax credits.

Asked why the government would bring forward a second too-big-to-digest bill when the first was bitterly denounced, Van Loan cheerfully replied that this is the new normal. “Our budget was a comprehensive plan for jobs and growth,” he said. “All the pieces go together. It’s natural that a budget implementation bill would implement the elements of the budget.”

While MPs wait for the next mammoth bill, there is heated speculation — on and beyond Parliament Hill — about its contents and the tactics the Tories will use. So far, most of the talk has focused on Harper’s advice to his caucus to brace for changes in MPs’ generous taxpayer-funded pensions. Will he embed pension reform in his omnibus bill? If so, would it be possible to challenge anything in the huge package, without looking greedy?

But the stakes are bigger than parliamentary gamesmanship. If Harper succeeds a second time, an unprecedented move will become a standard procedure.

No one gave him a mandate to do this. He simply took it, confident Canadians didn’t care enough to put up much resistance.

What can citizens who care do?

The options are limited under a majority government, but there are ways to push back:

• The most radical is a tax strike. But that is a risky form of civil disobedience. And no judge is likely to sympathize with lawbreakers, no matter how heartfelt the motives.

• The most traditional is political activism. But taxation-without-representation isn’t a galvanizing election issue, especially when voters don’t know what services the government actually will cut.

• The most practical alternative is to inundate Conservative MPs with angry email, letters and petitions. If they sense public opinion has turned against them, they’ll let the prime minister know. If they fear they’ll lose their seats, they’ll become advocates for their constituents.

Harper’s next omnibus bill will be a deliberate test of the nation’s will to defend its democratic values.

He is counting on Canadians to shrug indifferently. That would give him a licence to do what he wants.

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