The abuses pile up: the PM hunkers down

Posted on June 7, 2012 in Governance Debates

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Posted on Thu, Jun 7, 2012.   by Lawrence Martin

At some point, the opposition message might get through. To wit: We live in a democratic system, Prime Minister. Would you care to treat it like one?

Not yet though. As evidence of abuses pile up, Stephen Harper hunkers down.

The current cause of high dudgeon is the government’s Trojan Horse omnibus budget bill, the 425-page extravaganza with 753 clauses. You’ve heard of a three-ring circus. This is more like 300, with provisions far afield of the budget, such as the elimination of the oversight body for our intelligence agency, CSIS.

The transgressions of the current government are often compared to Adscam, but the difference is that Adscam resulted from an attempt by the Liberal government to stop Quebec separation from breaking up the country; the current government’s transgressions are all about getting themselves a majority government so they could make this country what they want it to be. It is not a distinction without a difference.


It’s not just the usual suspects on opposition benches who take issue. Opponents of the bill include many on the conservative right, including pundits who criticize the legislation as yet another example of the PM’s contempt for due process. They include a backbench Tory MP who sought to challenge the bill before being taken to the woodshed and having his mind quickly changed by party henchmen.

The NDP wants no less than 200 provisions in the bill deleted and vows to use every means possible to achieve its goal. A separate protest earlier in the week saw hundreds of organizations darken their websites in what was called Black Out, Speak Out day. In addition, Green Party leader Elizabeth May is formally appealing to the Speaker to have the bill withdrawn, arguing that it is illegitimate.

While this is ongoing, the government’s integrity took another hit yesterday when Postmedia revealed that Dean Del Maestro, the MP who the Conservatives sent out as a Mr. Clean to knock down allegations of electoral fraud, is himself under investigation by Elections Canada for election law violations.

The allegations, as contained in a court document from Elections Canada, say there are reasonable grounds to suspect Del Maestro breached his campaign spending limit by more than $17,000. Del Maestro issued a strong denial, saying he knows nothing of the allegations and did nothing wrong.

No one should jump to judgment before more facts are in. But the number of cases in which the Conservatives are accused of electoral fraud or malfeasance of some kind continue to pile up. Elections Canada is looking into complaints from more than 200 ridings.

While this controversy bubbles along with consequences potentially as devastating as the sponsorship scandal was for the Liberal Party, prime minister Stephen Harper shows no indication of changing his ways.

He evidently believes that he can continue to get away with a scornful approach to democratic norms. There is no sense that he will compromise on the omnibus budget bill. His implicit message to opposition lawmakers is clear: ‘Quite frankly, I don’t give a dam.’

We recall that this was essentially the attitude when last year he became the first prime minister to be found in contempt of parliament. It was for refusing lawmakers basic information on the costing of his programs. We recall that this was essentially the attitude when, prior to that, he kept denying parliament documents on the Afghan detainees’ affair only to be embarrassingly overruled by the Speaker and forced to cough them up. We recall that this was essentially the attitude when he twice shut down parliament for crass political purposes, his second prorogation prompting protests across the country over his disrespect for democracy.

Some of us thought the repercussions from any or all of these developments might have prompted him to change his ways. But we were delusional. His view , as he has made clear, is that it’s just process and the people don’t really care about process. In that, beginning with the Magna Carta, people fought hundreds of years for due democratic process, you might say some do care. But, given his electoral success to date, Mr. Harper has evidence to the contrary.

While opposition parties are unlikely to get their way in dismantling the omnibus legislation, they are right to fight hard as opposed to standing back and seeing the integrity of the system overrun in such a way.

What need be noted in all this is not just the methodology the PM is employing to get his way but also the fruits of his anti-democratic labour.

If you analyze what he is doing, what is apparent is that he is gradually stripping away the power of oversight bodies in the system. It has the obvious effect of leaving him and his inner sanctum with all the more power.

As well as the removal of the CSIS oversight body, we’re seeing powers of environmental assessment agencies removed. We’re seeing cutbacks in the numbers of auditors – how convenient is that? – who have traditionally been a thorn in the government’s side.

We’re seeing cuts to the budget of the Access to Information regime and the elimination of databanks such as that of the gun registry. We’re seeing the science community gagged to the point of protest, more cuts to Statistics Canada and the federal cabinet given power to overrule the National Energy Board.

These are just a few of the power sources in Ottawa that are having their authority diminished. The ultimate power source is of course that of the people at the polls. Even that, if there is any truth to the electoral fraud allegations, may have been compromised.

Our system of government gives the prime minister – especially when equipped with a majority government – enormous powers. But apparently they aren’t enough. Not for this prime minister.

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