Stephen Harper's questionable respect for democracy
Oct 27, 2011

Stephen Harper's questionable respect for democracy

When Stephen Harper won a majority government this last May, I wrote that one litmus test for the next four years would be regarding his respect for transparency, parliamentary procedures, and a willingness to engage in the adversarial process that defines our democracy. Whatever criticism I may have had over these issues during his minority governance, I was willing to at least temporarily turn over a new page:
"If Stephen Harper can do that, if he can encourage opposed to stifle the debate, then I will disagree with him on certain policies but respect him as a leader. Should the centralization of power and eroding of democratic processes be extended beyond that granted by a majority and the current status quo, our differences will be far more fundamental."
Six months later, can we say that Stephen Harper has passed this litmus test? Consider the following recent examples:

Supreme Court Appointments

Much of the controversy in the news surrounding the appointments of the new Supreme Court members has been that Andromache Karakatsanis has limited direct court experience and is better known as a public servant with strong partisan connections while Michael Moldaver, despite being very experienced, is unilingual. However, the are some important questions regarding the actual process of selecting these appointments as well.

In Canada, appointments to the Supreme Court are made exclusively by the Prime Minister (technically, recommended by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Governer General) and are not subjected to Parliamentary approval. By custom, however, the Parliament is given some limited oversight and involvement. While in opposition, Harper has rightly critized the limitations on accountability, and has proposed things like having the provinces nominate potential candidates.

Unfortunately, things went in reverse. While there was a perfunctory Parliamentary Committee (three Conservative MPs, one NDP MP and one Liberal MP) whose role was to reduce the government Long List of potential candidates down to a Short List of six, there was little real meaning behind it. The committee was closed doors, and didn't even interview potential candidates for the job. In the past, the committee has included not just parliamentarians but members of the civil service, legal system and public in a larger, and more open, candidate selection process. All of this was removed in favour of a committee that gave the ruse of multipartisanship but ultimately serves to shield any semblance of an adversarial process for nominee selection. Contrast this to the situtation in the United States where Presidential suggestions need to be ratified by the Senate and results in a long, fully public, and engaged vetting process in the Senate where the candidates can be asked essentially any question by any Senator; how refreshing that would be.

Closure on Parliamentary Bills

Despite opposing vociferously to the then Liberal government's use of closure (which rushes through bills without debate or with limited time for debate or the committee process), the Harper government is using them at least at an equal if not faster pace. The elimination of the long gun registry is the latest example to get rushed through in this manner. The government claims this is because it has already been debated but the NDP claims in past sessions this only adds up to a mere 3.5 hours of opposition debate time. Besides, core provisions like the actual deleting of the data have not been debate before and such excuses clearly don't apply to one-of bills like the back-to-work legislation for the Canadian Postal workers strike.

In the past, the use of closure was really rare. Back in 1956 over a pipeline bill its use actually sparked a multiweak revolt in the commons that it would dare to be used. Today, however it is unfortunately common and represents a way of stifling the adversarial process. The use of the filibuster in the US senate is similar in that it was also once rarely used but used quite extensively today and, quite unlike its original purpose of extending the discussion, now is done without even the pretense of continued debate.

Related to the issue of closure and time restrictions is the use of omnibus bills, such as the crime omnibus bill, which lumps together an enormous body of legislation into a single bill and tries to move to and up/down vote as fast as possible. As such, there is limited options to discuss important portions of the bill because it is being considered holistically.

Senate Appointments

The undemocratic nature of Stephen Harper appointing as Senators party loyalists who had just lost elections running for Parliament was covered in more length here. In his first six months, Stephen has largely worked on passing key policy planks from the election campaign that he tried to do under a minority government and now can, things like eliminating the per vote subsidy for parties, implementing his comprehensive crime legislation and eliminating the long gun registry. To his credit, there has not yet been any massive bait and switches with fundamentally different and new policies being pushed through, although I suspect that more in year two after the previous promises have been put in place.

Canadian Wheat Board

Faced with the threat of elimination of its monopoly by the Conservatives, the Canadian Wheat Board held a plebiscite of farmers that use it. A relatively strong plurality (61%) voted to keep the board in place. However, in complete defiance of this democratic result, Harper is pushing forward with plans to open up the board. Say what one will about the economics of it, the democratic result is compelling - especially because it is more supported by small time farmers than big time ones.

Since I havn't written about this topic before, let me make two diversions. I should note that any discussion of this really ought to include an economic analysis beyond the scope of this post so I won't assert an opinion on whether it should be maintained. However, I do think it is worth noting that the word 'monopoly' is typically considered a bad thing because a company can drive up costs to its customers. That said, a monopoly is clearly worth a lot as it would be very desirable for a company and a company would try very hard to attain one within the legal limits. What the Wheat Board effectively does is give a monopoly to the amalgamation of farmers, with all the benefits that go along with that monopoly, when they could never have attained this working independently. Secondly, as a consequence of having the Wheat Board in place for so long, there has not been the slow gradual development of Canadian owned companies, at least in wheat, to do the distribution. We should thus expect that opening it up for competition will see a transition to more American not Canadian companies involved.

Considering these various examples, isn't looking good for Harper to pass my litmus test at the rate he is going.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All the various parliamentary committees meeting behind closed doors doesn't say anything good for his commitment to democracy either. There are good reasons for a committee to sometimes meet in camera. Because the topic of discussion or the Conservatives' decisions would hurt them in the media isn't one of them.

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