Friday, January 1, 2010

Why Stephen Harper is a Clear and Present Danger to Canadian Democracy

By W.T. Stanbury, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia,
January 1, 2010


Stephen Harper is well on his way to becoming a transformative Prime Minister— in a way that is a clear and present danger to Canadian democracy.

By telephone, Harper obtained the approval of the Governor General to prorogue Parliament on December 30,2009 until March 3,2010 (see Globe and Mail, Dec. 30,2009). This move has been called “ a shocking insult to democracy” by former Liberal minister Ralph Goodale; “a political scam” by NDP MP Libby Davies; and “a travesty, but…devilishly clever” by columnist John Ibbitson. A Globe and Mail editorial (Dec.31,2009) called it an “underhanded manoeuvre to avoid being accountable to Parliament” while columnist Andrew Coyne (,Dec.31,2009) said the prorogation was “not illegal” but it was “an abuse of process, an insult to Parliament, [and] another step on Parliament’s long slide into irrelevancy.” Columnist Susan Riley said that the move was “shocking, but hardly surprising…an expression [of the PM’s ] contempt not just for Parliament, but for government” (Ottawa Citizen,Dec.31,2009). On the other hand, a National Post editorial (Dec.31,2009) said the move was “far from being undemocratic” [as the PM was] “seeking to eliminate an artificial log-jam in the Senate” where the Liberals have a majority and have been holding up legislation passed by the Commons.

I argue that this latest prorogation is part and parcel of a distinct and cumulative pattern of behaviour by Prime Minister Harper intended to transform Canadian democracy itself. He has been undermining a number of long- standing customs, conventions and practices that are central in holding the Government accountable to Parliament and ultimately to electors.

The specific actions I outline below have each been the subject of much negative comment. But the big picture has remained obscure. The danger lies in the combination of actions. And all of this has been done since February 2006 during two minority governments.

Transformative Actions

Harper prevented the near certain defeat of his Government when on Dec.4,2008 he persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until January 26,2009 to prevent his succession by a coalition. Harper defended his action by making false claims that the coalition would have been an undemocratic coup.

Facing certain defeat, Harper escaped by persuading the Governor General to suspend Parliament and by convincing a surprising number of civics-challenged citizens that he alone could rule. On balance, Michaëlle Jean was right. By any measure beyond a propaganda triumph, Harper was wrong.(James Travers, Toronto Star,Dec.15,2009).
Brian Topp, an NDP insider, at the end of a detailed description on how the ill-fared coalition came about, drew this conclusion:. “It was .. entirely inappropriate, democratically illegitimate and improper in 2008 for Mr. Harper to direct an appointed official, the Governor-General, to instruct the majority in the House of Commons on when it can sit or what business it can conduct, so that the Prime Minister could avoid a confidence vote. The friends of the Governor-General’s conduct will reply, fairly in the circumstances, that she must do as she is told by the prime minister.
The prime minister holds his office because he commands the support of the House of Commons. Harold Wilson, the former prime minister of Britain, had a great deal of experience in minority Parliaments. In his book The Governance of Britain, he wrote: “The prime minister and his cabinet are accountable to Parliament. They have no fixed term of office, such as that of an American president, who is secure for four years though perhaps legislatively impotent for part of that time. They survive as a government just as long – not a day longer – as they can count of the support of a majority of Parliament, however small that majority may be.” (Globe and Mail,Dec.4,2009).

This view is echoed by virtually every scholar who has written on the subject.

Columnist Frances Russell described Harper’s actions as follows: “Faced with defeat on a non-confidence vote, Harper and some of his ministers not only deliberately rubbed raw every one of Canada's deepest and most divisive linguistic and regional nerves, they threatened the office of the governor general and precipitated a prorogation precedent that turns Canada, in the words of one commentator, into "a banana republic with snowflakes."( Winnipeg Free Press, May 20,2009).

The Harper Government has made unprecedented use of attack ads (spending about $2 million in 2007 and 2008 and another $3 million in 2009) to attempt to destroy two consecutive Leaders of the Liberal Party Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Frances Russell(Winnipeg Free Press, May 20,2009) described the ads attacking Michael Ignatieff as follows: “The French language ads portray Ignatieff as anti-Quebec, claiming he speaks Parisian French because he is contemptuous of Quebec francophones and their accent; he believes, like former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, that Quebec must be kept in check, and he ridicules Quebecers as no more than North Americans who happen to speak French. As Toronto Star/Montreal La Presse columnist and CBC commentator Chantal Hebert writes, it is "unprecedented" for a sitting prime minister to approve French language ads that depict a fellow federalist leader as hostile to Quebec.” The English-language ads focused on the theme that Ignatieff is "not in it for Canada, just visiting,” apparently because he has spent most of his professional life in the UK and US. Russell concluded that “Harper's apparent fixation with personal attack ads outside elections is more evidence of his disregard for democratic norms and limits..”

Harper has greatly expanded the government propaganda machine controlled by PMO, and he has coordinated it with the between election communications efforts of the Conservative Party
See Stanbury, The Hill Times, Nov. 23,2009

Harper has continues the shift toward what Prof. Donald Savoie calls “court government.”

Harper has practiced extreme centralization of both decision-making and message control. Some observers that this is the result of four factors: the new CPC is a merger of disparate elements; the CPC suffers from a severe case of “opposition mentality,” not having held office since 1984-1993; as leader of a minority Government Harper faces great uncertainty and the best way to cope with it is to centralize; Harper has to muzzle his more “primitive” MPs whose views could “frighten the horses” when the polls show that a majority of Canadians distrust the PM.

Harper has treated his ministers—with a very few exceptions—as less important than did Jean Chrétien who is said to have used his ministers as a focus group, while brutally reminding them he was in charge. Harper has appointed to the Senate person who continue to act as party strategists and senior campaign operatives.

Harper effectively forced out Kevin Lynch as Clerk of the Privy Council in favor of a man he believes will be more responsive to the Government’s desire to politicize almost everything. Harper has limited the traditional role of senior officials as policy advisors. He has relied more on political staffers in the PMO, and on more politically attuned officials in the PCO. In some cases, major policy changes have been announced with almost no analytical work to support them.

Harper has used the Conservative Party to sue a government agency with respect to an investigation of the Party.
The Conservative Party sued Elections Canada over being denied financial rebates for the alleged "in-and-out" transactions. The lawsuit is unprecedented. No political party, much less a governing one, has ever sued a government agency. No other party could even afford such a move.

For short-term partisan advantage, Harper has made important legal and fiscal concessions to the provinces.
He has given up federal powers, responsibilities and revenues to the provinces He ha lavished federal money on Quebec in the (false) name of fiscal rebalancing and increased its equalization payments. Purely on his own, he got Parliament to recognize the Quebecois as a distinct nation. It will be nearly impossible for Ottawa to regain powers that have been given to the provinces. And the increased flow of funds to Quebec and other provinces will be a new higher base from which demands for more will be launched.

Harper has “defunded” the federal government by hard-to-reverse tax cuts and nearly hidden tax expenditures.

Corporate income taxes have been cut across the board regressively and so have personal taxes and GST. By 2012, the cuts are estimated to cost the federal government $40 billion per year. New programs now will require greatly increased levels of taxation, a most difficult task for any new government.

According to fiscal expert Jack Mintz,"The real cost [of the Tax-Free Savings Account –a new tax expenditure--announced in the 2008 Budget] will be down the road, when many seniors will have untaxed investment income sheltered in the TFSA.Of course, someone else will be in power by then, and Flaherty's new account will make life a lot tougher for tax-and-spend governments in the future."( Canadian Business Magazine, March 26,2008).

The Harper Government has repeatedly denied the principle of ministerial responsibility which is a fundamental attribute of Canada’s Westminster model of government.

Columnist William Johnson has argued that, “Since they took office in February 2006, Stephen Harper and his ministers have evaded answering for the treatment of detainees turned over by Canadian forces to Afghan authorities….[Now] the crux of the matter [is] ministerial responsibility, and a culture of don't ask, don't tell running from the fields of Afghanistan to the Prime Minister's Office…. At issue is the credibility of the government and its responsibility to answer to Parliament and so to the people of Canada.” (Ottawa Citizen,Dec.15,2009)

Despite claims of greater transparency, the Harper Government has exacerbated the culture of secrecy in Ottawa.

“The Conservatives won the 2006 election in part by promising transparency. Since then, Ottawa has become only more opaque as the result of the resolute Conservative effort to mute public watchdogs, pass the buck to civil servants and continue concentrating power among appointed partisans in the Prime Minister's Office.” .(James Travers,Toronto Star,Dec.15,2009).The two Harper Governments have kept more secrets, used various tools to defeat applications under the Access to Information Act, and engaged in cover-ups (the one re Afghan detainees being the most obvious—see Stanbury,The Hill Times,Nov.30,2009).

The government has subverted Canadian democracy by its constant misinformation, by its withholding and censuring of documents, by making non-credible claims that it cannot release documents for reasons of national security. (William Johnson,Ottawa Citizen,Dec.15,2009)

The maintenance of the largest possible amount of secrecy—in the face of a large number of requests under the Access to Information Act—is a game played energetically by the government of the day, and by public servants. An extensive list of the techniques used by the Harper Government can be found in The Hill Times, June 15,2009,pp.24-25.

The Harper Government has made claims of what amounts to executive privilege re information requested by Commons committee re Afghan detainees.

. By balking at Parliament's demand for information, Harper is assuming powers of executive privilege normally associated with U.S. presidents, not Canadian prime ministers.(John Mraz, National Post, Dec. 15,2009).
Conclusion: As head of two minority governments, Prime Minister Harper has made a series of moves that have undermined Canadian democracy. Harper has shown in stark relief major flaws in the structure of the Canada’s version of the Westminster model of government. Should he win a majority, it is reasonable to believe that Harper will go much further down the road toward an elected dictatorship.


Dr Mike said...

Harper may be blurring the edges of the official rules which govern this country , & he may be stomping on what we perceive to be the throat of democracy , but he appears to be within his rights to operate as a "near dictator".

As democracy slips beyond our grip , it is time to modify those same rules before it becomes a "Rule of One" which will be very difficult to change.

Dr Mike Popovich

Anonymous said...

via David Akin blog;

Jean Chretien prorogued Parliament four times during his time as Prime Minister: February 5, 1996; September 18, 1999; September 16, 2002; and November 12, 2003.

On each occasion, the Liberals killed their own legislation. Several bills ended up dying over and over again due to Liberals proroguing Parliament or calling early elections.

September 16, 2002 – After a summer of Liberal in-fighting and Jean Chretien being forced to announce his planned retirement date in August, Chretien prorogued Parliament, killing legislation so that he could unveil his legacy agenda.

According [to] Eddie Goldenberg, Chretien decided to have a Throne Speech just to test the will of the Martinite forces who were trying to push him out early: Chretien was happy. “I like that. It is exactly what we just discussed. Prepare me a statement. But just one more thing,” said the old fox. “I want a Throne Speech in the fall. The government will stand or fall on it. If they want to vote against me on it, then it is the one case in which I will run again.” (Eddie Goldenberg, The Way it Works, p. 380)

November 12, 2003 – Jean Chretien announced that Parliament was prorogued on the eve of the Liberal leadership convention (so Chretien and Martin didn’t have to sit together in the House of Commons and face a dispute over who was Prime Minister). Martin did not become Prime Minister until December 12, 2003 and Parliament did not resume until February 2, 2004 – almost four months later

The current session has lasted as long as many comparable sessions under the Liberals, and longer than several of the sessions under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to what David Akin reported, this is from the Library of Parliament

26th Parliament Trudeau 1963/12/21,1965/4/3
27th Parliament Trudeau 1967/5/8
28th Parliament Trudeau 1969/10/22,1970/10/7,1972/2/16
29th Parliament Trudeau 1974/2/26
30th Parliament Trudeau 1976/10/12,1977/10/17,1978/10/10,1983/11/30

33rd Parliament Mulroney1986/8/28
34th Parliament 1989/2/28,1991/5/12

35th Parliament Chretien1996/2/2
36th Parliament 1999/9/18
37th Parliament 2002/9/16,2003/11/12

39th Parliament Harper 2007/9/14
40th Parliament 2008/12/4

Ken S from Ramara said...

No one wants to see Harpo thrown out than me. His move to prorogue parliament is truly undemocratic. Given the disarray of the LPC it is a smart political move. The PM can take comfort in the fact Iggy and his cohorts are in full retreat and afraid for a fight. I blame Iggy's ineptitude as much as Harpo's distain for democracy for Parliament's pending 3 month holiday!

Anonymous said...

How many days are there from January 25th until March 3rd?

Come on now, you can figure that out can't you?

CAITI said...


Thanks for that list of previous sessions of Parliament that were prorogued.

How many of these examples involved instances like Harper's 2008 proroguing in which Parliament was Prorogued at the FIRST instance in which the Prime Minister was facing a Confidence Vote, immediately following an election (of his own calling)?

How many of these examples involved instances like Harper's 2009 proroguing, in which the Prime Minister of the day was seeking to "duck and cover" from something like the Afghan detainee torture issue?

Brent Fullard

Anonymous said...

Brent Fullard, proroguing is a legitimate tool that the government has at it's disposal, no amount of bellyaching, sniveling or whining will change that fact, so suck it up.

Anonymous said...

IMO, the Income Trust betrayal was the start of a real push towards fascism. Everything that has happened since, is the "fix" of fascism. Thank God Brent has enlightened the people who will read and think and then read and think again, over and over.

IMO, Harper playing piano at the NAC was just putting a "funny face" on that fascism as well as a "friendly face" on that fascism. I don't particularly find fascism to be funny or friendly.

Those that appease that beast are not worthy of the Canadian sacrifices taking place on our own soil, or foreign soil for that matter. This beast is alive and well around the world - and trying to dominate. It must be stopped.

Anonymous said...

Leftist mental Disorder is so debilitating.

Anonymous said...

Oh good grief, do you know what killed democracy in Canada? The Effin Charter that removed property rights and legislated any minority group beyond majority rule.
The Liberals killed democracy ages ago, Politicized the Supreme Court,Chained Natives to the state(Chretien's appropriately named White Paper),Unionized the public service,splintered the country, deflated our currency, lowered our living standard and created our Multi hundred billion dollar debt all by 1983.
Or is that before your time?

CAITI said...

Anonymous states:

"Brent Fullard, proroguing is a legitimate tool that the government has at it's disposal, no amount of bellyaching, sniveling or whining will change that fact, so suck it up."

Nice try. Please point to where I have:

(i) bellyached?
(ii) snivelled?
(iii) whined?

Do you guys have any regard for the truth, or is everything you do, simply made up?

Anonymous said...

Nice try. Please point to where I have:

(i) bellyached?
(ii) snivelled?
(iii) whined?

Ya, that pretty much sums up everything that you do here.

CK said...

Anonymous: I have a question for you. You cons love to cry about freedom and democracy. Why does it not bother you that Steve is attempting to turn the Cdn Gov't into a totalitarian regime?

I also remember before the November 2009, byelection here in Hochelaga in Montreal, the slogan on the Conservative placard read, "Action Pas d'election": translate: action; no election! At first, I thought it was marketing stupidity, but now I wonder if Steve was hinting at things to come should he get his majority? Take away elections? Take away the right to vote? I shudder to think what else he may do if unleashed.

Essentially, the message he sent was to allow him to govern as if he had a majority or call an election, according to a G&M article I read & I agree with.

Steve has proven to not play nicely with others: even Deborah Gray, a former co-Reform member and Preston Manning had even said this on one occasion or another.

So, I ask you again, Anonymous: why is it ok for Stephen Harper to turn Canada into a Banana Republic.

Marx-A-Million said...

What does this have to do with income trusts? I mean, I agree with you that Democracy is dead, but you advertise yourself as Mr Income Trust, a tax loophole for major corporations. Income trusts will not exist in Bob Rae's Utopia.

Anonymous said...

Totalitarian regime?

You lefties are a joke, if the opposition parties have the balls to vote non confidence in March we will be having an election in April.

Isn't that what you want?

Dr Mike said...


I will vote for anyone with the right policy.

I believe that the fight is for a return to democracy & not what any of the main parties have been ramming down our throats for the last few decades.

My main concern has been the trust tax & the 18 pages of blacked-out proof for the Flaherty tax leakage claim.

Any party that uses this tactic is no friend of true democracy & no friend of mine---I voted Conservative for 36 years so I am certainly no Lefty.

If anyone can explain to me why it was necessary to black these pages out & also be willing to back-up the reasoning , I would greatly appreciate it.

Dr Mike Popovich

Anonymous said...

The arguments of the Right depend on a stupifying logic: all the bad stuff done by S. Harper was already done before by Liberals, so it's okay if the Cons do it now. Even more convincing: since the opposition is so gutless we should all vote Conservative.

Thank God (I think) that only a minority of Canadians are taken in by this.

CAITI said...

Marx-A-Million said...

"What does this have to do with income trusts?"

Blacked out documents as proof of tax leakage. Lack of democracy. Get the connection? Duh?

Marx-A-Million said...

"you advertise yourself as Mr Income Trust, a tax loophole for major corporations".

What tax loophole would that be? The one that Harper and Flaherty tell you that exists, so you dutifully repeat that nonsense. If income trusts are "tax loophole" then that can only mean that Flaherty's law firm is a tax loophole.

Marx-A-Million said...

"Income trusts will not exist in Bob Rae's Utopia."

On that we agree. Bob Rae's brother John, is a major player at Power Corporation and John Rae funded Bob's Liberal leadership bid to the tune of $750,000. As such I consider Bob Rae to be totally in the pocket of Power Corporation, who were among the major lobbyists who lobbied Harper to kill income trusts, so they could sell more of their life insurance annuities through Great West Life and London Life as well as Investors Group, all of whom were suffering from the competition known as income trusts.

Bob Rae's idea of Utopia is for Power Corporation to be free from competition. Some Utopia. Some man of the people?

Brent Fullard

Anonymous said...

You are 110% correct. Sadly, I do not know how to implement the need actions you so correctly point out. The only thing I think I can do as an individual is to vote – not along my family’s long held ideology or some such reason for believing my ”team” is infallible – but along reason. The problem I think lies ultimately with the Canadian citizen would doesn’t vote or if they do they vote for their “team”. A big reason why Harper is so flippant with democracy is that he knows he has his core supporters that will support him no matter what. Just like the Liberals and other parties have the same but Harper has done a much better job at building these core supporters.

Again, I don’t have a solution for how to implement the changes you suggest but I think part of the solution would be to make it mandatory for people to vote as some have suggested before. It’s the only way I can see to water down the effect of these core supporters for all parties. Maybe then all parties will have to come up with serious policy to attract this large group of “undecided” but now “compelled to vote” people. The ideologues on all sides would be more marginalized.

Imean just listen to many of the ideolgues here. The dat is clear. Flaherty's policy of killing income trusts is a disaster that is and will continue to cost billions per year in lost taxes. Yet, Harper's core supporters simply ingore the facts and attack the messenger.

And before the attacks start again, I don't think the Liberals have come clean on this issue either and the NDP are a hopeless lost cause when it comes to income trusts.

I fail to see though why anyone would support the destruction of wealth of the average citizen. Why do you support that Marx-A-Million? Can you refute any of the data provided?

Calgary Voter

Anonymous said...

If Parliament had the power to prorogue itself, Chretien could have carried the vote with his ("phony") majority governments.

Stephen Harper has no such majority and could not have commanded a successful prorogue vote in Parliament. That's a fundamental difference despite the chattering talking point that "Chretien did it too".

The elephant in the room remains Canada's antiquated first-past-the-post voting system.

Chris Hooymans said...

I think Harper secretly wishes we would have a terrorist attack in Canada, especially during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, it would give him an opportunity to enact the War Measures Act and keep parliament suspended for even longer under the excuse of a dire ( possibly fabricated) national emergency.

Canada under martial law would give the PMO the freedom to institute even more draconian measures to curtail or suspend real freedoms, our democratic rights and eliminate liberties for citizens of this country, by bringing in edicts like the US's Patriot Act or worse.

As for the strip search machines arriving at our airports, I am amazed that the manufacturers had so many of these $250,000 units just sitting around ready to ship on a moments notice. It is very suspicious.

I think that the real purpose or the scanners is to catch smugglers of cash, gold and diamonds and to hamper the "unauthorized" transfer of wealth around the planet. Especially the diamonds as they are so often implicated in arms deals. That latest "terrorist" attack by the underwear bomber was the all too convenient catalyst for the mass sale of these high tech scanners, Without that incident Canadians and other national around the world would never of accepted this final assault on our privacy at the insistence of the USA. Our government is saying we have no choice if we want to continue having air access to the United States.

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