To understand why the time has come to send this Conservative government back to the opposition benches, you need to remember the promise that this government was elected under. Cast your mind back to February 2004, when the Auditor General exposed irregularities in the Liberal government’s sponsorship program designed to funnel money and give the federal government exposure within the province of Quebec.
The idea that thousands, if not millions, of dollars of tax money may have been funnelled to Liberal friendly ad agencies coalesced something in the minds of Canadians. It made us realize that the party had been in power too long. It had grown complacent in allowing these irregularities to materialize. When Liberal MP Tom Wappel attempted to deny assistance to a veteran that lived in his riding on the basis that said veteran had voted for the Canadian Alliance, when David Dingwall uttered the infamous phrase, “I am entitled to my entitlements”, Canadians came to believe that the Liberal Party was too arrogant to address its shortcomings without some time in the political wilderness.
So, what did Canadians want instead? At the time, the Liberals’ management of the country was otherwise exemplary. Our surpluses were making a dent in our national debt, our unemployment rate was dropping, even as the American economy fell stagnant. Infrastructure was being re-invested in, and the separatist threat in Quebec looked to be on the wane. But the Liberals were now operating in a closed shop. Canadians wanted the management of the economy and our social safety net to remain as good as the Liberals were managing, but they wanted a government that was more open and accountable, that took their vote seriously, and didn’t deride critics as unCanadian. In short, they wanted pragmatic and humble centrists, or reasonable facsimiles thereof.
So they looked across the aisle, and found a newly merged Conservative Party, led by the fresh new face Stephen Harper and they… stopped their desire for change cold.
The 2004 federal election should have been a slam dunk for the Conservatives. Anger over Adscam was at its height; the Liberals were extremely tired and in disarray, and they were running a campaign that was almost as bad as the one they ran in 2006. But Stephen Harper was attacking the Liberals from the right of the political spectrum, and there were serious questions about where Harper wanted to take the country. The party was full of people opposed to same sex marriage, and who wanted to severely cut back on our social safety net. More than that, Harper’s approach to campaigning was angry. In the campaign blunder that possibly cost the Conservatives victory in 2004, he accused the Liberals and New Democrats of supporting pedophilia, all because some members raised legitimate concerns about the scope of his proposed legislation to crack down on child pornography (which could, if one is not careful, make it illegal to develop pictures of your baby’s first bath).
It was a staggering exercise in hyperbole, and it showed that Harper shared one bad thing with the Liberals: his opponents in his eyes weren’t average people with legitimate concerns on how things should be run, but enemies of the state as he saw it. Thus Martin was given a second chance that he should never have been given.
Now let’s move to the 2006 federal election, where Harper at least displays the positive trait of learning from his earlier mistakes. The Conservative campaign is far more disciplined, and he backs off the more controversial planks on his platform, especially the opposition to same sex marriage. Indeed, his adoption of his five priorities, including openness and accountability and a reduction in patient wait times, broadcast to the electorate that, while he came from the right wing of the spectrum, he believed in democracy enough that he was going to provide Canadians with the pragmatic, centrist leadership they wanted. He was going to be clean. He was going to be humble. And even though he didn’t believe in big government, he was going to govern well.
Many Canadians still doubted him, but this combined with a disciplined campaign (not to mention the Liberals’ dramatic self-destruction) granted him a minority mandate in the House of Commons, which he gamefully tried to use. Unfortunately, that’s when his problems really began.
In two and a half years, we have seen how Stephen Harper governs. He is not pragmatic; he is an opportunist. He believes in openness and accountability only when it suits him. Most importantly, he refuses to respect the democratic will of the Canadian people; twice denied a mandate to govern with majority power in the House of Commons, he has consistently refused to reach out to any party in the opposition to govern cooperatively. Government has been a battle for him, and his opponents, be they on the opposition benches or standing in the streets, are not Canadians with legitimate points of view of their own, but enemies to be crushed and humiliated.
In other words, Stephen Harper has proven himself to be more partisan, more arrogant and less accountable than any prime minister before him. In 2006, we replaced the Liberals with uber-Liberals, whose centrist policies are only a means to an end, and whose sense of entitlement makes us yearn for the carefree days of Jean Chretien.
Several incidents which have taken place since January 2006 serve to illustrate the unwillingness the Conservatives have in respecting the will of the majority of Canadians. Let’s start with David Emerson, an MP who was elected as a Liberal but who crossed the floor two weeks later. Harper welcomed him into the cabinet to give himself some urban representation there, despite his party lambasting former Conservative Belinda Stronach for crossing the floor to a cushy job as Minister of Human Resources just months before. The hypocrisy shocked even partisan Conservatives who saw one of their ideas of clean and honest government being sold out.
Then there was Harper’s political tantrum over the decision of the opposition members on Harper’s long-promised public appointments commission to vote down Harper’s proposed chairman Gwyn Morgan after Morgan’s statements deriding immigrants, low wage workers and the New Democratic Party became public. Rather than negotiate with the opposition majority on the commission to find a new choice that was acceptable to all — as one would expect to happen in a minority government situation where the government shares power with the opposition parties — Harper simply refused to fill the position. It remains unfilled to this day, and is a key 2006 election promise that has been left broken.
The Conservatives have since escalated their attempts to thwart the work of the opposition, even going to such lengths as producing a manual to help Conservative committee chairs to shut down discussion or even meetings outright should things not appear to be going the government’s way. In terms of openness and accountability, this prime minister has attempted to block the release of prime ministerial agendas to the public. He has micro-managed his own party’s political campaigns, thwarting the aspirations of decent Conservative candidates like Brent Barr and Mark Warner, but protecting inadequates like Rob Anders from legitimate party challenge.
And what fiscal measures he has failed to get through parliament, he has attempted to pass through stealth, such as the casual defunding of the Canadian Space Agency’s commitments to the exploration of Mars, to firing the president of the Canadian Wheat Board for having the temerity to defend his organization, to delaying funds and ultimately killing a highly successful program addressing homelessness in Toronto. His attempts to pull funding from certain arts agencies is yet another example of this and, again, critics are derided — sometimes pre-emptively — as elitists, leftists or anti-Canadians, even if the accusation is patently false.
Harper not only shows little tolerance for criticism, he shows utter disdain for the trickier tasks of his position. Early in his mandate, Harper not only impugned the patriotism of Canadians who criticized our commitment in Afghanistan, he attempted to duck items which might reflect badly on his government, like his attempt to bar the press from covering the return of fallen Canadian soldiers in caskets to this country or even lower the flag to half mast for those deaths.
But it is the partisan nature of Harper’s acts of government that most irks me, as it puts party before country, and it attacks decent and honest Canadians on the most spurious of reasons. Consider the case of Linda Keen, the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Council, which shut down a reactor in Chalk River, because it was over fifty years old, hadn’t installed the latest safety features, and was sitting over a fault line. The move did cause a shortage of medical isotopes, however, as that was one of the only reactors where such isotopes were produced.
Clearly, action had to be taken, but rather than talk about how the need for these medical isotopes trumped the small risk that the agency was set up to administer, Harper instead derided the qualifications of these individuals as “Liberal appointees”, despite the fact that at least two of those attendees were appointed by the Conservative government. Even Conservatives like Steve Janke felt that Harper’s arguments were spurrious, but similar attacks were made against the head of Elections Canada, Marc Mayrand, despite the fact that he was a Mulroney appointee and only doing the job he was commissioned to do.
Harper’s contempt for Canadians who disagree with him was also shown in his party’s attempt to do an end-run around opposition MPs, by bringing forward “go-to people” for voters in ridings not represented to the government to contact the government, rather than the opposition MPs themselves. This incident is a remarkable parallel to Liberal MP Tom Wappel’s own refusal to assist the Canadian Alliance-supporting veteran in his own riding. Worse, these “go-to” individuals were oftentimes opponents of the said opposition MPs in the first place. The suggestion that this party would play favourites among ridings based on purely partisan reasons is as good a reason as any to send this party packing.
In short, when Canadians wanted a political party that would govern effectively for all Canadians and bring an end to government arrogance, they instead received a political party that put its own partisan interests over that of the nation, and who only replaced Liberal arrogance with arrogance of a more strident form. Quite simply, the Conservatives have not given us the government they promised they would.
Monday’s motion of non-confidence (delayed to December 8 by Harper’s procedural tactics) has been tabled on the Harper government’s decision to dally when it comes to a fiscal stimulus package, when governments across the G-8 are moving far quicker, but it’s clear that it was the Conservative government’s initial attempt to use concerns over the coming economic downturn as an excuse to de-fund and damage the opposition that has sparked this action. Given Harper’s record of highly partisan actions, given his refusal to acknowledge that he hasn’t a majority of seats, given that he works sulkily, at best with the other parties in parliament, who have almost as much mandate to govern has he did, it’s no wonder that the NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc responded to this last straw by looking at each other and screaming, “That’s it!” The Conservatives have become the worst of the Liberals in all but name.
The Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois are far from perfect, and it’s daunting to conceive that their coalition could survive more than a month or two. But it is less daunting, it seems, than the idea that this Conservative government can respect its opponents enough to work with them in the minority government framework — or that its government, should it be allowed a majority, will actually work for the benefit of the majority of Canadians. The big problem of this Conservative government is how partisan it has been. Harper has tried to infect this country with the same sort of partisan polarization that has brought the American democracy to its knees. But for this coalition to work for more than a few months, it must be the opposite of partisan, and that would be a good thing for this country.
Sometimes the party leaders have shown themselves to have little more maturity than children on the playground, but through the past three years, there has been one clear bully, one clear sucky-baby, and his name is Stephen Harper. No wonder the other three kids are handing him his marbles and telling him to go home.
Another Example of Harper’s Hypocrisy
Is a Grand Coalition government by the Liberals and the NDP supported by the Bloc undemocratic? Well, let’s ask Stephen Harper, circa 2004, when he wrote the following letter to the Governor General:
As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the Liberal minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve the 38th Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government’s program. We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority. Your attention to this matter is appreciated.
(Hat tip to Stageleft)
Of course, today, things are totally different. Because today, Stephen Harper is in charge.