Photo by jcbear2.
With the victory of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on November 4, the bitter fate of North American politics became starkly apparent: that the continent’s democratic profiles—the lauded Canadian Left and the intractable American Right—had reversed polarity. Sometime after subdued New Democratic faithful shuffled home in the wee hours of October 15, reality set in: with a pitiful voter turnout on election day, deep cultural and ideological divisions, and a right-wing minority government acting as if it had earned a mandate, Canada became America—circa 2004.
Change, it turns out, isn’t always something we can believe in.
On April 21, 2006, Stephen Harper, his government fresh from the afterglow of that January’s general election, attended a joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto at the Royal York Hotel. Addressing both groups’ dignitaries and a cross-section of the nation’s powerbrokers, Harper delivered a speech that outlined his government’s priorities, acting on the perceived weakness and corruption of the Conservative Party’s Liberal predecessors. The title of Harper’s address—heralding a decidedly different kind of change than that trumpeted in America over the last twenty months—was Accountability in Government.
Introducing the prime minister, Empire Club president William Whittaker was flush with praise. Barely six months earlier, Harper had appeared at another luncheon as Leader of the Opposition, during which Whittaker quoted Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada by William Johnson in his opening remarks: “What is most important in a prospective prime minister is his demonstrated good judgment, his integrity, his wise policies, his broad experience, his willingness to make hard decisions for the common good even if they are unpopular, and his commitment to work to the best of his ability and his energy to lead the country in peace, justice, and prosperity.”
“In each of these respects, warts and all,” Whittaker’s quotation continued, “Stephen Harper rates better than any other leader on the federal scene.’”
The scene was metonymic of Canada at a less jaded time, relatively oblivious to crisis: despite the alarmism of the ousted Liberals over Harper’s “hidden agenda,” the assembled leaned in, rapt with attention, as Prime Minister Harper—his policies and presence evoking a new dialogue for Canada—took the podium.
As if he were still campaigning, Harper wasted little time in triumphantly declaring the Five Priorities of his new government: lowering the GST, ramping up the criminal justice system, a Patient Wait Times Guarantee, support for families, and of course, federal accountability in Ottawa. “Each of our priorities is important,” he said, “but none is more pressing than cleaning up the mess in politics and government at the federal level. Accountable, honest, democratic government is the foundation necessary for everything else we wish to build.”
Which is as good a point as any to flash forward to December 4, 2008.
Photo by 416style.
The world in 2006 was bad enough; the world in 2008, we’re learning, keeps getting worse. Two years ago, crisis was an all-you-can-eat buffet for hawkish policy wonks. The arrest of seventeen Toronto-area youths in connection with an alleged planned terror attack furthered Harper’s domestic national security agenda; that summer, he shrugged off Israel’s brutally disproportionate cluster-bombing of Lebanon as “measured” after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Censorship bills, the abridgment of womens’ rights, the sale of the Canadian census to Lockheed Martin; to those who lost sleep thanks to Paul Martin’s characterization of Harper as the Big Evil, a Prime Minister’s Office marked by Straussian policies amounted to just that—something sinister and wholly un-Canadian, an aberration that, to the most paranoid, suggested an insidious Machiavellian game was afoot, aimed at turning Canada into something out of V for Vendetta. Democracy, they assumed, would die in a nightmarish procession of brown shirts, announced with the percussive rhythm of jackboots falling on University Avenue.
Instead, democracy’s long, dark night came to Canada on Thursday, amid a deepening global crisis near the end of one of the most acrid weeks in Parliament’s history. Proclaiming the Tories to have lost the confidence of the House, Stephane Dion’s Liberals and Jack Layton’s NDP—political adversaries with little love lost between them—announced their union to unseat the minority Conservatives, replacing it with an unassailable majority that would hold power until 2011. With the pledged legislative support of the Bloc Quebecois, it appeared all but in the can: Harper’s minority government would face a confidence vote on December 8, at which point it would fold with neck-breaking alacrity. Canadians on the left would get a little change of their own.
Thursday morning, after meeting for a little more than two hours, Stephen Harper got his reprieve. Governor-General Michaelle Jean agreed to prorogue Parliament until January, at which point the government would return with a new budget and new measures to kick-start Canada’s sputtering economy. Those who decried the “undemocratic” nature of the coalition applauded the decision. To an ashen Jack Layton, Harper had just “locked the door” of Parliament.
But for all the moaning over a coalition “coup,” the essence of parliamentary democracy has been ignored: electors choose their Members of Parliament, not their prime minister. In a minority government like Harper’s, no leader can claim a mandate, nor can it be said that a united front of Opposition MPs—representing the electoral majority—has violated the system in checking, challenging, and overturning that government’s authority. The violation comes when a prime minister, with all his years of posturing as the honest, accountable alternative to carpet-bagging eastern corruption, seeks the low road, ducking Parliament to save his own ass. Then it’s the morning-after reality check, that sickening knowledge when it becomes academic that the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the House’s confidence in his government utterly and officially evaporated, has set a profoundly disturbing precedent.
If this is Harper’s idea of “accountable, honest, democratic government,” and indeed the foundation of everything to come, what else can we look forward to?