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Harper’s Accountability Act

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?


  • Gauldar

    How about we get parliament to work at York University since they arn’t doing anything, and make themselves usefull. Students can then receive valuable knowledge to become bigger douche bags in the workplace. Damnnit, I can’t wait to get off work so I can sit down with a glass of JD & ginger beer.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Todd, another well-written entry.
    Everyone has a laundry list of things they feel our government should be doing to change the country and the world for the better. I’ve grown to accept that some of these things will happen only gradually, and slower than I would prefer; that any government we elect will support only some of them, and so on. In short, my expectations are modest.
    The Harper governments have been marked not only by a failure to make any progress on any issue that matters to me, but by backsliding on the most important points.
    For example, I would like to see intelligent policies to reduce carbon emissions. I would like to see Canada continue the role of level-headed mediator in international policy that saw the convention banning landmines named the “Ottawa Treaty”.
    Instead the Conservatives have abandoned even token gestures towards Kyoto in favour of carbon sequestration and other “vaporware”; and in doing so have childishly thumbed their nose at the world. Your example on Lebanon shows how incapable Harper is of equanimity in the heated Middle Eastern situation.
    As useless as anyone thinks Stéphane Dion or other leaders may be, even a caretaker PM who did absolutely nothing would be better than one bent on eradicating the goodwill earned by his predecessors.

  • rek

    I can’t add anything I haven’t already said in the other comments, but I wanted to say this is a good article.

  • Vincent Clement

    Even Preston Manning would have realized that you don’t go pissing off the opposition when you are a minority government (for the second time).

  • Teraulay

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I hope it helps certain people understand the importance and weight of the events of the past week, and that the future of Canadian democracy depends on how we respond.

  • TokyoTuds

    Yes, a very good article.
    For those claiming the coalition is undemocratic, it is in fact definitive of democracy and is permitted in the constitution. The whole concept of a confidence vote is precisely the check for a government out of touch.
    But likewise, I have to admit that proroguing is also legal and democratic. It might be from my point of view a craven attempt to CYA, but the maneuver itself is according to Hoyle.
    Before proroguing, I wanted to see the coalition succeed because: a) I did not vote for the conservatives; b) I felt Harper had broken his word in the most hypocritical fashion by calling an election in the first place; and, c) that revoking public financing of parties was a power grab. But nonetheless some friends were swaying me to the side that a coalition would just be bad for Canada during an economic crisis.
    But then Harper put the nail in the coffin for me by proroguing. It showed me that my first instincts were correct and that he does not hold the confidence of parliament.
    It is fine that there will be no vote until the end of January, but more than ever I want to see the coalition agreement hold, and for Harper to be defeated on a budget.

  • rek

    Can he keep this up indefinitely? If the coalition defeats the budget in January will he ask Michaelle Jean to prorogue parliament again and again until their propaganda machine finds a target capable of breaking up the Dion-Layton-Duceppe love-fest?

  • robducey

    i just want to echo the previous comment that this is well written and presented. The more online content that hold itself to these standards the better. Also, Rek has a good question….

  • PickleToes

    I agree with the other posters, this is a good article.
    rek: With news reports already detailing that cracks are appearing in the solidarity of the coalition, Harper probably wont have to keep this up much longer.

  • this is exploding

    I can tell that you put a lot of work into this, Todd. It’s a pretty well constructed argument, except for one glaring problem: the ninth paragraph (under the graffiti pic). It’s rambling and off-topic; full of run-on sentences about Harper’s foreign policy record in an article that’s supposed to be about his domestic accountability. You probably should have just cut it right out, because it doesn’t support your argument and, frankly, reveals your ideological bias.
    On a separate note, I think the prorogue, in spite of the potentially dangerous precedent it sets, is actually the best thing for everybody. For one thing, if the coalition doesn’t last a month it was never a good idea to begin with. Also, the Cons now have a chance to govern reasonably. They can bow to the will of parliament by delivering the economic stimulus we urgently need. (Cuz that’s what this is all about, right?) If that doesn’t happen, the coalition will be able to defeat the government with an actual leader in place.
    The Liberals badly need to replace Stephane Dion. Do you honestly want a Prime Minister who is a lame duck in his own party trying to lead a two-party coalition that is dependent on the BQ? Seriously? Even supporters of the NDP (who stand to gain the most, or maybe second-most if the coalition takes power) must recognize that even that temporary situation would have been ridiculous.
    Harper is very much to blame for forcing his opposition to strike back the way they did, but the opposition is at fault for not presenting a genuine alternative. Stuck with literally no viable government, Michaelle Jean did the only thing she could, called time out on the whole mess. That’s what you do with a bunch of babies who won’t stop fighting.