Stop Harper—and beyond

By Jo-Ann Roberts, September 2015

Victorians who want to stop Harper might also want to elect an MP who is free to speak the truth.

Reject fear. This was the battle cry during the frequent protests against Bill C-51 last spring. The slogan cleverly called Stephen Harper on using fear to sell his unconstitutional bill. Fear is central to his electoral strategy. He spreads fear that Justin Trudeau’s inexperience will lead us to ruin; he spreads fear that NDP social policies or Green Party energy policies will destroy the economy and take away your livelihood.

Opposition parties respond by trumpeting hope and change. Yet, the fear of Harper himself is used to put wind in their electoral sails. The most common comment I hear on the doorstep is “I want to stop Harper.” So, if not afraid of terrorism, voters are afraid of Stephen Harper. In this environment, it becomes difficult to squeeze hope, unfettered by fear, in amongst all the doom.

Fear has narrowed the scope of national and local conversations during a time meant to engage in nation-wide soul searching. Never mind conversations about how to transition our economy and energy sector to create clean jobs and reduce emissions; wait until 2019 to have discussions about fixing our democracy, we are told. The only thing we can “hope” for is to unseat Harper, even if that means compromising our values and suspending the very principles which define our democracy.

We have effectively reduced the longest election cycle in a century to a one issue election: Stop Harper. This does not reject fear, but yields to it.

Certainly, I share the passion to defeat Harper. I left a career of over 30 years in journalism to raise my voice after witnessing the systematic dismantling of our democracy. What I saw wasn’t simply the rise of Stephen Harper. At a higher altitude, it’s clear his reign is a culmination of fundamental problems in our political fabric, an escalation of trends begun before he entered 24 Sussex. 

Canada may one day face another ambitious leader hungry for power. This election provides a critical opportunity to understand and fix what led us here. Otherwise, we remain vulnerable to an abuse of power by future leaders and governments. We must aspire beyond Harper to a Canada that defends democracy.

 

THE POWER OF THE PMO—the Office of the Prime Minister—is a timely illustration of how Canadian democracy is endangered.

This “office” fundamentally changed under Pierre Trudeau, assuming many responsibilities previously held by the Privy Council Office (PCO). The non-partisan PCO serves the Prime Minister as head of government, directing the civil service, while the PMO serves him as leader of his party. It is largely a political entity, and its power and budget have increased under all subsequent PMs.

Currently under well-earned scrutiny thanks to a $90,000 cheque to former Senator Mike Duffy, the PMO was also the subject of an earlier investigation by Justice John Gomery following the sponsorship scandal in 2004. Among his key recommendations, Gomery called for a curbing of the office’s power. In 2008, Gomery appeared before a Commons committee criticizing the Conservatives for failing to reduce the power of the “unelected and unaccountable people working in the PMO.” He explained, “This trend is a danger to Canadian democracy and leaves the door wide open to…political interference in the day-to-day administration of government programs.”

The most egregious change under Harper is the PMO’s tight control of government communications, one of many information flows between government and Canadians severed by this PM. Yet, little of this is being talked about, and the exclusion of Elizabeth May in debates means it likely won’t be.

So long as the PMO serves the partisan interests of the sitting PM, and not the democracy he (or she) is meant to serve, it is very tempting to leave it as is for anyone seeking to dethrone Harper. We must ensure Gomery’s recommendations are implemented and the PMO’s budget is cut by half.

 

INTERNAL PARTY POLITICS are another illustration of what’s going wrong with our democracy.

If democracy is meant to be power vested in the people, we have been headed in the wrong direction for decades. Dissent, disagreement and transparency are healthy and necessary for democracy to work. But political parties have increasingly centralized their power along with the PMO. Members are bound by their respective whips to vote how they’re directed, regardless of whether they or their constituents support the position. They are told that closed caucus meetings are the place for disagreement, but none of this is made public. Constituents cannot know when their MP disagrees with the party. Public dissent is swiftly and sometimes severely punished with excommunication from the party. The result is that in a House of hundreds, elected to represent millions, there are rarely more than three views.

It is widely felt that Harper tightly controls his caucus. Lesser known is that whipped voting is common to all three major parties, with Conservatives actually allowing the most free votes—though that amounts to only one percent. A study by Samara Canada of votes cast from June 2011 through January 2013 found the NDP voted their party line 100 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, this problem extends beyond the House. As we saw last month, MPs who break ranks are quickly alienated. NDP candidate Linda McQuaig found herself in a political firestorm when she spoke the truth in acknowledging that to meet our climate targets, much of the oil in the oil sands would have to remain in the ground. At issue were not her views, it was that they contravened the party’s position for expansion of oil sands.

In his Toronto Star commentary on the matter, Seth Klein, BC director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, cited that truth was “the first casualty of war,” adding, “The McQuaig episode is illustrative of a larger problem: namely, that our politics do not allow for serious—and truly honest—discussion of the most pressing issues of our time.” 

It is impossible to have effective discourse if candidates are not free to speak the truth. It’s time we talked about whether MPs speak for Canadians or political parties.

 

HERE'S HOW HARPER WINS. Nearly 40 percent of Canadians did not vote in 2011—more than actually elected Harper. Voter turnout has been in steady decline for decades, and over 60 percent of voters aged 18-34 see nothing to vote for. This is the true crisis of our democracy and is often mistaken for apathy. Ask youth why they don’t vote and you are likely to hear something like “I like democracy; it’s politics I hate.” No wonder.

Many strategists know this. They know that “staying negative,” instilling fear or confusion keeps voters home. This is also true of the fervent vote split messaging we hear in Victoria, despite little chance of electing a Conservative here. The fear of making the “wrong” decision is enough to keep someone from voting and perpetuates the status quo. New votes are not votes for Harper. They are waiting to be inspired by anyone else.

Elizabeth May is fond of reminding everyone that wherever Greens win, voter turnout is highest. Greens actively engage people who are disaffected by traditional politics. It’s no secret the Green Party is on a mission to change the culture of politics. Canada’s evolution to a multi-party democracy will, by mathematical necessity, lead to cooperative governance and generate broader appetite for proportional representation. 

More choices means more voices. Resulting minority governments or coalitions represent more voters. Strong progressive democracies around the world function effectively this way. We must reject the fear of this change and create a political culture that invites more Canadians to participate.

Want to Stop Harper? Bring two new voters with you on October 19, and give them something to hope for.

Former CBC journalist and host Jo-Ann Roberts is the Green Party candidate for Victoria in the upcoming federal election. (The Victoria NDP candidate Murray Rankin wrote in this space in April.)