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Friday, October 8, 2010

A Deceptive Democracy: A Confidence Game

A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada

"Nothing is inevitable." - John Ralston Saul, Canadian Essayist

When Michael Ignatieff was in Kingston at the start of his summer tour, he was asked about one of the bills presented by the Harper government, and the egregious nature of some of it's elements. Ignatieff said that standard for this government was to present a bill, then tell the opposition to pass it, or they would call an election. "That" he said, "is what passes for democracy in the Harper government".

In the book I've been reading and sharing: Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis*, one of the contributors, Gary Levy, also noted the pattern. In a section Playing Fast and Loose with the Confidence Convention, he says:
... there is no hard-and-fast rule about what is a question of confidence. It is widely accepted that certain traditional motions —namely, the motion to adopt the Throne Speech, the motion to adopt the budget, and the Appropriation Bill (government estimates) — are automatic votes of confidence.

There is less agreement on other areas related to confidence. What would happen if a government refused to resign when it had lost confidence? Does defeat of an important government bill always constitute a vote of confidence? Can procedural motions be considered matters of confidence? Can a government claim to have lost confidence without being defeated in the House? The failure of successive minority parliaments, starting with Paul Martin's, to find the right answers to these questions led to the December 2008 crisis. (1)
All governments have manipulated the process, but none to the extent of the Harper government. But they misjudged their power. They challenged the opposition to bring them down, and then were shocked when they called their bluff, resulting in the Coalition proposal.

What happened next was a horrible attack on our democracy, by a man who knew that the proposal was legitimate in a Westminster Parliamentary system, but intentionally misled the public into believing that this was some kind of coup. Former insider Tom Flanagan, after admitting that Harper's 2004 coalition attempt included the full support of the Bloc (2), justified Harper's actions by saying that he was fighting for his political life. His. Not ours.

But focusing on the nature of "confidence" issues, Levy also reminds us of Rob Nicholson's attempt to threaten the Senate into passing a bill. He should have known as Justice Minister that the Senate is not a confidence chamber.

But that was not the first time they tried to manipulate this body. Beside stacking it with fundraisers and party faithfuls, they also devised a clever scheme to make sure that senate bills they didn't like, never saw the light of day.

Bills that require a sponsor, were grabbed up by the Harperites, and then they never followed through, knowing that a bill automatically dies if its sponsor fails to show up twice for debate on it. This was noted with a bill aimed at ending pre-election partisan advertising binges. If passed this could have saved us over 100 million dollars on the Harper advertising extravaganza. (3)

And that's what passes for democracy in Harper's World.

Elected MPs can't talk, the media is banned, he prorogues when things get too hot to handle, he adds lobbyists to his staff, he squashes dissent, he sets fixed elections then ignores his own law, he bans books, closes our borders to "undesirables", launches witch hunts on anyone who might challenge him and attacks anyone who does.

This is democracy?

In his book The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen, Murray Dobbin reminds us of how we accomplished our democracy, that is under attack by the corporate world. And he is blunt in his claim that the only ones who can reverse democracy's decay is us.
We have forgotten how we first achieved the things we are now losing. None of these community institutions was simply given to us by benign governments and good corporate citizens. The struggles of hundreds of thousands of men and women — citizens — in labour movements, farm movements, and social organizations made democracy real at a time when many of them did not know where their next meal was coming from. For them democracy was a process to be engaged in. (4)
This is how Stephen Harper is getting away with the things he is getting away with. Canadians are no longer engaged. They have thrown their hands in the air and their butts on the couch.
The social and psychological distance between citizen and government has become so great that the notion of government as an expression of community is weaker now than at any time in the post-war period. For far too many people political citizenship is an afterthought or, at best is reduced to brief and alienated participation in electoral rituals.

Maybe we got into this habit because we believed medicare, public education, a full-time job, and a future for our children would always be secure. These things are our right. But as corporations prove every day, rights, like democracy, are a process, not an institution. As community, as citizens, we haven't caught up with the new reality. (4)
We haven't started fighting back. If Olga Hudson can do it. If Betty Krawczyk can do it. What's the matter with the rest of us?

We've seen some positive changes. We won small victories with Kory Teneycke and Fox News North. Care for the elderly is back on the table. We've got a long way to go but it's a start.
The assault on democracy and equality by corporations and those who benefit from their power is couched in such terms as globalization for good reason. It creates an atmosphere of inevitability. We can, by this definition of reality, do nothing but attempt to adapt to the predetermined course of history. (4)
But remember John Sauls three little words: "Nothing is inevitable."

1. Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, By Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin, University of Toronto Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4426-1014-9- 2, Pg. 20

2. Ignatieff 'quality guy,' Flanagan says, By: Frances Russell, Winnipeg Free Press, December 11, 2009

3. Tory procedural ploy 'hijacks' Senate bills: Conservatives sponsor legislation they oppose, By Joan Bryden, Canadian Press, July 06, 2009

4. The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen: Canada and Democracy in the Age of Globalization, By Murray Dobbin, James Lorimer & Company, 2003, ISBN: 1-55028-785-0, Pg. 5-6

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