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Harper's Attack on Democracy, Itemized by Lawrence Martin

April 27, 2011

14-minute read

Lawrence Martin, columnist with the Globe and Mail, has written the best review, so far, of Stephen Harper’s one-man show  The Attack On Democracy.

It’s a must-read on the record thus far, particularly by colleagues, friends and family members who might not much like Harper, but like the other options far less.

One can only imagine where he might it next with sufficient popular support.

Originally appearing on the pages of ipolitics, it appears below in full

Read it and vote. After all, we get the democracy we deserve.

The descent of democracy: A country under one man’s thumb

Posted on Wed, Apr 27, 2011, 2:25 am by Lawrence Martin

Can we still call this a parliamentary democracy? Or is it something more akin to a democracy of one?

More and more, Stephen Harper’s critics are asking the question. There is a widespread view among political scientists and constitutional scholars that the prime minister, with his l’etat c’est moi methods, has brought Canadian democracy to new lows.

Canadians themselves may be starting to feel that way. Pollster Angus Reid found this week that 62 per cent of Canadians surveyed described our democracy as being in a state of crisis. For the first time in many elections, democracy is a foremost issue.When Harper was not even two years into his stewardship, a study published in the International Political Science Review measured the degree of centralization of power in all parliamentary countries. Canada, the study concluded, was the worst.

Much of our undemocratic condition was a result of the power hoarding of prime ministers who came before Harper, says Peter Russell, the University of Toronto professor emeritus who has studied prime ministerial power since the 1950s. But if our democratic health was bad then, Russell says, it’s now worse — much worse — after Harper’s five years in power.

“Harper is on a course towards a very authoritarian populist government appealing over the heads of Parliament to the people with an enormous public-relations machine. The appeal is to the less educated and less sophisticated parts of society.” What is being fashioned, says Russell, is a presidential prime ministership without a powerful legislative branch to keep it in check.

Lori Turnbull, who teaches political science at Dalhousie University and who is publishing a book on declining democracy, says the system with its loosely defined separation of powers relies on a prime minister acting in good faith. Mr. Harper can hardly be said to have done so, she said. In reference to abuses of power by the Conservative government, she said that “if you put together a list of what he’s done, it’s scary.” (See list below.)

Harper cabinet member John Baird rejects such criticisms. “There was a book written about Prime Minister Chrétien, The Friendly Dictatorship,” he says. “People made the same charges about prime ministers Mulroney and Trudeau.”

Conservatives say the portrayal of Harper as an autocrat are politically motivated — this though many of the same professors and journalists (this writer included) charting the plight of democracy today were highly critical of ethical corruption during the Chrétien years.

During his time in office, Harper has been charged with denying Parliament its historic right to documents, shutting down the House, intimidating independent agencies, muzzling the bureaucracy, suppressing research, curbing the access to information system, and other transgressions.

Awish Aslam, seen here at a 2008 NDP rally, was ousted from a Conservative rally because of a picture of her with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was found on her Facebook page. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
In the election campaign, people have been barred from Conservative rallies, strict limits have been placed on questions form journalists, Tory candidates have been instructed to stay away from all-candidates debates in their ridings. Liberals and New Democrats say the controversy over the coalition issue is another example of Harper not being able to tolerate the rules of democracy.

Democracy became an election issue after the prime minister was defeated on a confidence motion over contempt of Parliament. Though the Speaker of the Commons ruled there were legitimate grounds for the charges, Harper dismissed them as parliamentary squabbling.

“Who does he think he is? The king, here?” asked Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. During the televised debates he told Harper, “You are a man who will shut down anything you cannot control.”

When Harper campaigned during the 2006 election, he made promises of a new era of openness and transparency to contrast a Liberal Party plagued by the sponsorship scandal. He brought in accountability legislation, which was applauded by such oversight groups as Democracy Watch for containing many impressive reforms. But a great number of the reforms, the watchdog group found, never saw the light of day.

At the same time the Conservatives were making their accountability promises in the 2006 campaign, they were running a surreptitious money-shuffling operation that became known as the in-and-out affair. It allowed the party to spend more on its campaign advertising than Elections Canada permitted. Earlier this year, party operatives involved in the scheme, including former campaign manager Doug Finley, were charged with offences under election finance laws.

The case for painting Harper as an anti-democrat stems from dozens of actions, catalogued below. They can be roughly divided into three categories: Treatment of the parliamentary process; degree of information control; intimidation of opponents.


      <li><strong>Prorogations of Parliament</strong>:</li>

Other governments have prorogued Parliament many times. But Harper’s prorogations were seen as more crassly motivated for political gain than others. His second prorogation, 16 months ago, brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets to decry his disregard for the democratic way.

      <li><strong>Contempt of Parliament</strong>:</li>

The demonstrations did not serve to elevate the prime minister’s respect for Parliament. He refused a House of Commons request to turn over documents on the Afghan detainees’ affair until forced to do so by the Speaker, who ruled he was in breach of parliamentary privilege. More recently, he refused to submit to a parliamentary request, this time on the costing of his programs. The unprecedented contempt of Parliament rulings followed.

      <li><strong>Scorn for parliamentary committees</strong>:</li>

Parliamentary committees play a central role in the system as a check on executive power. The Conservatives issued their committee heads a 200-page handbook on how to disrupt these committees, going so far as to say they should flee the premises if the going got tough. The prime minister also reneged on a promise to allow committees to select their own chairs. In another decision decried as anti-democratic, he issued an order dictating that staffers to cabinet ministers do not have to testify before committees.

      <li><strong>Challenging constitutional precepts</strong>:</li>

During the coalition crisis of 2008, Harper rejected the principle that says a government continues in office so long as it enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons. To the disbelief of those with a basic grasp of how the system works, he announced that opposition leader Stéphane Dion “does not have the right to take power without an election.”

      <li><strong>Lapdogs as watchdogs</strong>:</li>

Jean Chrétien drew much criticism, but also much help for his cause, as a result of his installing a toothless ethics commissioner. The Harper Conservatives have upped the anti-democratic ante, putting in place watchdogs — an ethics commissioner, lobbying commissioner, and others — who are more like lapdogs.

The foremost example was integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet, who was pilloried in an inquiry by the auditor general. During her term of office, 227 whistleblowing allegations were brought before Ouimet. None was found to be of enough merit to require redress.

The Prime Minister’s Office saw to it that she left her post quietly last fall with a $500,000 exit payment replete with a gag order.

      <li><strong>The Patronage Machine</strong>:</li>

To reduce checks on power it helps to have partisans in the right places. Harper initially surprised everyone with a good proposal to reduce the age-old practice of patronage. It was the creation of an independent public appointments commission. But after his first choice of chairman for the body was turned down by opposition parties, he abandoned, in an apparent fit of pique, the whole commission idea.

Since that time he has become, like other PMs before, a patronage dispenser of no hesitation.

One of the latest examples was the appointment of Tom Pentefountas as deputy chair of the CRTC. His only apparent qualification was his friendship with the PM’s director of communications. Mr. Harper also had good intentions on Senate reform but it, too, has remained a patronage pit. One of his first moves as PM, having long lashed out at the unelected body, was to elevate a senator, Michael Fortier, to his cabinet.

    <li><strong>Abuse of Process</strong>

    Another less noticed infringement of the democratic way came with the 2010 behemoth budget bill — 894 pages and 2,208 clauses. It contained many important measures, such as major changes to environmental assessment regulations, that had no business being in a budget bill. Previous governments hadn’t gone in for this type of budget-making, which is common in the United States. The opposition had reason to allege abuse of process.


      <li><strong>The vetting system</strong>:</li>

In an extraordinary move, judged by critics to be more befitting a one-party state, Harper ordered all government communications to be vetted by his office or the neighbouring Privy Council Office. Even the most harmless announcements (Parks Canada’s release on the mating season of the black bear, for example) required approval from the top.

In most instances, forms known as Message Event Proposals had to make their way through a bureaucratic labyrinth of checks for approval.

Never had Ottawa seen anything approaching this degree of control. In one of many examples a bureaucrat, Mark Tushingham from Environment Canada, was barred from giving a talk about his book on climate change — even though it was a work of fiction. The muzzling policy of the government extended to the military brass. It led to a split between the prime minister and Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier.

      <li><strong>Public service brought to heel</strong>:</li>

In asserting his individual will in the nation’s capital, it is of central importance for the chief executive to have a compliant bureaucracy. Under Harper, who suspected the bureaucracy had a built-in Liberal bias, the public service was stripped of much of its policy development functions and reduced to the role of implementers.

The giant bureaucracy and diplomatic corps chafed under the new system. Their expertise had been valued by previous governments. In the Harper democracy, it was shut up, don’t put up.

As for independent agencies, the level of distrust was much the same. As part of her distant past, Nuclear Safety Commission head Linda Keen was seen to have Liberal affiliations. It was among the reasons she was unceremoniously dismissed.

      <li><strong>Access to information</strong>:

      The government impeded the access to information system, one of the more important tools of democracy, to such an extent that the government’s information commissioner wondered whether the system would survive. Prohibitive measures included the elimination of giant data base called CAIRS, delaying responses to access requests, imposing prohibitive fees on requests, and putting pressure on bureaucrats to keep sensitive information hidden. In addition, the redacting or blacking out of documents that were released reached outlandish proportions. In one instance, the government blacked out portions of an already published biography of Barack Obama.

      <li><strong>Supression of research</strong>:</li>

Research, empirical evidence, erudition might normally be considered as central to the healthy functioning of democracies. The Conservatives challenged, sometimes openly, the notion.

At the Justice Department they freely admitted they weren’t interested in what empirical research told them about some of their anti-crime measures. At Environment Canada, public input on climate change policy was dramatically reduced.

In other instances, the government chose to camouflage evidence that ran counter to its intentions. A report of the Commissioner of Firearms saying police made good use of the gun registry was deliberately hidden beyond its statutory deadline, until after a vote on a private member’s bill on the gun registry.

The most controversial measure involving suppression of research was the Harper move against the long-form census. In his democracy, critics alleged, knowledge was being devalued. The less the people knew, the easier it was to deceive them.

      <li><strong>Document tampering:</strong></li>

It was the Bev Oda controversy involving the changing of a document on the question of aid to the church group Kairos that captured attention. But in Harperland, document tampering was by no means an isolated occurrence.

During the election campaign it has been revealed that Conservative operatives twisted the words of Auditor General Sheila Fraser in order to try to deceive the public. They made it sound like she was crediting them with prudent spending when, in fact, what she actually wrote applauded the Liberals.

As part of their vetting system, the Conservatives tried to institute a policy, until Fraser rebelled, whereby even her releases would be monitored by central command. The re-ordering of documents extended to the Harper economic-recovery program. The Conservatives got caught putting their own party logos on stimulus funding cheques, which were paid out of public purse. They were forced to cease the practice.

      <li><strong>Media curbs</strong><em>:</em></li>

Though having stated that information is the lifeblood of democracy, the prime minister went to unusual lengths to deter media access. He never held open season press conferences, wouldn’t inform the media of the timing of cabinet meetings, as was traditionally done, limited their access to the bureaucracy, and had his war room operatives, using false names, write online posts attacking journalists. In one uncelebrated incident in Charlottetown in 2007, the Conservatives sent in the police to remove reporters from a hotel lobby where they were trying to cover a party caucus meeting.


      <li><strong>Afghan detainees</strong>:</li>

As a reflection of the governing morality, the detainees’ file is one the Conservatives would hardly wish to showcase.

They attempted to tar the reputation of diplomat Richard Colvin, who contradicted their position. On the same file, they tried to deny Parliament its historic right to documents. On the same file, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor got caught misleading the House, had to apologize, and later resigned. On the same file, the Conservatives terminated the work of Peter Tinsley, the Military Police Complaints Commissioner, whose inquiry was getting close to the bone. Tinsley’s commission was denied documents for reasons of national security — even though all his commission members had national security clearance. Lastly, it was this same file which played a large role in the prime minister’s decision to again prorogue Parliament.

      <li><strong>My way or the highway</strong><em>:</em></li>

The prime minister had once criticized Paul Martin’s Liberals, saying that when a government starts eliminating dissent, it loses its moral right to govern. In a variety of punitive ways, Harper moved against NGOs, independent agencies, watchdog groups, and tribunals who showed signs of differing with his intent.

In some cases he fired their directors or stacked their boards with partisans. In others, he sued them or cut their funding. The targets of such tactics included the Rights and Democracy group, Elections Canada, Veterans’ Ombudsman Pat Stogran, Budget Officer Kevin Page and many more. His party’s smear tactics — sometimes resembling those of right-wing Republicans — included labelling the Liberal party anti-Israel, calling Dalton McGuinty the small man of Confederation, trying to link Liberal MP Navdeep Bains to terrorism, and calling for reprisals against academics such as the University Ottawa’s Michael Behiels for questioning their policies.

      <li><strong>Personal attack ads</strong>:</li>

Beginning when Stéphane Dion was elected Liberal leader, the Harper Conservatives became the most frequent deployer of personal attack ads — many of them blatantly dishonest — of any government. Before the Conservatives’ arrival, such ads were seldom, if ever, used in pre-writ periods. They made them a common practice.

      <li><strong>A democratic party?</strong></li>

Though he came from the Reform Party, Harper, as his mentor Preston Manning once said, never showed much interest in power sharing. His Conservative Party has become a reflection of his command and control style. Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former strategic guru, helped the leader evolve the Tories into what Flanagan calls a garrison party. It basically exists, he said, to go to war against opponents, raise money, and bow at the leader’s feet.

Helena Guergis, the excommunicated MP, is one of the latest to find out what one’s rights within the party amount to. Under Mr. Harper, the rank and file have had little say in policy formation. At the riding level, no dissonance with central command is tolerated. Last year, when constituents in Rob Anders’ Calgary riding tried to organize to contest his renomination, party operatives descended like a commando unit, seized control of the riding executive, and crushed the bid.

      <li><strong>Legal Threats</strong>:</li>

The Conservatives ran from accountability by running to the courts. No government has resorted to legal threats and challenges to intimidate opponents as much as this one.

In the so called Cadman-gate affair, wherein the Conservatives were accused of trying to bribe independent MP Chuck Cadman for his vote, the party resorted to suing the Liberals. They went after Tom Zytaruk, who wrote a book on the affair, alleging Mr. Zytaruk’s tape of an interview with Harper was altered.

The party sued Elections Canada in connection with the in-and-out affair and it is using legal channels to try to block information gathered by the Military Police Complaints Commission on the Afghan detainees’ affair.

In other cases, the Conservatives chose to circumvent their own laws. In the interest of making democracy fairer, Harper brought in a welcome measure — a fixed-date election law. PMs no longer had the advantage of setting election dates at their own choosing. But in 2008 Harper ignored his own law and went to the Governor General to call an election.

The government’s perspective in democratic/legal rights area was illustrated when Harper went so far as to appeal a Canadian Federal Court  decision asking the United States to repatriate the Canadian Omar Khadr from Guantanamo. Harper was reluctant to speak out against the judicial travesties at Gitmo. The Conservatives shut down the Court Challenges Program, which provided funding for Canadians to defend their Charter rights. They fought hard to deport Iraqi war resisters and they went to extremes to crush protests at the G-20 summit.


The story of increased concentration of power in the prime minister’s office is one, as charted by Donald Savoie and other specialists, that has been ongoing for decades. But the experts are hard pressed to find another prime minister as obsessed with control as the current one.

Finance Minister Paul Martin points toward Prime Minister Jean Chretien while responding to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Oct. 31, 2001. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
Chrétien was driven, at times, to authoritarian measures because of his longstanding bitter feud with Quebec separatists. They posed a challenge to him in his own riding, so he went to unusual lengths to secure support there. He bestowed on it largesse by the barrelful, leading to the Shawinigate controversy. At the province-wide level he was determined to ward off secessionist threats. Excesses in pursuit of that goal resulted in the sponsorship scandal.

When he faced an internal rebellion in the party, led by Paul Martin, Chrétien sometimes resorted to extraordinary measures of control as well. And there were other heavy-handed tactics, as seen when Chrétien shut down the Somalia inquiry and used tactics to drown out protests at the APEC conference in Vancouver in 1997. But in day-to-day governance he delegated much power to his cabinet and the public service. He was never personally driven to try to control Ottawa like Harper.

Lorraine Weinrib, a professor of law and political science, says Harper is intent to construct his own constitutional framework. His actions, she said, align with “an all-powerful executive that makes its own rules on a play-by-play basis.” Those actions “reveal an understanding of democratic engagement that barely tolerates the dispersal of power.”

If a healthy democracy requires some degree of balance of power between the executive branch, the legislative branch and other power sources, there is little such balance today. The Harper effect has been to enfeeble the other constituent parts. The state of democracy now is such that the civil service is subjugated, the committee system weakened, watchdogs anemic, independent agencies intimidated, information less available, the prime minister’s own party in servitude, political parties soon — if Harper gets his way — to be stripped of public funding.

Consultant Keith Beardsley who worked in the Harper PMO, said the initial plan in 2006, when the party was new to power and insecure, was to put the hammer down — exert maximum control — for about the first six months. The six months came and went, he said, but the hammer was never lifted.

Critics fear it never will be, that we may just be seeing the beginning, that Harper will see an election victory as vindication for authoritarian methods and that more will follow.

The remarkable thing, as professor Russell notes, in looking at the way this prime minister has overpowered the system, is that he has done it all with only a minority government. Even prime ministers with big majorities have never been able — if indeed it was ever their intent — to bring the system to heel to the extent of the minority man.

This post originally appeared on iPolitics, here. © 2011 iPolitics Inc.

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