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The Conservative Party's Fair-Weather Democrats

September 9, 2011

2-minute read

With the results of the  Canadian Wheat Board's 2011 producer plebiscite now in, farmers have given the single-desk for wheat a rousing endorsement with 62% of the votes cast. Despite the vote being held at the end of summer and through a mail-in ballot (which have notoriously low response rates), almost 37,000 farmers participated in the plebiscite. Notwithstanding the will of the majority of wheat-producing farmers to maintain the CWB single-desk, Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz has made it clear that he intends to ignore the wishes of prairie farmers, stating that the federal election is mandate enough for the governing Conservatives to dismantle the single-desk.

Indeed Gerry Ritz has been virtually omnipresent in prairie media over the last few months, continually attacking the legitimacy of the farmers’ plebiscite, calling it "seriously flawed," and nothing more than an “expensive survey” while vowing that his government will not heed the results, even if a majority of farmers vote to keep the CWB single-desk.

The attack on the legitimacy of the farmers’ plebiscite and the disdain that both Harper and Minister Ritz display for this instance of producer direct democracy is all the more hypocritical due to both Harper and Ritz’s Reform Party history. Ritz was first elected as a Reform party candidate in 1997 while Stephen Harper was also a Reform MP and the Reform Party's Chief Policy Officer.

Back when both Harper and Ritz were members of the Reform Party, such grassroots initiatives were hailed as the very essence of democracy. Indeed, “direct democracy” was an essential plank in Reform’s electoral platform, as citizens’ plebiscites and referenda were advanced as a means to empower citizens and bypass what the Reform Party viewed as a broken and unaccountable parliament and corrupt party system.

Such instances of “direct-democracy” were preferred due to their “market-like” registration of citizen preference and touted as a way to rejuvenate public interest and participation in democracy.

So it is peculiar that such a champion of "market preference" as Harper would so vehemently oppose the farmers’ plebiscite. Unless, of course, he now believes that parliament’s “broken and corrupt” representative democracy is somehow a superior measure of voters’ preferences? Strange how a majority can do that.

While Harper has not been as vocal an advocate for forms of direct-democracy as he was in the past, it was only as little as six years ago that Harper vowed to “sweep the west” with his plan of direct democracy and electoral reform. Only four short years ago, Harper backed a plan that would have provincial plebiscites determine Senate appointments. Furthermore, the last CWB plebiscite, ordered and controlled by the Harper Conservatives, was deemed a perfectly acceptable means to decide the fate of the Wheat Board, despite being littered with a litany of dirty tricks that would make Machiavelli blush.

(Bonus question: How was the current Conservative Party of Canada formed? Answer: By plebiscite approving the merger of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives)

So what has changed that these former staunch advocates of direct democracy are now so opposed to that which they used to hail as the very essence of a citizens’ democracy? As the results revealed today suggest, Harper and Ritz seem less concerned with democracy and more concerned with ensuring their own desired outcome; an outcome prairie farmers have patently refused.

It seems Harper and Ritz only welcome forms of direct democracy when it suits them and they feel the process can be controlled; they may want to remember that the origin of the plebiscite in Western Canada was the result of what author Gordon Laird calls "the rebellious impulses of pissed-off farmers." If the Conservatives continue to dismiss the democratic will of prairie farmers, they may very well become the next target of those "rebellious impulses."


Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University.

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