Harper’s arrogance reflects our weakness

It is a pattern only too familiar after four years of Harper government (yes, hard to believe, but true, he’s been prime minister that long). Whenever Harper senses that the opposition – whether political or civil – is weak, divided and disorganized he moves with characteristic ruthlessness against democratic institutions and governance.  He is confident that, with the media effectively silenced through its long complicity with the neo-liberal agenda, and citizens pre-occupied with their individual concerns, that he can get away with it.

The second prorogation of Parliament in a year demonstrates an absolute contempt for democracy. It is, even to the compliant and conservative media pundits, a transparent effort to cool off the Afghan torture issue which threatened to regain momentum, lost when Parliament recessed for Christmas.  The arrogance of the government was further demonstrated in its half-hearted effort to even come up with an excuse – saying that a new Parliament is needed now that the economic crisis has moved to the recovery stage.

Perhaps the even greater contempt for Parliament lies in the fact that some 35 pieces of legislation – the true work of the House of Commons – has simply been wiped from the map. Even Harper’s favourite bills, those getting tough on crime, go down the drain in this crass assault on democracy. Nothing is more important than staying in power and by taking the Afghan scandal off the table Harper can introduce a March budget so draconian that the opposition will have to vote against it. Harper will get the election no one wants and for which he will not be blamed.

But the prorogation is not the only example. Conservative members of the committee investigating the torture cover-up scandal demonstrated their contempt by refusing to attend the committee sessions which, under House rules, means the committee could not meet.

But perhaps the most chilling example of overt abuse of power comes from both Harper and his government’s official Israeli agent, Jason Kenny. Kenny told an Israeli audience that the reason the government cancelled the $7 million development and peace grant to KAIROS, the decades-old ecumenical Christian coalition, was because he was ensuring that groups exhibiting anti-Semitism would not be supported by the government. It did not matter that the specific claims he made (that KAIROS was a leading organization promoting the BDS campaign – Boycott, Divest and Sanction) were completely false.

CIDA had fully vetted KAIROS’s program and it was developed in cooperation with its officials. The gross political intervention might just as well lead to the government by-passing all democratic institutions and make spending decisions on the basis of the personal and ideological preferences of Harper and his inner circle.

It may well be that Harper, as he has in the past, has overstepped the bounds and miscalculated this time. He may yet pay a price. But he was, as of the middle of December still just shy of 40% while the Liberals were barely breaking 30%. That does not give Harper a majority but it does nothing to chasten his determination to savage democracy.

How does he get away with it? It isn’t just a hopelessly weak Liberal Party and a meek and morally challenged Michael Ignatieff (though that is the most important immediate reason). It is also an extremely weak set of civil society institutions which seem not to grasp the seriousness of the situation facing the country. Part of the problem is long term: so long as the system delivered the goods – Medicare, education, safe streets, functioning infrastructure and the appearance of governance – most Canadians don’t sweat the small stuff.

Taught over decades that government should be at best tolerated, it is difficult for politically disengaged citizens to get excited about arcane political events like prorogation and walking out of committees and even interference in giving out a grant. The neutral civil service is a critical part of any democracy, but for most people it has been framed as a “bloated bureaucracy.” For a political culture that puts a higher value on deciding what big-screen TV to buy than it does on thinking about the direction of the country, these things just don’t add up to much. They amount to a side-show and ironically all the political parties to some extent get blamed for the so-called “political games.”

While this reflects a long-term weakness of our democratic institutions it is the short-term that is more troublesome. Given the danger the country faces from the Harper dictatorship there should be emergency meetings being held in Ottawa with all the national unions, the churches, the Council of Canadians, national environmental organizations and other civil society groups whose job it is to create a political culture in which this kind of fascist-minded government simply could not operate.

Harper’s vicious politics were in some ways inevitable. If we allow our political culture to erode and weaken into little more than a side-show to consumerism, it is just a matter of time before the forces of reaction seize the moment and permanently change the country.

It means, in effect, that we are simply not serious in fighting the dismantling of the country. Given the values of Canadians, and the enormous capacity of civil society to respond to the challenge if it chooses to, this simply should not be happening. That it is happening is a dramatic demonstration of our failure of political will.

When will we get serious? Maybe that should be our collective New Year’s resolution. We have two months in which to accept the challenge.

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