Since coming to power, Stephen Harper’s administration has made headlines for undermining government opennesses and accountability, introducing divisive if not outright unpopular laws and ignoring or intimidating critics, including the fourth estate.
On such foundations, dictatorships are built, leading to concerns about the state of our democracy. But how much of that brickwork was actually laid by Harper and how much was there before he even became prime minister?
Two recent books on the Conservative leader appear to have somewhat different answers, with our country’s future dependant how citizens respond to that question.
In Party of One, author Michael Harris recounts a 1997 speech in which a younger Harper essentially described our system of government as a dictatorship run by the Prime Minister of Canada.
For Harris, that description was “inept,” ignoring the “opposition’s role in bringing out public information,” as well as the work of all-party committees in “holding the government to account.” Given such context, many readers might assume the speech was instead simply a foretelling of Harper’s approach to government – an approach Harris appears to frame as anomalous.
Harris didn’t respond to an email I sent requesting comment. But Mark Bourrie, the author of Kill The Messengers, confirmed he thinks the future prime minister’s description of our political system was simply truthful.
In that book*, which was released about three months after Party of One, Bourrie acknowledges the prime minister “harnessed the [political] system to suit his own agenda and personality” and has created a “new, undemocratic way of ruling Canada.”
Yet that system, as well as our society, is suited to being harnessed. After all, according to Bourrie, “Once we install a new regime, usually to punish the last bunch of rogues, most Canadians feel the country is in the hands of the winners until the next election.”
Our political system then turns that feeling into fact, with the biggest winners of them all being the country’s prime ministers who have often worked to fortify and expand their magisterial powers over both the citizenry and its representatives.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest the principal difference between Harper and many of his predecessors may be that he has simply been more likely to use the iron fist of his office and less likely to cover it with a velvet glove.
But it’s Harris’s somewhat decontextualized portrait of Harper – standing mostly alone rather than against a backdrop of societal deference and slow-drip authoritarianism – that understandably appears most often in the news.
After all, in politics as in sports, teams, players, politicians and parties are easier and more appealing to cover (and read about) than the rules of their respective games.
Think about it: just how many Canadians actually think a treatise on the perils of party discipline pairs well with their Cheerios and a cup of coffee at 7:00 in the morning?
The consequence is that citizens may believe that, if Harper is defeated, a Party of One will be replaced by a Government of the Many.
But the best we can probably hope for is a Government of the Few. And, in any case, the rules that have made it, in most cases, completely legal for Harper to do what he has done, will remain – something Canadians might not find out until his successors almost inevitably exploit them.
What’s really needed then isn’t an election but rather a national conversation about what we want from our political system rather than the politicians within it.
Otherwise, our democracy will continue to crumble and, in the process, burying what little say we will stay have in this country between elections.
• On Tuesday, information commissioner Suzanne Legault will table a special report entitled Striking the Right Balance for Transparency – Recommendations to Modernize the Access to Information Act. (hat tip: Dean Beeby and Kirsten Smith)
• Former federal government communications manager Christopher Neal writes that, when the Harper administration came to power, “I was first baffled, then alarmed, and finally outraged at orders from ‘the centre’ (i.e., the Prime Minister’s Office, or PMO) on how to deal with media questions. Before Harper, most journalists’ queries were routinely referred to the appropriate government official, that is, someone with the expertise to address the topic raised, and an interview would be set up. This practice was outlined in the Government of Canada’s Communications Policy (effectively ignored under Harper), and was seen as a kind of self-evident obligation, consistent with life in a democratic society. This practice was now forbidden.”
• DeSmog Canada’s Carol Linnitt has obtained records showing the office of Canada’s environment minister scuttled her request for an interview with a federal government scientist. Linnitt had wanted to speak with the scientist, Philippe Thomas, about toxins in fur-bearing animals in the oilsands.
• In his submission to the standing committee on public safety and national security, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin writes the government’s anti-terrorism bill would “extend government secrecy much further.” (hat tip: Canadian Association of Journalists Ottawa Chapter)
• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he’s finally received response from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to an access to information request he filed on Nov. 2, 2012. “There are no full-page exemptions,” Rennie writes. “But [there are] plenty of section 19(1), 21(1)(a)(b) and 23 exemptions throughout.”
• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he filed an access to information request for briefs prepared for the prime minister about the doubling of Canada’s child fitness tax credit. Five months later, the pages he received were “all blacked out as [cabinet] confidence!”
• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports on a “surreal practice by Alberta RCMP” that “seems to have come into effect, in earnest, this January.” According to the columnist, the Mounties are withholding the names of homicide victims to protect the privacy of their families. “When or if someone is eventually charged with a crime, the name of the victim will come out in court records. But the RCMP won’t release it, without the family’s permission.”
• The Consort Enterprise’s Dave Bruha writes that recently introduced amendments to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act seem “like a huge step backwards for a government trying to promote a new era of openness and accountability. The sketchy legislation, which was quickly given first and second reading last week, will essentially allow local municipal governments to hide public business from residents.”
• In response to a freedom of information request filed by freelancer Bob Mackin, the office of British Columbia’s premier reports it has no records of who was invited to attend the province’s recent throne speech.
• British Columbia’s Private Career Training Institutions Agency had earlier refused to disclose the identity of its legal counsel and payments made to that firm in response to a freedom of information request filed by Mackin. But the province’s information commissioner has ruled against that refusal.
• CTV News reports, “Legal advocates for a group of homeless people in B.C.’s Fraser Valley say they won’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to access police documents after a court ruling.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• The Daily Gleaner is backing a call by the leader of New Brunswick’s Green Party to have the government to release the terms of reference for a reference for a commission reviewing the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in that province.
• InfoTel News’s Marshall Jones is asking Okanagan and Kamloops, B.C. readers to “be [the] eyes and ears for your communities for your communities and share what you see or hear about police activities” on two Facebook pages he’s setup. The reason: InfoTel’s police scanner doesn’t pick up the RCMP’s digital radio transmissions. And the RCMP has been unwilling to fill that information gap by giving the more more information about what they are up to. (hat tip: Deborah Jones)
• The Journal reports Queen’s University has denied access to statistics on animal testing practices at the institution, “citing the safety of its staff and researchers as a major concern.” But the student newspaper points out other universities release similar information.
• The Province reports TransLink’s media office was “unable to make someone available” for a story about the Vancouver’s regional transportation authority’s long-delayed smart cards, even though the newspaper provided a four-day window to respond to that request.
• TransLink has turned down Mackin’s request to observe its upcoming board of directors meeting. Mackin notes the authority “has a $1.4 billion-a-year budget half of which is from taxation, but its board meets behind closed doors four times a year after allowing a short time for registered members of the public to ask questions.”
• Portage la Prairie, Man.’s council has introduced a new policy that will see a communications coordinator “act as the initial point of contact when media are looking to interview an elected official.” The city’s local newspaper reports that means the media “would only be able to contact elected officials during city hall office hours. Prior to this policy the media was unrestricted in its access to the mayor and council.”
• Journalist Trudy Beyak writes that British Columbia Mayor Henry Braun is setting a “dangerous precedent” by directing “the public to his private email on his Facebook page where he posts as a politician promoting the City of Abbotsford.”
• SooToday.com reports Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.’s search of a new chief administrative officer “began in blazing openness, but has now retreated squarely behind closed doors.”
• The Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan takes a dim view of a city council motion “that could cut the number of accountability officers in half – combining the auditor-general and Ombudsman into one job, and the Integrity Commissioner and lobbyist registrar into another.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
* = Disclosure: I provided Bourrie access to an online copy of my documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline, which is mentioned in his book. My name is also mentioned in the acknowledgements section of Kill the Messengers.