Is there a trend line emerging here?
Is our democracy finally showing some teeth? Are the checks and balances in the system, heretofore overpowered by the executive branch, reasserting themselves?
Last week, the Supreme Court offered a declaration of its independence, reminding the Prime Minister that its power is constitutionally entrenched, not subject to his whims or arrogance. In pushing a highly controversial choice on the court, the PM tried to retroactively rewrite the rules via one of his much-criticized omnibus bills. The court’s stinging rebuke was applauded by pundits and editorialists across the land.
The so-called Fair Elections Act appears to be meeting a similar fate. Universal condemnation and ridicule has greeted it. Even Canada’s academic community, usually silent in respect to abuse of power in Ottawa, has gotten in on the act on this one. Last week, democracy experts from around the world joined in, saying the bill would cripple the autonomy of Elections Canada and send a bad example to budding democracies.
Until recently, the RCMP hadn’t been showing much muscle. The independence of the Mounties – check the record with the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberals – has long been under suspicion. But on the Senate expenses scandal, they were quick to come out with a report that revealed how the Prime Minister’s Office tried to shield the whole sordid affair. On this, there is still more fallout to come.
For the Prime Minister, bending the system to his will is becoming a tougher challenge. What will be telling is whether he accepts defeat on his Supreme Court appointment and his elections bill or whether he adopts his to-hell-with-you-all attitude and goes the other way. We can expect he will ram through his elections bill with a couple of amendments to try to mollify critics. In regard to the Supreme Court, few expect he will reappoint Marc Nadon. But his office is saying all options are on the table.
While his own record on democratic rights and freedoms is frequently assailed, it hasn’t stopped Mr. Harper, a supporter of the fiction-induced invasion of Iraq, from trying to appear as a champion of rights and freedoms in lecturing Vladimir Putin. While there is some irony here, the Russian thug – who is in a different league – surely warrants such condemnation. The timing is good for the Prime Minister. It distracts from the mounting struggles he faces at home.
In Canada, his own party members have had things to say about his curtailing of freedom of speech. They won a battle over the right to deliver statements with their own wording at Question Period. Former finance minister Jim Flaherty recently struck an independent note by publicly taking exception to the Harper policy on income splitting. In short order, he resigned.
Pushback in respect to PMO dictates is also coming from other quarters. Some in the public service, particularly the science community, have spoken out against the muzzling. The Ottawa media are getting more fractious about having their access dictated to by the Prime Minister’s propaganda machine. They are talking about taking strides to counter the manipulation.
All this is not to say that any big corner has been turned. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May offered this perspective late last year: “What is seen daily is routine contempt for all our parliamentary institutions. Bills are forced through with time allocations, breaking all historical records for shutting down debate. In the 40-year period, 1917-1957, I found seven examples of time allocation. In the last two years, it has happened 50 times.”
Fifty times. That’s worth repeating. The strategy of the PMO has been to subjugate the other powers bases in Ottawa, the checks and balances in the system, to the point where they offer little resistance. The record shows that major progress has been made. But evidence suggests resistance is growing in many quarters, including, if opinion polls are to be believed, from the people themselves.