Allan Gregg, the veteran pollster and commentator, caused a bit of a stir recently when, in a speech at Carleton University, he accused the Harper government of making an Orwellian assault on democracy and reason.
No sooner had that speech been delivered than the Conservatives, as if bent on buttressing the thesis, entered into all kinds of hyperbole and doublespeak in accusing the New Democrats of wanting a country-destroying carbon tax. The party favours a cap-and-trade system that the Conservatives previously endorsed; it's not a direct carbon tax, although costs from it would be passed on to the consumer – as they can be from regulatory measures favoured by the Conservatives.
For his accusation, Stephen Harper took a media drubbing. Pungent Ottawa Citizen observer Dan Gardner led the way, saying the Prime Minister was treating us like morons.
Mr. Gregg's thesis got another lift with news of the impending arrival of another Conservative Trojan horse bill. We recall their recent omnibus budget bill, the one in which a multitude of non-budget measures were included so as to lessen democratic scrutiny of them. Critics on the left and right – even Sun Media – denounced it as a blatant abuse of process by a Prime Minister who once blasted the Liberals for bringing in a smaller omnibus bill.
No matter – it isn't stopping him from doing it again. "Being flagrantly exposed as a hyprocite," the Montreal Gazette bluntly editorialized, "seems not to bother Stephen Harper." Instead, it appears to embolden him. He tends to double down, as when his government was found in contempt of Parliament last year and he responded with the imposition, in near record fashion, of closure and time limits on debates.
It seems Mr. Harper has concluded that he can continually get away with in-your-face provocations. The media and the opposition parties, he reasons, will move on; at some point, everything becomes old news. Although the latest poll shows Mr. Harper with just a 35-per-cent approval rating (while Barack Obama, with a dismal economy, gets 50 per cent), he may be right. People have short memories.
That said, though, we shouldn't overlook the cumulative impact of his work. Given Liberal abuses, this democracy was in sad shape before Mr. Harper took office. But if it was bad then, check out some of the things that have happened since.
There's been the introduction of a big brotherish vetting system wherein the Harper office controls all messaging. There's been a muzzling of free speech that extends to some of our most distinguished scientists. There've been myriad moves, the latest on fisheries and the environment, to disempower regulatory and oversight bodies. The suppression of research and empirical data has become routine in this government, as has the taking of major decisions without public consultation.
The Privy Council Office and public service have become more and more politicized, there being no finer example than the fake citizenship ceremony wherein bureaucrats were used as political stooges. The once powerful committee system has been made more and more anemic. Parliament has been routinely misled, as in the G8 spending fiasco and the F-35 fighter jet deceptions. Lapdogs have been appointed as watchdogs. Sledgehammer tactics have been routinely used to limit debates and intimidate government critics.
Well, at least, you might say, we still have democracy's holy grail – a free and fair electoral system. But even that's in doubt, given the allegations, mainly against Conservatives, of vote-suppression tactics.
Given his drawing of Orwellian parallels, Mr. Gregg will surely be amused that Mr. Harper is receiving an award this week for being a champion of freedom and democracy. Indeed, there are many who don't seem bothered by his modus operandi. It's as if it's just politics as usual, the new normal.
At the same time, many other voices are raised in protest. But they don't get enough traction. The dogs bark and the caravan – the mockery of democracy – moves on.