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Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

The state gets more intrusive – again Add to ...

With the government’s new anti-terror legislation, C-51, the state gets bigger. Again. And more intrusive. Again.

A case can be made for more intelligence-gathering capacity. The legislation does that, allowing for enhanced spying and incarceration powers. But as many have noted, there is no corresponding increase in oversight capacities to ensure that the loosely defined new powers aren’t abused.

These powers enlarge already expanded authorizations from Bill C-13, passed in December. It allows open season for authorities to monitor online activities. Telecoms cannot be sued for disclosing your messaging, which they are doing in great volume to government agencies.

It’s another example of government growth and overreach. Conservatives are supposed to stand for small government, but our executive branch’s tentacles are everywhere. We now have arguably the biggest, most overbearing government in our country’s history. In fiscal terms, government’s size has been reduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which Conservatives can well applaud, but in other domains, it is a leviathan.

Pierre Trudeau’s government was a big spender and domineering – War Measures Act, anyone? – in many ways. But Mr. Trudeau expanded Canadians’ liberties with his landmark Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The story of Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, by contrast, is one of reducing rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – Ottawa is drawing up an inventory of protesters – and any other number of liberties.

A healthily functioning system provides effective oversight on what the ruler is doing. Here, the oversight has been overtaken by the ruler himself.

And so we see the oversight powers of the House of Commons reduced by omnibus bills, by measures to restrict debate in the increasingly dysfunctional committee process, by attempts to mislead Parliament or denying it basic information.

And so we see the traditional oversight function of the Senate hijacked by the Prime Minister’s Office, and not just in the case of the Senate expenses scandal.

And so we see the public service and the foreign service silenced like never before, their traditional role in policy development diminished.

And so we see the reduction of oversight powers of many independent agencies, such as Elections Canada. And so we see the Conservatives repeatedly trying to thwart and manipulate media access, to the point even of altering documents.

Most every Ottawa institution capable of providing checks on executive overreach has been disempowered to some degree. The exception – and it hasn’t been for the Prime Minister’s lack of trying – is the Supreme Court, which has used the Charter to thwart Mr. Harper’s hegemony.

It’s not just the accrual of powers that is oppressive. There is the unrelenting application of propaganda and intimidation.

The Conservatives’ propaganda machine is omnipresent, spending unprecedented amounts – often of taxpayers’ money – to applaud themselves and denounce opponents. At the same time, others have their free speech restricted, the limitations extending well beyond the much-publicized gagging of the science community and of Omar Khadr.

Recently, we learned that the Canada Revenue Agency even has its lenses trained on a birdwatching society, threatening it with reprisals for its environmental messaging. The Kafkaesque crackdown was triggered by a law prohibiting charities from engaging in political activities. But does anyone think the birders would face repercussions if their message were pro-pipeline?

Intimidation is the modus operandi. Well-documented are the smear campaigns and the undercover operations against opponents run out of the highest political office in the land.

If you think it’s bad now, be prepared for worse, as with the anti-terror legislation. The danger with ideological leaders of any stripe is that in the name of security, they can ramp up state authority without the usual degree of public challenge. It’s why we see Mr. Harper hyping the terror threats Canada faces, as opposed to allaying the public’s fears.

More fear means more power. He knows it well, and so should the opposition leaders. If they can’t build a strong case against this new kind of Canada, they should find another line of work.

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