“The doctrine that the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy is like saying that the cure of crime is more crime.” H.L. Mencken, American journalist
Stephen Harper’s fascist grip on Canada was not established suddenly or by force. It developed gradually over six years in full public view, and largely with the public’s acquiescence, even approval. As we know, a sufficient number of Canadians voted to give Harper a majority in the May 2011 election simply because they deemed frequent voting for minority governments to be too much of an inconvenience.
As such, Harper’s pre-meditated destruction of Canada’s democracy, however imperfect it may have been ante tyrannidem, is a tragedy in the proper sense of the word—it could have been prevented, but since it’s too late to talk about prevention, what, if anything, can now be done about it? A lot, actually, provided that Parliament’s defenders have the will to do what is necessary.
The Parliamentary Options
In theory, any prime minister can be impeached or censured by the House of Commons, Senate, or governor-general, resulting in dismissal fined or imprisonment. Canada’s founding Constitution was deemed to be of a similar nature to that of Great Britain, and so Canada’s powers of impeachment are British. Unfortunately, these constitutionally valid institutional remedies, archaic though they may be, are virtually unknown, and if mentioned are reflexively disparaged as “undemocratic” or “colonial.”
(For the record, no Canadian politician has ever been impeached or censured, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The last British politician to be impeached was Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, for misappropriation of public funds in 1806. He was later acquitted.)
Given Harper’s majority, and the fact that the Senate is rife with pro-Harper sockpuppets, impeachment by the House (a vote of non-confidence) would require a backbench revolt (hint! hint!). The time for a vote of non-confidence or censure was during his minority governments from 2006 to 2011. But neither the Liberals nor the New Democratic Party had the brains or the balls to put the national good ahead of political self-interest.
The best Parliamentary hope, therefore, lies with the governor-general, Canada’s appointed head of state who traditionally represents the Crown. The position has been formally independent of the British monarchy since 1947, yet there are still wingnuts who claim that Queen Elizabeth II, herself, wields ultimate political authority in Canada.
The G-G’s main function is to ensure that Canada always has a prime minister to lead a government; however, the role of the prime minister is not constitutionally defined. Elections notwithstanding, it is the G-G who selects the prime minister, not the governing party or the electorate. Because the G-G appoints the prime minister, the prime minister can also be summarily dismissed (disappointed?). This happened after the 1896 general election when the Earl of Aberdeen refused to recognize Sir Charles Tupper as prime minister after he failed to earn a majority.
This fate would have befallen Harper if Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean had had the courage to stand her ground and defend her office. In December 2008, Harper was faced with an almost certain non-confidence vote on the budget, which could well have seen his soi-disant government give way to a Liberal-NDP coalition supported, ironically, by the separatist Bloc Québécois. In an act of desperate cowardice, Harper asked Jean to prorogue (suspend) Parliament so that he wouldn’t have to face imminent defeat in the House.
Jean had no obligation to accede to his wish. Since Canada had recently had an election, a coalition would have held a de facto majority in the House, and would have been more representative of the electoral will. Therefore, she should have asked Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to form a government, distasteful as that might have been. In the end, after making Harper cool his heels for 2.5 hours, she acquiesced, and during the following two-month hiatus the Harperites used fear mongering and character assassination to sabotage the coalition—opportunity lost. Had Jean done the right thing, we would at least have been spared the fascistic Bill C-38.
What is to be done?
Despite the lost opportunities over the last seven years, there is cause for optimism: we at least know that ridding Canada of democratic totalitarianism is not a problem that the mass public can solve. This is an institutional matter that the institution of Parliament can solve, but the public can push their MPs to do the right thing.
For example, the NDP could support a nation-wide, write-in petition to have Governor-General David Johnston remove Harper as prime minister. If the petition garnered enough signatures, the pressure might well be sufficient to force Johnston to act, given that his duty is to protect Parliament and the Canadian public. At minimum, opposition MPs could publicly denounce Harper and his ruling cabal as fascist and rally the public to support radical remedies for his removal.
To date, neither of these measures has been tried. Instead, the NDP, the defenders of Parliament, has chosen to allow Harper to dictate the terms of debate and to martyr themselves for their own ideals, as the following example shows.
Martyrdom as political strategy
For most of its history, the NDP has been an electoral also-ran that projected the image of a champion of the working classes, and behaved as the moral conscience of the nation. It got away with this self-indulgent posturing because it had no foreseeable hope of having to make good on its rhetoric.
Now, Parliament is under attack, and the NDP suddenly finds itself as the Official Opposition, but instead of defending Parliament, it persists in spouting banalities, stating the obvious, and posturing for the masses. On May 15, 2012, House Leader Nathan Cullen issued in the following e-mail to supporters about the NDP’s plans to oppose Bill C-38:
The Harper Conservatives are playing games with our country’s future, and I need your help to hold them accountable—right now. They are trying to ram hundreds of pages of harmful measures through Parliament—without adequate study or debate.
Their Budget Implementation Act is a massive, 425-page bill that will: gut environmental assessments; cut public pensions and job standards; weaken public health care services; threaten fisheries and resources; and reduce democratic accountability.
The Conservatives have rejected our constructive proposals to study and debate this Trojan Horse bill. So it comes down to all of us, working together, to hold them accountable. As your Official Opposition, we have launched our own budget review sessions across Canada. Now we need to hear from you.
Click here to speak out: budget2012.ndp.ca
Cullen correctly identifies the problem (“ram[ming] hundreds of pages of harmful measures through Parliament—without adequate study or debate”), but then admits to political impotence—“It comes down to all of us, working together, to hold them accountable.”
What does Cullen expect the mass public to do?! Why should they have to do anything? It’s the politicians’ job to hold the government accountable.
On May 22, I went to the Vancouver Public Library to attend one of these sessions. It was not as advertised. There was little in the way of a “budget review.” Instead, a series of seven presenters (“witnesses” in Parliamentary argot) gave tedious speeches. They included two yakademics who spouted clichés and pious drivel about democracy to 200-odd attendees who, frankly, didn’t need to have their intelligence insulted. For their part, the six MPs present merely alternated with audience members in reacting to the speakers’ comments. Some MPs barely said a word.
It became increasingly obvious as the evening droned on that this “budget review” was a PR stunt to preach to the converted, spout the requisite platitudes and nostrums, and posture for the next election, all the while claiming to stand up for Canada. At length, I got to the microphone and addressed the MPs collectively:
What do you plan to do outside of the House to stop Harper? The minute you step inside you are lost! Parliament is dead. Harper has a majority and can ignore you at will.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Harper is a fascist, This is not business as usual. If you don’t believe me, let me read you the defining characteristics of a fascist government, almost all of which apply to Harper. [I proceed to cite the 14 defining characteristics from my book and am greeted with applause as I do. The MPs seem bemused.]
Harper is committing treason. We are at WAR! What do you plan to do about it!
No response. I might as well have been speaking Russian.
At the end of this farce, which lasted about three hours, I went up to new Quebec MP Charmaine Borg to ask her if she’d at least be prepared to stand up in the House to denounce Harper as a fascist. She couldn’t run away fast enough. MP Fin Donnelly listened politely as I emphasized the folly of trying to defeat Harper in the House, but clearly was not prepared to do anything useful.
Planning for failure and succeeding
The NDP’s behaviour during the budget “debate” in mid-June proved my point, and should serve as an object lesson about how democratic totalitarianism is self-inflicted.
First, these dedicated champions of democracy presented more than 500 amendments in a non-stop, 25-plus-hour sitting. As if to underscore the magnitude of the personal sacrifice they were making on our behalf, NDP MPs sent out e-mail updates on the state of the debate, such as this June 12 dispatch from Deputy Finance Critic Guy Caron:
We put forward hundreds of amendments on this budget bill – practical amendments that reflect the concerns of Canadians and protect the things you care about most.
So far, in an unprecedented abuse of their majority, Conservatives have voted against every single one. They continue to ignore the concerns of Canadians as they force through their reckless agenda. But we’ll keep standing up for the things that matter to you, and we won’t back down. [my emphasis]
Did Caron, or any MP, really expect a majority government that had declared war on Parliament to agree to anything? How did committing an act of wanton, premeditated futility serve the interests of Canadians? The reason was best expressed in a June 19 e-mail from Cullen:
Stephen Harper’s political games and reckless agenda have just changed this country – and Canadians are angry.
We asked the Conservatives to listen to the tens of thousands of Canadians like you who spoke out against this budget. And we put forward hundreds of practical amendments to stand up for the things you care about most.…
Now we need to gear up for the next fight. To take on Stephen Harper—and win. Your donation of $25, $50 or whatever you can afford, will send Stephen Harper a clear message: we don’t want his Canada. [my emphasis]
Canadians expected leadership but got a pledge drive. This is what the NDP really thinks of the Canadian electorate. In fact, a case could be made that the NDP is chiefly responsible for the destruction of Canada because it helped Harper get into power and failed to remove him when it could have. That’s Jack Layton’s legacy.
Fascism didn’t invade Canada; it was let in the front door by the very people we entrusted to keep it out. In the name of honesty, the NDP should send out the following e-mail:
“In this difficult time, as we fight to protect the country against Stephen Harper’s totalitarianism, we will do everything safe and traditional to show you that we care: We will reflect back to you what you already know. We will insult Harper. We will give repetitive, passionate speeches. We will claim the moral high ground. But even though Harper is destroying the environment, consumer protection, civil liberties, and pretty much everything that makes Canada a decent society, we will not do anything tangible to stop him. Any such action would take us out of our comfort zone.
“The NDP does not recognize any tactic beyond fighting elections, because we don’t respect the value that unelected bodies bring to our democracy. Therefore, we will make no appeal to the governor-general or to the courts to stop Harper, much less inform you that such valid avenues exist. We will also not denounce Harper as a fascist or a traitor, because that wouldn’t be polite, and politeness is so much more important than the truth. Even if such an appeal were successful, it could come back to hurt us when we form government, and that’s really all that matters, right?
“So, until the next federal election, we will continue to cry, protest, posture and be your voice in Ottawa, even though we know the government doesn’t have to care. It’s the thought, and your political contributions, that count.”