Canada has never had an election campaign like this. Not only its length is unprecedented and its cost record-breaking. For the first time in postwar history, one of the nation’s major political parties has dispensed with the inconvenient tradition of meeting voters.
The Conservatives see no need to talk to Canadians who don’t support them. Tory candidates seldom participate in town halls or election debates. Party leader Stephen Harper, who has served as prime minister for nine years, allows only supporters into his campaign events.
How do we hold a governing party accountable for its actions when its members and candidates are inaccessible? How do we compare our electoral choices when one party speaks only to its own backers?
The sad thing is that few voters seem to care. They are inured to Harper’s divide-and-conquer tactics.
In their defence, this is a relatively small departure from Canada’s democratic traditions, one that is more likely to hurt the Tories than their critics. But over the past decade, Harper’s “small” changes have exacted a hefty toll. One by one, Canadians have lost the tools they need to understand what their government is doing and make informed choices about the future.
As Election Day approaches it’s worth taking a moment to review what we’ve lost and ask how much more of our heritage we can afford to forfeit:
• A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for members of Parliament to spurn their constituents. Now, for half of parliamentarians, it is normal.
• When the Conservatives took power, no one could have imagined the cancellation of the mandatory full-length census, the single best source of information about how the nation is changing and how the government is meeting these challenges. Now it is gone.
• Before 2006 no Canadian prime minister — indeed no head of government in the Commonwealth — had ever been found in contempt of Parliament. It has happened twice on Harper’s watch. The Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that the government lied to Parliament and refused to release public documents. These actions contravene the principles on which responsible government is built.
• Never has a prime minister attacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the personification of Canada’s strong, independent judiciary. Harper broke ranks, challenging Beverley McLachlin and by extension the rule of law.
• Every prime minister for the past century has broadened the right to vote — to women, ethnic minorities, First Nations, Canadians living abroad, individuals with disabilities and homeless people. Harper attempted — with partial success — to reverse the process, disenfranchising thousands of voters with his Fair Elections Law.
• For 58 years, no prime minister cavilled about providing life-saving medicine to refugee claimants awaiting their hearings. It was a mark of a decent nation. Harper slashed the Interim Federal Health Program “to defend the interests of Canadian taxpayers.”
• Before Harper took power, Canadians were not a fearful people. We did not obsess over criminals in our communities, terrorists infiltrating our borders, bogus refugees exploiting our generosity or foreign wars threatening our security. We took reasonable precautions and got on with life. We trusted our fellow-citizens and gave refugee claimants a fair hearing. Now all of that is gone — dismissed as hopelessly naïve and unworldly.
• Nor were we a xenophobic people. We weren’t unnerved by kirpans or offended by niqabs. We didn’t use terms such as “barbaric cultural practices.” We didn’t regard outsiders as a threat; immigrants and their families as a burden; or refugees as potential terrorists. We took pride in our reputation as one of the world’s few successful pluralistic societies.
The list goes on: No prime minister has treated Canada’s Charter of Rights as an inconvenience he could ignore, challenge or test at taxpayers’ expense. No prime minister has sicced federal tax auditors on charities that protect the environment, speak for the poor, or fight for freedom of expression. No prime minister has stripped judges of their discretion to sentence lawbreakers. No prime minister has treated Canadian citizenship as a benefit that can be revoked at will by the government. No prime minister has forbidden federal scientists to share their findings with their international peers or the public.
“Small” changes add up. They transform the face of a nation and the character of its people. They prevent Canadians from finding out what is being done in their name, with their dollars. They erode empathy and trust.
Please don’t shrug. This matters. Where the trajectory goes from here is up to us.