Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jim Harding on the Federal Election


By Jim Harding
No Nukes
April 14, 2011

Ideally our listening skills will increase during this election. Informed consent requires that we don’t just vote from prejudice or simple habit. But it’s hard to learn to listen when we are hit by so many contradictory messages. It is tempting to tune-out.

I am a political non-partisan, without membership in any party. While I support various programs across parties, I am mostly concerned about the slippery slope that Canadian politics is now on. If we don’t get our political act together we won’t be able to tackle the huge challenges of climate change, food security and environmental health. And we simply must!

Only extreme partisans will not see that Stephen Harper’s politics is undercutting participatory democracy. Bullying always lowers the political bar. Before the last election had started, attack ads on then Liberal leader Stephane Dion made sure he wasn’t going to be heard. And the Harper machine has spent millions attacking the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, before this election had started.

We can only hope that this nasty, zero-sum politics isn’t normalized. It can be effective in concentrating votes to win power, which is what Harper is trying to do. If politics becomes all about accumulating power at any cost, including to democracy, then the nature of politics changes. Canadian politics is changing as we speak.


Harper has been found in contempt of parliamentary democracy for withholding financial and other information from Canada’s elected representatives. He has now made history in a way that none of us can be proud: being the first Canadian and Commonwealth Prime Minister to earn this reputation for “contempt”. His response about “winning some and losing some” just shows further contempt for accountability in the democratic process.

Harper’s exploitation of the public’s disdain for scandals just makes his “contempt” more stinging. In some countries this would end a political career. But even this finding of contempt doesn’t seem to have yet “stuck” to Harper, the “Teflon Man”. Canadians concerned about democracy need to ask why. I think it has something to do with deflection and deceit.

Harper immediately went right on the attack during the first week of this election, trying to generate fear among his political base that “the coalition” would take power if he doesn’t get a majority. This was also a way to divert attention from his politics of contempt. Thankfully there was some coverage of how two-faced Harper was, having played coalition politics when Paul Martin was PM. There will be a huge price for Canadian democracy if Harper’s strategy of accumulating power through dividing Canadians works. There is no vision presented that can truly unify us as a country. This changes the discourse of politics, and it will change our country.


Harper’s campaign is about electing a “strong leader” as though this is the way to create a stable country in an unstable world. Harper is a “strong-armed” but not a unifying leader. And even if he got a majority government his approach would fragment and destabilize Canada, and take us further off course, as does authoritarian rule everywhere.
I hear more friends, acquaintances and people I meet in conversation across Saskatchewan complaining about Harper’s creeping authoritarianism. Talk about vital issues such as growing economic inequality and climate change have gone to the back-burner. Even after Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster, sustainable energy still isn’t on the political agenda. How has that happened?

I am not naïve about the challenges of democracy. It is not easy to ensure informed consent at the polls. Money talks, and fear and righteous anger talks even louder! Big opinion easily shuts down being thoughtful. Polarization that silences “opponents”, the modus operandi of Harper from the start, is never healthy for a society. But it can serve certain political and economic interests.

We’ve all heard of the “Just Society”. Ignatieff seems to be trying to coin the term the “Good Society”. Can we legitimately label Harper’s vision the “Authoritarian Society”? It’s already abundantly clear that Harper wants Canada to grow as an energy superpower, at the expense of the environment and our future kin, and to become a more militarized and punitive society. With the majority of Canadians not supporting this “vision”, and with only a minority government, Harper has been able to move us in this direction. His contempt for parliamentary democracy and his use of the politics of fear and division are means towards these ends.


Is there anything we, as individuals, can do about this? The majority of those who voted in Saskatchewan in 2008 supported Harper Conservatives. The overall majority, however, did not support Harper Conservatives or did not vote at all. The representation for one-half of the electorate was only one of 14 MP’s – hardly fair or representative. So let’s be clear that a well-oiled, well-funded political machine that diverts attention from its own practices can get a minority into power. This is one of the reasons why, without electoral reform, our democracy is so vulnerable. Apathy, disillusionment and political fragmentation can allow a minority interest to rule.

Harper wouldn’t even be able to imagine a majority government, were we still mostly a two-party system. But the electorate is now fragmented (into Liberals, Social Democrats, Greens and Quebec Nationalists), and so Harper can target regions and issues and muster a large enough minority vote to try to impose his authoritarian vision on the rest of us. Some individuals, such as Regina’s Ralph Goodale, have earned some stature as politicians, but for the most part people continue to vote for a party. This of course plays into Harper’s hands.
What if the “progressives” from the Progressive Conservative Party that Harper helped destroy didn’t vote Conservative? What if people considering voting Liberal, Social democrat or Green voted for the party most likely to replace Harper Conservatives? Well things would turn out differently. But it takes us a long time to learn. The NDP used to send several Saskatchewan MP’s to Ottawa and it may have some chance of re-winning seats that include the bigger cities. But will Liberal and Green voters split this vote and risk Harper still “controlling the West”? Will party loyalties trump protecting Canada’s democracy and getting back to tackling sustainability? And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Will traditional NDP or Liberal voters support Green Party leader Elizabeth May in BC? Will the NDP and Liberal leaders support May, the only federal female leader, with nearly one million votes in 2008, getting back into the leader’s debate?

It is a lot to expect individual Canadians to consider the whole country when they cast their vote. Hopefully many more will do this, this time round. The act of voting itself will help ensure that Canada doesn’t slip further away from the vision of participatory democracy and sustainability. There was a record low turn-out in 2008; a low turn-out this time will be Harper’s greatest ally. So please don’t buy into the rhetoric that this “costly election is unnecessary” and we can all go back to watching TV and let a majority government happen by default. Canada is too important for us to disengage; we’ve never before had a PM who’s been found in contempt of parliamentary democracy. It’s an important time for our country, for which we “stand on guard”. It’s time to listen carefully, to not be reactive, and to vote with foresight and deep care.

Can we do it? Will we regret we didn’t after May 2nd?

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