… Yet these have been offset by a laundry list of undemocratic actions, which include:
- Proroguing Parliament four times, shutting it down for a total of 181 days. In 2008, Harper prorogued Parliament after opposition parties threatened to bring down his minority government. He did it twice more in 2009 when Harper claimed he wanted to keep Parliament in recess during the Winter Olympics (while opposition members felt it was to avoid investigations into the Afghan detainee affair)— and the fourth time was in 2013 after the opposition said he was avoiding questions over the Senate spending scandal.
- Omnibus bills. Starting in 2010, Harper tabled a bill with 883 pages that included changes to Canada Post and environmental assessments. Since then, Harper has passed 10 more omnibus bills to circumvent debate in parliament, often making sweeping changes to laws and regulations. “All have been an abuse of process and shown contempt for Parliament by subverting its role,” editorialized The Globe and Mail last fall. “Major changes to policy and law that should have been examined by MPs have been pushed through with almost no debate, sometimes with disastrous results.”One bill attempted to appoint Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court, although he was not eligible. In 2012, one of the omnibus bills, C-38, completely gutted Canada’s environmental laws, cut $36-billion from health care funding, weakened Canada’s food inspectors through job cuts, and made it harder to qualify for EI benefits.
- Robocalling during the 2011 election. Michael Harris, in his book Party of One, calls it “Canada’s worst election scandal.” Just prior to election day, some voters across Canada received recorded calls that either told them to go to the wrong polling station, or were of a harassing nature, purportedly made by opposition parties. The targeted voters didn’t support the Conservatives. Investigations revealed the involvement of RackNine Inc., a political consulting firm the Conservatives hired, and Michael Sona, a low-level Conservative party staffer who was sentenced last year to nine months in prison for his role. Two judges found that it was likely other senior Tories were involved.
- Fair Elections Act. Last year the Harper government overhauled Canada’s election laws to deal with electoral fraud. But its critics soon labeled it the “Unfair Elections Act” because it weakened the power of Elections Canada, effectively muzzling the chief electoral officer from communicating with the public and MPs about investigations, and cut off the agency’s investigations arm, while polling supervisors were now to be appointed by the incumbent party’s candidate or party. (Elections Canada used to appoint them.)
- Gagging scientists from speaking freely about their research. Numerous scientists have been prevented from speaking to the media, especially those researching the environment. The government has also been accused of sending “minders” when some scientists have attended international conferences, along with speaking points, to ensure they stay on message.In 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 20,000 federal scientists, found that hundreds of their members said they had been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and thousands said they had been prevented from responding to the media or the public.
- Spying on environmental and aboriginal activists. Jeffrey Monaghan, a criminologist at Carleton University, has obtained documents from CSIS and RCMP through access to information laws that reveal how these agencies are spying on the environmental movement, especially those opposed to pipelines or who participate in National Energy Board (NEB) hearings.These groups include Idle No More, Leadnow, ForestEthics Advocacy, the Council of Canadians, the Dogwood Initiative, EcoSociety, and the Sierra Club of British Columbia. The documents show how information on various groups is shared among the intelligence agencies and the NEB. They also revealed that twice a year, at the CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, top-ranking members of the RCMP, CSIS and the CSEC meet with oil industry representatives to brief them on the “threat” from environmental and aboriginal groups.
Auditing environmental and civil society groups. In the 2012 budget, the government announced it was going to earmark $8-million so that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) could begin auditing selected charities. Seven environmental groups were soon targeted.This sum has since been increased to $13-million a year and expanded to anti-poverty, foreign aid and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, as well as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and United Church of Canada. Last fall, the Broadbent Institute issued a report that said these audits were politically motivated – because no conservative think tanks or groups had been targeted.
Taxpayer-funded political ads. This spring, Finance Canada is planning to spend $13.5-million on ads to boast about the government’s budget. The Toronto Star estimates that $500-million has been spent by the Harper government since 2009 promoting its programs – $75-million in 2014 alone. Finance spent $7.5-million on Economic Action Plan ads, Employment and Social Development spent $7-million on a skills initiative campaign, and the CRA spent $6-million on ads about new tax measures. Queen’s University political science professor Jonathan Rose told The Globe and Mail recently: “What’s so egregious is the blatant way that they’re priming the electorate before an election.”
“Brian Mulroney was an appalling prime minister, appalling. But if I had to pick one prime minister over the other [between Harper and Mulroney], I would pick Mulroney.”
– Stevie Cameron, author of On the Take, the 1994 bestseller about corruption during the Mulroney years.
In the summer of 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders arrived at a swanky resort located two hours north of Toronto to take part in the annual G8 Summit. As it turned out, the resort lies in the riding of then federal Industry Minister Tony Clement.
At that time, no one knew that Clement had lifted $50-million from the public purse – money originally allotted by parliament for alleviating congestion at Canada’s borders – and spent it beautifying his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding on things like parks, walkways, toilets and gazebos. He would later claim the money was dispersed for the G8 Summit.
But when Auditor General Shelia Fraser investigated what happened to the $50-million, she could find little paperwork showing how it was decided the money be spent. Documents later unearthed through the Access to Information Act showed Clement was encouraging mayors in his riding to apply for this cash prior to the 2008 election – and used federal civil servants to help dole it out. The NDP later accused Clement of using the money as a “slush fund” to better his chances of getting re-elected.
Still, when the $50-million scandal broke in 2011, Clement was not dropped from cabinet or even reprimanded. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper put him in charge of the Treasury Board – the very entity designed to oversee spending, ethics and accountability in government. That same year, the Conservatives chopped 92 auditing positions from the civil service.
“On the Clement case, team Harper’s strategy appears to be to simply ride out the criticism,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin at the time. “Stonewall the media and the opposition until fatigue with the issue has set in and everyone moves on. It has worked in the past. It will likely work now.”