The arrogance of power

By MICHAEL IGNATIEFF

The first duty of leaders in a democratic society like ours is to respect the institutions that put constraints on their power.

Messy. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Democracy is all those things. But as (former British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill said, it is better than the alternatives.

A minority Parliament can be messy but it can work if the Prime Minister wants it too.

Last week the Harper government announced the shutting down of Parliament. The fact that this was done in the media “black hole,” just hours before New Year’s Eve, says a good deal about Mr. Harper’s motivations. It’s also a richly ironic statement about a government that was elected on the key plank of increasing transparency and accountability – but that’s another, equally sad, story.

Every newspaper in Canada reported that the key factor in Mr. Harper’s decision was the barrage of criticism and tough questions his government has faced in Parliament over its handling – and apparent cover up – of the Afghan detainee torture issue. Questions about the government’s truthfulness and its care of Canada’s reputation overseas. Questions that go to the very heart of the government’s respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Even more troubling, this shutting down of Parliament is not a rash or impetuous act. It is part of a consistent pattern of behaviour on the part of Mr. Harper’s government. Whenever Stephen Harper gets into political trouble, his first impulse is to steamroll over democratic institutions that get in his way.

Look at the record:

  • Just over a year ago, he prorogued Parliament just weeks after an election – in order to rescue himself from an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis of his own making.
  • He has lashed out at public servants – like Richard Colvin, in the case of the detainees – for daring to speak the truth, and cowed others into silence.
  • He fired Linda Keen, the head of the Nuclear Safety Commission, for blowing the whistle on the repairs needed at Chalk River to ensure the reactor’s safety.
  • He starved Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, of the necessary resources to do his job because he was critical of the poor management of our public finances under this Conservative government.
  • He let go the heads of both the RCMP’s Public Complaints Commission and the Military Police Complaints Commission. Both were competent individuals, doing their job with distinction. But both had a serious flaw in Stephen Harper’s eye: they were critical of the government.
  • He cut off public funding for the ecumenical charitable group, KAIROS, despite their lauded work and broad public support because, according to one of his ministers, they held dissenting views from the government on foreign policy.

This approach to government – intimidating all who stand in its way – can have severe and corrosive consequences. Look at our nation’s capital today: a cowed and demoralized public service and a constantly bullied national press gallery, both trying to serve a disenchanted public.

The government’s behaviour speaks to a deep cynicism. Mr. Harper is gambling that the public doesn’t care how it is governed. In fact, in many ways it furthers his political interest to fuel public distrust about politics and depress even further voter turnouts in elections, since this strengthens the electoral impact of his “base”.

Last week’s shutting down of Parliament was a key moment. A turning point? Too dramatic. In any case, too early to tell. More important, it was one of those moments of supreme clarity. The audacity. The epic scale of the cynicism. The arrogance of a regime that thinks it can get away with just about anything.

What’s to be done about it? Well, the sooner the House comes back, the better. But between now and then, we have to share our concerns with Canadians.

Mr. Harper may not want to face the public, but we will get out there and meet Canadians in universities, in town hall meetings and other public events from coast to coast to coast. We will seek their views and exchange ideas. We will go on doing our job of holding the government to account on the Afghan detainee issue, but also on their failure to act on climate change, on the growing youth employment crisis and retirement security for older Canadians.

Shutting down Parliament has raised speculation about a spring election. Certainly, there is no need for an early election. Three in less than six years is enough for the next while.

In case anyone missed it, I got that message loud and clear from Canadians last fall. And that message was not only addressed to me.

As I hear them, Canadians are saying: get back to work in Ottawa, make this Parliament work and do the job we elected you to do.

We are listening. It is time that Stephen Harper did too.

Michael Ignatieff is the Leader of the Opposition in the federal parliament, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

 

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