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Harper's latest lunge at domination

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper treats Parliament like his kitchen tap. He turns it on and off at will.

In December 2008, facing certain defeat in the House of Commons, he simply prorogued it, setting a constitutional precedent that flipped Canadian parliamentary democracy on its head, making the prime minister Parliament's master rather than merely "first among equals."

Now that Harper has succeeded in capturing his "strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government," the damage wreaked by former Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean's fateful prorogation decision that cold December afternoon three years ago widens every day Parliament sits.

Nowhere is the depradation worse than to the rights of individual MPs, especially opposition MPs. But even Harper's backbenchers -- and some of his less-seasoned cabinet ministers -- are often treated like wayward schoolchildren required to read scripted questions and equally-scripted answers to guarantee they never veer off-message and embarrass the government, or worse still, the prime minister.

After less than half a year of that "strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government," the list of its abuses of power keeps growing.

There are now some 1,500 "communicators" working in federal government offices. The PMO-PCO -- "The Centre" -- alone has 87.

"There's a whole infrastructure at every level of every department, of people whose job it is to manipulate and massage media. Highly-paid people, hundreds of people," CTV's veteran parliamentary correspondent Craig Oliver told CBC Radio's The Current last November. "Their only job every day is to manipulate a message."

"Message event proposals" (MEPs) required for almost all government announcements compromise the non-partisan federal public service by forcing civil servants into clearly partisan roles. MEPs determine who will be invited to the event, where it is held, what will be done and said and by whom, and what "visuals" will be used.

Absolutely nothing is left to chance or spontaneity. The government treats everyone and everything it doesn't control as a problem, if not an enemy.

Its latest lunge for domination involves parliamentary committees. When Parliament rose for the Christmas break, there were signals the Harperites were planning to go where no government has gone before and place all business conducted by parliamentary committees -- or at least all potentially embarrassing business -- behind closed doors.

The two major opposition parties are sufficiently alarmed and angry they say they won't take it any more. In separate interviews, NDP House leader Joe Comartin and Liberal House leader Marc Garneau laid out the parliamentary tools available to frustrate the government, from refusing to attend meetings to blocking witness testimony to a possible committee boycott. Committees cannot hear witnesses without opposition MPs present. Without witnesses, there is little work committees can accomplish.

Historically, parliamentary committees only go in camera to discuss issues of personnel, public safety and national security and to protect witnesses' safety and privacy. Committees also close doors when selecting witnesses and drafting reports to Parliament.

Everything else should be open to the public to "maximize our public time so that Canadians can know what we are doing," as Comartin puts it.

"We believe the government is abusing its power and becoming authoritarian," Garneau says. He notes the Liberals have already walked out once to protest the government's choice of a unilingual auditor general. "We'll have to continue doing this."

Comartin and Garneau say the committee clampdown is a direct result of Harper's all-consuming fixation on control.

"The government sometimes finds itself embarrassed by what some of its MPs say in committees," Comartin says. He cites one incident when a witness from a religious background urged a more compassionate, community-based approach to the treatment of pedophiles. "A couple of the Conservative MPs were especially vicious to her -- she was attacked personally and really quite viciously," he says.

The government is especially sensitive about discussions on social issues such as abortion, capital punishment and official languages, Comartin says. He warns that if the government is able to keep everything behind closed doors, it can, given its majority on each and every committee, ensure committee reports will be "totally opaque" so that the public will never know what was said or what specific action was taken.

Garneau agrees. "(The urge for secrecy) goes along with all of the other things this government has done... The only thing I can conclude is they don't want the media and the public to hear some of the things they say." He calls Harper's message control "pervasive and insidious" and says there's "a very great danger -- authoritarianism. It reminds me of (George Orwell's) Animal Farm... The government wants to shut out the public and the media. It's a dangerous trend."

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2012 A10

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