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Warfare it was, warfare it remains

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PRIME Minister Stephen Harper won his coveted majority by convincing Canadians his radical days were behind him. So what are Canadians to make of the Conservatives' recent conduct?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2011 (4127 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

PRIME Minister Stephen Harper won his coveted majority by convincing Canadians his radical days were behind him. So what are Canadians to make of the Conservatives’ recent conduct?

They are using their majority on parliamentary committees to block investigations of politically embarrassing issues by going in camera, where MPs are bound by secrecy and can be found in contempt of Parliament if they talk.

Three Auditor General’s reports — on helicopter cost overruns, mismanaged renovations to the Parliament Buildings and the disgraced former integrity commissioner’s $500,000 severance package — have been buried. Canadians may never get the real story behind the $50-million G8-G20 Summit boondoggle in Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s riding. In addition, the Conservatives have engaged in unprecedented partisan interference in Ontario and P.E.I. provincial elections, attacked the constitutional separation of powers, imposed a two-day closure motion on the estimated $1-billion omnibus crime bill and effectively ordered the majority of Prairie farmers who voted to maintain the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk to shut up and get with the government’s open-market program — now.

“It’s time for the wheat board and others who have been standing in the way to realize that this train is barrelling down a Prairie track,” Harper said in Regina Friday. “You’re much better to get on it than to lie on the tracks because this is going ahead.”

France’s Louis XIV, The Sun King, proclaimed L’etat, c’est moi (The state, it is I) in the 17th century. Is this the arrogant rule Canadians can expect now that Harper has his long-sought “strong, stable, majority Conservative government?”

The Conservative backbench has been turned loose to ride its CBC hobby horse to the extreme of summoning a Federal Court justice to explain himself to Parliament. The judge’s ruling had actually criticized the CBC’s slowness in responding to an avalanche of freedom of information requests launched by Conservative-friendly Sun Media.

“I’ve never heard of a judge being asked to be a witness at a parliamentary committee,” Andrew Baumberg, the Federal Court’s executive officer, told the parliamentary newspaper The Hill Times. “Possibly it’s a mistake in the parliamentary process. He’s not going to be explaining his decision.”

Will Conservative members now also drag Baumberg before the committee?

“I would have thought they would have changed, and stopped their approach to parliamentary business as warfare by other means,” Queen’s University political scientist Ned Franks told The Times. “They’re governing by fiat, and they’re forgetting that though they have a majority of seats, they got less than 40 per cent of the vote in May. I’m disappointed. I was expecting better.”

Added York University political scientist Daniel Drache: “The nature of the executive power of the prime minister is enormous and it’s more concentrated this time, with this government, than with any comparable government.”

University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas says going behind closed doors in parliamentary committees is part of the standing orders. Traditionally, however, it is restricted to personnel or national-security issues.

He notes, however, that “even when they were in minority, the Conservatives produced a 100-page instruction manual for their MPs on how to frustrate the committee process.” He laments the injection of fierce partisanship into committees. Historically, committees were the one venue where parties could cross party lines and do bi-partisan inquiry.

“The Conservatives seem prepared to frustrate the standing committees from doing any serious work probing into government performance,” Thomas continued in an interview. Value for money investigations “have become a joke. It’s depressing, really.”

If the issue before the committee is sufficiently serious, opposition MPs might consider risking the consequences, taking off their gags and alerting the public, Thomas says. What would the consequences be? Likely sanction by the Speaker and suspension from Parliament.

Asked if this smacks of authoritarianism, Thomas replied “Yes, there’s a real aura about it.”

Thomas delivered a paper entitled Communications and Prime Ministerial Power to a political science conference last June in Bouctouche, N.B. Its theme is that the U.S. politics-as-warfare-permanent-campaign is now entrenched in Canada.

“The techniques for winning power have been transferred increasingly to the processes of government,” he writes. The Harper Conservatives have created “a communications culture and climate of control, intimidation and secrecy inside government.”

The prime minister “is obsessed with control over communications and… the centralization… is unprecedented over other prime ministers… the firing, smearing and muzzling of public servants… the restrictions on co-operation with the media, the political interference in the access process and other control tactics” are all contributing “to a communications climate of intimidation, fear, defensiveness and caution throughout the public service.”

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

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