It's My Way or the Highway Under Prime Minister Harper

By Dr. Keith Martin MD, The Hill Times - November 26, 2007

The strength of a democracy is measured by the ability of the public to influence their government through their elected officials and the ability of those elected officials to represent their constituents. Supporting this is a free and open press and an engaged public service.

This structure allows the free exchange of ideas across society and the ability of the best of those ideas to influence public policy. When these pillars of our democracy are eroded their impact can be profound. That is why the actions taken by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to severely undermine this structure should be an affront to all Canadians. His efforts to turn our democracy into a veritable dictatorship have occurred on several fronts.

Members of Parliament need to be able to engage our public service in a timely fashion on issues they are working on. Prime Minister Harper is blocking the ability of MPs to work with the bureaucrats in federal departments. If a meeting can be arranged for an MP to receive a briefing on issues the MP is working on, there is always a person from the minister's office silently sitting in on the meeting. This 'minder' records everything that is said and reports back to the minister.

During a decade in opposition with the Reform/Canadian Alliance this never occurred. For such an arrangement results in stilted conversations, with a diminished exchange of ideas and information, as our public servants feel justifiably uncomfortable being spied upon.

However, a deeper assault by Mr. Harper against our public servants is occurring through their exclusion from the government's decision making process. Although they possess a deep well of knowledge, and professionally serve the government of the day, their input is being at best unsolicited, and at worst ignored. This inability to provide input into government decisions extends to most ministers and backbenchers who are now used primarily to spread Mr. Harper's message to the people, rather than being used to bring the people's message to Ottawa. What a shame for those Conservative MPs who have ideas that can be beneficial to the lives of Canadians but are forbidden from advancing them.

This lack of consultation also extends to key public stakeholders and non-governmental organizations, and with increasing frequency, the provincial governments.

Historically, these groups have always been consulted prior to the introduction of government bills and initiatives. No longer!

Canada's federal government is now a government run out of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) where decisions are made by Mr. Harper and a handful of unelected individuals who are unaccountable and invisible to the public. This is decidedly not a government run by the people's elected representatives, the MPs.

Another critical pillar of a robust democracy that is being eroded is the ability of the public to know what their government is doing and why. This is the essence of true public accountability. It is predicated upon the ability of the public and press to ask questions about what the government is doing, why they are doing it and the obligation of the government to respond. This line of accountability is severed if the press is unable to ask these questions or if a government fails to respond.

Today, we have a Prime Minister who rarely answers questions on what his government is doing, as do his Ministers and MPs who are forbidden to speak to the press unless directed to do so from the PMO. This desire to control was epitomized by Mr. Harper's apparent efforts to create a multimillion dollar Prime Minister's Press Centre, just down the street from the existing National Press Gallery.

The Prime Minister's Press Centre would be controlled by the PMO which would determine who is allowed in (read 'friendly, pro-government reporters') and who is not. Thankfully, this plan was killed.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the media in Canada is owned by only a handful of corporations. Four conglomerates control the vast majority of media in Canada.

Due to the lack of competition, one powerful company can control almost all the information the public receives in one area. This is hardly a free and open press and limits the public's exposure to an array of different ideas. It is also corrosive to the journalists, most of whom would like to focus on substantive issues rather than the 'infotainment' that is fed to our understandably jaded public. This situation is an affront to many journalists' sense of professionalism who went into their vocation to affect positive change through reporting on issues that make a difference in the lives of Canadians.

Ironically, Mr. Harper's anti-populist actions stand in stark contrast to the principles of the Conservative Party's precursor, the Reform Party, which stood for democratic reform and bringing the power of the people to Ottawa. In fact, Mr. Harper's views are the polar opposite of those of Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform Party, who was a populist.

Mr. Harper is a follower of the 20th century, U.S. political philosopher Leo Strauss, who believed that a few people are pre-ordained to lead and must tell everybody else what to do. Other followers of this ideology are former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney and President George Bush. This political ideology, that creates an autocracy, excludes broad input, and erodes the pillars of our democracy that so many Canadians fought for. It is, to put it bluntly, an affront to the soul of our great nation for it makes us less than what we could be. Canadians deserve better.