Democratic deficit: The legacy of Stephen Harper’s government

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Note: A shorter ver­sion of this blog ran in Huff­in­g­ton Post Octo­ber 15, four days before the national vote that turfed Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­v­a­tives. I claim no impact on the vot­ing results.

For­get the elec­tion debate over bud­get deficits and tol­er­ance of the veil. We have another deficit in Canada and it is nei­ther loom­ing nor veiled. We’re in the midst of an incre­men­tally cre­ated demo­c­ra­tic deficit that after nine years of accu­mu­lated bud­get cuts, abuse of power, and muz­zling diverse voices has now arguably put at risk our democracy’s health and vigour.

Sci­en­tists, aca­d­e­mics, and non-governmental orga­ni­za­tions have recently demon­strated on Par­lia­ment Hill, pub­lished reports, and cre­ated web­sites detail­ing dam­age to national evidence-gathering and pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions about ideas and policies.

Charges a 2015 report of the non­profit lead­ers com­pris­ing Voices-Voix:

The gov­ern­ment is dra­mat­i­cally impair­ing Canada’s diverse knowl­edge base and erod­ing the abil­ity of pub­lic ser­vants, civil soci­ety and the gen­eral pub­lic to oppose or even sim­ply debate gov­ern­ment poli­cies and hold it to account.

Demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance is kept hon­est and vital by the vig­or­ous debate over ideas and approaches trig­gered by civil soci­ety groups—charities, non­prof­its, grass­roots groups, minor­ity orga­ni­za­tions, churches, media, unions, aca­d­e­mics, think tanks, sci­en­tists, busi­ness umbrella groups, social move­ments and more. As the very peo­ple immersed in these issues, the groups are experts by edu­ca­tion, train­ing, and real-world expe­ri­ence. Their vig­or­ous par­tic­i­pa­tion helps ensure a healthy, wealthy, and wise future for all Canadians.

In past decades, these groups forced national con­ver­sa­tions on issues that led seat­belt laws, smok­ing restric­tions, national parks, an acid-rain treaty, min­i­mum wages, paid hol­i­days and other poli­cies and pro­grams that most of us see as highly ben­e­fi­cial. In a democ­racy, we’ve all got a stake in pro­mot­ing the widest pos­si­ble conversations

Sev­eral reports in the past year have cri­tiqued accu­mu­lated gov­ern­ment actions and their impacts. My own MA the­sis, An Unchar­i­ta­ble Chill, trig­gered a national con­ver­sa­tion in the sum­mer of 2014. Media picked up my find­ings that the Harper gov­ern­ment abused its power and caused an advo­cacy chill affect­ing some of Cana­di­ans’ favourite char­i­ties. The gov­ern­ment abuse was mainly through two processes: demo­niz­ing rhetoric aimed at dam­ag­ing rep­u­ta­tions rather than dis­cussing issues, and using Canada Rev­enue Agency to fight the government’s pol­icy bat­tles by harass­ing cer­tain char­i­ties that favored dif­fer­ent eco­nomic, envi­ron­men­tal and social poli­cies and options than the government.

The rhetoric and tax audits suc­ceeded in divert­ing the atten­tion of char­i­ties away from par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic debate. Instead, they diverted resources to pre­pare for audits—at the very time that soci­ety is immersed in piv­otal and con­tentious issues that require their expert input.

The audits are just one in a series of fed­eral actions since 2006 that deprived our democ­racy of the input of civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. Start­ing in 2006 orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing those often rep­re­sent­ing large con­stituen­cies or dis­em­pow­ered sec­tors of soci­ety, were defunded and shut out of advance input in pol­icy devel­op­ment. Input to early stages of pol­icy had been in place through Lib­eral and Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments since the 1970s.

The gov­ern­ment again turned to CRA to fight their pol­icy bat­tles again with Bill C-377, which (unless reversed by the newly elected gov­ern­ment) will require unions to post on their web­sites vol­umes of detailed finan­cial infor­ma­tion that could be used by employ­ers to give them an advan­tage in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. The gov­ern­ment pushed the bill through over objec­tions of seven provinces and the Que­bec and Cana­dian Bar Asso­ci­a­tion which argued it was uncon­si­tu­tional and illegal.

The prime min­is­ter insisted the bill was about mak­ing unions trans­par­ent and account­able because their mem­bers could deduct dues from their income taxes. This par­al­leled the argu­ment given for stepped-up audits and track­ing require­ments of char­i­ties. Crit­ics rejected the argu­ment for both unions and char­i­ties, not­ing that busi­nesses are given far more exten­sive tax write-offs, includ­ing for lob­by­ing and adver­tis­ing, with­out any require­ment of trans­parency. Tellingly, the bill was passed on its sec­ond jour­ney through Par­lia­ment and the Sen­ate, the lat­ter includ­ing unprece­dented manip­u­la­tion of process to ensure its pas­sage before last summer’s recess and the elec­tion call.

Other orga­ni­za­tions and experts have also raised their voices to warn of recent dam­age to democ­racy. Voices-Voix, a coali­tion of civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing char­i­ties, reviewed actions of the Harper gov­ern­ment through the lens of human rights and the legal frame­work needed for a healthy democ­racy. Their down­load­able 64-page report, Dis­man­tling Democ­racy: Sti­fling debate and Dis­sent in Canada, doc­u­ments “silenc­ing” in four cat­e­gories: the pub­lic sec­tor, “knowl­edge” (i.e., evidence-gathering), the voices of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and voices through national secu­rity and for­eign policy.

The Voices-Voix web­site boasts detailed doc­u­men­ta­tion of the fir­ing and attempted dis­cred­it­ing of gov­ern­ment employ­ees doing their jobs too effec­tively, lay­offs and muz­zling of fed­eral sci­en­tists (par­tic­u­larly in envi­ron­men­tal and fish­eries depart­ments), shut­ter­ing of research projects, and elim­i­na­tion of the long-form cen­sus that ben­e­fit­ted busi­ness and tracked social trends so that gov­ern­ment could respond to upward-trending problems.

In response to these exten­sive audits, a new cli­mate of fear and self-censorship has arisen in Canada’s char­i­ta­ble sec­tor,” notes the June 2015 Voices-Voix report.

Dis­man­tling Democ­racy explores shut­ter­ing of 16 gov­ern­ment libraries and destruc­tion of records, fund­ing reduc­tions that jeop­ar­dize the col­lec­tion of Library and Archives Canada, and other mea­sures that reduce gov­ern­ment trans­parency and com­pro­mise the public’s right to access infor­ma­tion. The report also dis­cusses government’s actions muz­zling gov­ern­ment watch­dogs, reprisals against whistle­blow­ers, and can­celling the pro­gram that helped finance Char­ter chal­lenges on behalf of uphold­ing cit­i­zen rights.

Voices-Voix con­cludes:

The government’s attack on knowl­edge appears aimed at the cre­ation and pub­li­ca­tion of research and infor­ma­tion that is incon­sis­tent with, or crit­i­cal of, the government’s nar­row polit­i­cal and eco­nomic agenda. Ulti­mately, the gov­ern­ment is dra­mat­i­cally impair­ing Canada’s diverse knowl­edge base and erod­ing the abil­ity of pub­lic ser­vants, civil soci­ety and the gen­eral pub­lic to oppose or even sim­ply debate gov­ern­ment poli­cies and hold it to account.

We’re los­ing our col­lec­tive mem­ory as pro­grams and infor­ma­tion shar­ing are shut down, inter­nal experts fired, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for cit­i­zen input to pol­icy reduced.

Other watch­dogs decry threats to demo­c­ra­tic health. The 2015 annual report of Cana­dian Jour­nal­ists for Free Expres­sion (CJFE) a major national orga­ni­za­tion of jour­nal­ists is also highly crit­i­cal. The review of free expres­sion in Canada, warns that “Cana­di­ans have less access to cru­cial pub­lic infor­ma­tion than ever before” before not­ing that on the flip side, gov­ern­ment intru­sion into our pri­vacy has “grown expo­nen­tially” in recent years.

Sums up CJFE’s report:

Years of gov­ern­ment neglect and polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence have left our Access to Infor­ma­tion sys­tem an anti­quated, inef­fec­tive shell of what it is sup­posed to be. When com­bined with our total lack of effec­tive pro­tec­tion for whistle­blow­ers and a per­va­sive cul­ture of secrecy in Ottawa, we are left with a per­fect storm buf­fet­ing the strength of our democracy.

And:

As as our access to infor­ma­tion declines, the government’s access into our per­sonal lives has grown expo­nen­tially. If you use a file shar­ing ser­vice, sur­veil­lance agen­cies know. If you email gov­ern­ment offi­cials, those com­mu­ni­ca­tions are stored, tracked and likely shared. Your cell­phone can be used to mon­i­tor where you’ve been, whom you’ve spo­ken with and when—without you even know­ing you’ve been a tar­get of sur­veil­lance. What else does the gov­ern­ment mon­i­tor? With­out any mean­ing­ful over­sight of gov­ern­ment secu­rity agen­cies, we just don’t know.

Fed­eral Infor­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner Suzanne Legault’s 2015 report makes 85 rec­om­men­da­tions for reform. Legault found that only 21 per­cent of access requests resulted in infor­ma­tion released in 2013–14, com­pared to 40 per­cent in 1999–2000, and the length of wait increased substantially.

In an essay in the CJFE report, Inter­net activist David Christo­pher points out that indi­vid­ual pri­vacy is a pil­lar of demo­c­ra­tic health. Tack­ling the old “If I have noth­ing to hide, I have noth­ing to fear” mis­un­der­stand­ing, Christo­pher notes the accu­mu­lated research show­ing that peo­ple who think they are being watched are less likely to speak their minds, to speak out about impor­tant issues, to par­tic­i­pate in demo­c­ra­tic processes.

Christo­pher goes on to call for a united push-back against gov­ern­ment trends: “It’s never been more impor­tant for peo­ple to work together” address­ing issues of pri­vacy and access to infor­ma­tion “before our demo­c­ra­tic val­ues are hol­lowed out yet further.”

Christopher’s plea echoes the cri­tique of Bill C-51—so-called secu­rity legislation—by renowned national secu­rity law aca­d­e­mics Craig Forcese and Kent Roach last spring. Their well-reasoned blog entries dis­sect­ing the bill’s many fail­ings kicked off a mas­sive attempt to stop this bill by aca­d­e­mics, experts, think tanks, civil-liberties and human–rights groups, unions, lead­ing tech entrepreneurs—an almost unprece­dented cross-section of Canada’s civil soci­ety. The bill even­tu­ally passed with the fed­eral NDP strongly denounc­ing it and the fed­eral Lib­er­als vot­ing for it.

Bill C-51 gives extra­or­di­nary pow­ers to Cana­dian Secu­rity Intel­li­gence Ser­vice (CSIS) to run counter-subversion cam­paigns, includ­ing infil­trat­ing and using “dirty tricks” to dis­rupt activist groups. In tes­ti­mony before the Sen­ate, Forcese and Roach warned of major dan­ger ahead given the bill’s empow­er­ment of CSIS to break the law and vio­late the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms after a sin­gle, secret, one-sided judi­cial hear­ing with no pos­si­bil­ity of appeal and no pub­lic dis­clo­sure of the event.

BC Civil Lib­er­ties Asso­ci­a­tion (BCCLA) warned the Sen­ate that Bill C-51’s broadly sweep­ing offence of advo­cacy or pro­mo­tion of ter­ror­ism offences is likely to lead to human-rights abuses and inter­fer­ence with the per­fectly legal and peace­ful oppo­si­tion to gov­ern­ment or cor­po­rate pro­pos­als or actions.

Another BCCLA sub­mis­sion, this one to Parliament’s Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Pub­lic Safety and National Secu­rity, warned that vague word­ing, lack­ing clear def­i­n­i­tions of “advo­cacy” and “pro­mo­tion of ter­ror­ism” will lead to future politi­ciza­tion and abuse. Whether the con­duct of polit­i­cally active cit­i­zens “would be con­sid­ered as under­min­ing Canada might turn on whether their cause is polit­i­cally pop­u­lar and in line with the views of the gov­ern­ment in power. This is dan­ger­ous for free­dom of expres­sion and the right to dissent.”

In fact, pointed out BCCLA in their sub­mis­sion, the right to dis­sent is already being abused in Canada:

We know that CSIS and the RCMP—institutions respon­si­ble for ensur­ing pub­lic safety and national security—have mon­i­tored non-violent protests under­taken by First Nations and envi­ron­men­tal groups opposed to the pro­posed Enbridge North­ern Gate­way Pipeline project. Last year, the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment Oper­a­tions Cen­tre called on all fed­eral depart­ments to com­pile infor­ma­tion on every sin­gle protest hap­pen­ing in Canada, osten­si­bly to build and share ‘com­mon sit­u­a­tional aware­ness at the national level related to all haz­ards of national inter­est, emerg­ing or occurring.’

This is not new to Canada, though experts expect it will get worse under Bill C-51. Soci­ol­o­gist Gary Kins­man and other researchers have detailed, act­ing mainly through the RCMP, Canada’s embar­rass­ing his­tory of sur­veilling, infil­trat­ing, and dis­rupt­ing indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions erro­neously framed as national secu­rity threats. Doc­u­mented sur­veil­lance and harass­ment has included fem­i­nists, gays and les­bians, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, Abo­rig­i­nal lead­ers, immi­grants, refugees, peace­ful Que­bec sep­a­ratists, union lead­ers, social­ists, com­mu­nists, and even Cana­dian health­care icon Tommy Dou­glas and for­mer fed­eral NDP leader David Lewis.

Our his­tory includes police act­ing as agents provo­ca­teurs, goad­ing peace­ful orga­ni­za­tions into prop­erty dam­age that then retroac­tively jus­ti­fies the “dirty tricks” and frames the activists as threats. Iron­i­cally, pub­lic anger at rev­e­la­tions in the 1970s of these RCMP excesses and human-rights vio­la­tions led to the cre­ation of CSIS—and now under Bill C-51 CSIS is being handed a “get out of jail free” card to repeat the mistake.

Spy­ing on and dis­rupt­ing peace­ful Cana­di­ans exer­cis­ing their Char­ter rights will no doubt dis­turb many of us. But it is demon­stra­bly just the lat­est in a down­ward pro­jec­tory of Cana­dian democ­racy, one of the many ways since 2006 that the Harper gov­ern­ments have defunded, pro­rogued, shut out, harassed, demo­nized, vil­i­fied, slan­dered, dis­tracted, and muf­fled employ­ees, watch­dogs, whistle­blow­ers, evidence-gatherers and archivists, char­i­ties, cit­i­zen groups, and oppo­si­tion parties.

Is this the approach to gov­ern­ing that Cana­di­ans deserve? Luck­ily, while much of democ­racy is under­go­ing a down­siz­ing, cit­i­zens still have the bal­lot box to reg­is­ter their opinions.

Gareth Kirkby is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional and occa­sional jour­nal­ist. The opin­ions expressed here are his own. Check out his the­sis on the government’s use of Canada Rev­enue Agency to harass your favourite charity.

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