Parliament no longer the place to fight for a just society

November 1, 2011

My interest in federal politics is rapidly declining. From now on, I’ll be paying little or no attention to parliamentary antics for the next four years. Under Canada’s grotesquely undemocratic electoral system, a hard-right ideological party winning much less than half the votes has been given virtually absolute power until at least the fall of 2015. The same skewed system renders the opposition parties and their MPs powerless to block or even moderate the Harper government’s ultraconservative agenda. All they can do is verbally object, complain, and offer policy alternatives that will be ridiculed and rejected.

Of course the traditional parliamentary rituals will be observed. MPs will exchange gibes during Question Period. Bills will be introduced, debated, given first and second readings, sent to committees, and eventually and inevitably passed. Press conferences and scrums will be held. MPs will be interviewed and some will fulminate on TV panel discussions. The media will report what’s happening on “the Hill” as if it is really “news,” instead of being predictable and preordained pap.

The underlying reality is that Stephen Harper’s reign for the next four years will be indistinguishable from that of a dictatorship. The opposition MPs could all take indefinite leaves of absence from the House of Commons and nothing would change in terms of parliamentary outcomes. The same legislation would be enacted, the same federal budgets approved, the same regressive laws and regulations adopted.

The Harper dictatorship’s systematic dismantling of Canada’s social, economic, cultural, and sovereign frameworks will proceed as planned. He will be careful not to alienate too many of the 40% of the electorate he needs to perpetuate his rule, but he can and will run roughshod over the 60% majority he doesn’t need under our undemocratic voting system.

We have already witnessed the first wave of Harper’s pernicious reforms. He has stripped federal unions of their bargaining rights, is ramming through a costly and unnecessary omnibus “tough on crime” bill, replacing ombudsmen who take their duties too seriously, cutting federal public service jobs, and, as a global warming skeptic, is pushing ahead with support for further Alberta tar sands development even though it is the most environmentally destructive project on the planet.

Earlier, he cut funding for civil society groups that dared disagree with him, dumped the informative long-form census, and scrapped the long-gun registry even though police chiefs insisted it made citizens safer. He refuses to fund the same safe abortions to poor women in other countries that are provided at home. He had a manual prepared explaining how his underlings could sabotage Commons committees. He stuffed the Senate with his political hacks so he could gain a majority in the Upper Chamber.

He is also phasing out one of the few genuinely democratic aspects of our electoral system – the federal vote-based subsidies to political parties. These subsidies help parties minimize their reliance on affluent individuals and organizations. Elections in Canada will still be “bought,” of course, but a party that eschews contributions from well-heeled corporate lobbyists could still mount an effective campaign, thanks to the public subsidies. But the Harper-led Conservatives roll in corporate financial aid and can now count on raking in much more of it than the other parties, so phasing out the subsidies before 2015 will significantly enhance their re-election prospects.

Most of these “un-Canadian” reversals were achieved while Harper only headed a minority government. But he also faced a weak and ineffective opposition majority that allowed him to rule much as if he was the one with a majority. Still, he was occasionally forced by opposition MPs to amend or delay or even withdraw some proposed legislation, such as his big “tough on crime” bill. Now he is free to ignore the impotent opposition ranks completely.

Just about all the opposition parties can do between now and 2015, besides intensifying their verbal assaults, is to keep a precise, detailed list of all of Harper’s harmful laws, regulations, and policies. Such a list, supplemented with concrete evidence of how these measures have harmed Canadians, will furnish strong ammunition against the Harper regime in four years’ time. It might even serve to whittle down Conservative voting support sufficiently below 40% to deny Harper another four years of dictatorial rule.

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To give up on Parliament (at least for the next four years) is not, of course, to give way to defeatism or despair or give up on the battle for a better country and a better world. It is to redirect that struggle into arenas where it can be more effectively fought: in the workplaces, in the schools, in the shopping malls, and, most importantly, in the streets. Dictatorships can seldom be toppled from within by appeals to reason or fairness. As we have seen during the past year, they are vulnerable only to mass uprisings by the people they oppress.

We live in a world that is dominated by multinational corporations obsessed with the pursuit of profits at any cost. Most governments are political arms of these corporations, committed to serve the interests of their major investors and shareholders. To continue to push for change by such governments is to expend our efforts in a futile and quixotic endeavour.

This awareness is spreading among activists around the world, especially among the young who see their future prospects threatened by uncontrolled corporate power. Their demand for a fairer, safer, cleaner society is erupting in street protests, occupations, and other forms of direct action. It is an “insurrection” that is spreading even into the United States, the bastion of neoliberalism and free enterprise.

In this current phase of the fight for true democracy, the arena is in the streets, not in the legislatures.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)