Headlines, North America | Analysis

Right-Wing Agenda Slips Through Canada’s Political Deadlock

Analysis by Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Jul 16 2010 (IPS) - Canada’s parliament is so broken and dysfunctional that the country is in danger of becoming “the laughing stock” of the world.

So says Peter Russell, a University of Toronto political scientist and author, and he is not alone.

Both Stephen Harper’s minority-led Conservative government and the various opposition parties are on a continuous war footing in preparing for the next election. As a result, they are accomplishing little and turning off the Canadian public, which is voting in fewer numbers, Russell told IPS.

“The math of parliament is that no party has the majority in parliament, no party is popular [enough] with the people. And to adapt to that you have got to figure out ways on working together, to pass legislation and to get policies through and we’ve had a dysfunctional parliament mainly because of that failure of political leadership,” he said.

Russell was referring to the Canadian political conundrum where since 2004 the appearance of five competitive federal political parties in a highly regionalised nation, including the Greens and a Quebec-specific sovereignist party, the Bloc Quebecois, has made minority parliamentary governments likely inevitable for the foreseeable future.

Defenders of minority governments had hoped that more compromise would occur when none of the five parties were able to form a government out of the majority of seats in the elected House of Commons. Although sometimes in the low teens in public opinion polls, the Greens in Canada’s first- past-the-post parliamentary system have not won a seat yet.

Instead, says Reg Whittaker, a University of Victoria political scientist, a right-wing party led by Prime Minister Harper is managing to implement its agenda both through appointments and intimidation of a “weak” main Liberal opposition party which is loath to go to the polls again for another round. The country has had an election roughly every two years in recent times.

This month, for instance, the Liberals chose – to the consternation of some political observers – to support the latest Conservative budget even though it contains extraneous and controversial measures that would limit environmental assessment of projects in federal jurisdiction and privatise a Canadian government agency that manufactures nuclear reactors.

Whittaker cited a Conservative party agenda that includes the gutting of a climate change strategy and the sacking of heads of commissions and senior civil servants.

One prominent example is the decision not to renew the appointment of Peter Tinsley. The chair of the military police complaints commission, he unsuccessfully sought to hold hearings into the handing over of Afghan detainees by Canadian soldiers to certain torture at the hands of Afghan government prison authorities.

“The prime minister’s office is the control centre of the most hierarchically disciplined administration ever. Harper is a notorious control freak but the extraordinary degree of centralisation reflects a Tory need to fight a military- style campaign around every issue,” says Whittaker.

Nonetheless, the Conservatives have overreached themselves ideologically and hurt their chances of winning a majority of parliamentary seats, Whittaker told IPS.

“The Tories face a glass ceiling of somewhere around 33-35 percent, which is well below what they need for a majority, and the opposition parties just fluctuate around in futility with the Liberals in the mid-20 percent range and the NDP [New Democratic Party] in the high teens.”

In the past, the centrist Liberals have managed to win power by making comparisons between the religious right component of the Conservative party and the highly unpopular – among Canadians – U.S. administration of George W. Bush when the latter was in office.

At first Harper attempted to “moderate” his party’s image upon winning power in 2006 in a minority government by keeping his religious conservatives in line and under wraps, says Marci McDonald, author of ‘The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada’.

Religious conservatives, she recalls, were wondering if indeed they had an ally in Ottawa, since the PM was not attempting to reverse the country’s same sex marriage legislation of the previous Liberal administration or introduce anti-abortion laws.

However, following the 2008 election, Harper annoyed his fiscal conservative supporters by introducing an economic stimulus package in the face of a potential world financial downturn along with other Western governments, McDonald notes.

Hence, the PM had to turn to shoring up the religious right portion of his base by being more public about his fealty to moral issues.

Harper “has been more overt in his outreach to religious conservatives,” in such areas as a staunchly pro-Israel foreign policy and funding of private Christian universities, McDonald said.

“Some of the most far-reaching changes have been institutional. That is changing the bureaucracy and the vast power of patronage that the prime minister has at his disposal,” she said.

For instance, Harper has started to appoint more conservative judges to the courts without having to go through the review process that is a staple of the U.S. political scene, she added.

Nevertheless, Peter Russell sees some glimmer of hope, especially in the decision by at least three of the parties in Ottawa, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois to agree on a means to handle sensitive documents regarding the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan authorities, which Harper’s government had initially refused to share with the opposition.

Rather than seek one consistent partner in Parliament, the Conservatives will go issue by issue and pick the appropriate party that will assist in getting an agreement in the House of Commons, he says, citing a Liberal- Conservative accord on ending Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan by 2011 for instance.

“I rather doubt that Harper is ready to go [into an election right now], Russell said. “I think that most members of Parliament are of the same mood.”

Steven Staples is more pessimistic, with his conviction that the highly partisan nature of Canadian politics will not end during the current stalemate.

The Conservatives are especially canny in maintaining the loyalty of their fiscal and religious right supporters in the face of a divided opposition, Staples told IPS.

“A unified minority beats a divided majority every time. So the calculation is on any issue. The government asks itself ‘will this rally our base, or will it divide our opposition or will it help us bring incremental gains on the way to majority [in parliament after an election].'”

“So people are trying to hold their base, as doggedly as possible and that requires red meat for your base, which means a greater partisan approach,” he said.

The centrist Liberals, the main opposition party, and formerly the major governing party in Canada historically, have had the hardest time holding on to their traditional urban immigrant, working class and women supporters. Some parts of this base have dribbled over to the social democratic New Democrats or the Greens, notes Staples.

Furthermore, Marci McDonald’s warning of Harper’s coddling of a minority of evangelical Canadian Christians who see that the end of the world is at hand is a bit “late” politically, Staples told IPS. The Liberals are especially hurt by this, he continues.

“The longer that Harper is able to hang on in there [as PM], the less scary he becomes,” he explained.

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