ELECTION FEATURE by Gregory Beatty
Of what it pleases thee to hear and speak, That will we hear, and we will speak to you, While silent is the wind, as it is now. ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno
When the Conservatives won their first minority government in February 2006, a major springboard was the Accountability Act which the party unveiled in November 2005.
“The election hadn’t even been called,” says Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and visiting political studies professor at the University of Ottawa. “In fact, we didn’t even know there was going to be an election until late November when the NDP sided with the Conservatives to bring down the Liberals and cancel the Kelowna Accord, a national daycare program and a bunch of other things.
“Harper came out a week before the Gomery Report [into the Quebec sponsorship scandal] was released and said ‘We know things are bad, and here’s 60 things we’ll do to make it better.’”
Hopes, at least among Conservative supporters fed up with years of Liberal patronage and corruption, were undoubtedly high. But from the start, the Harper government disappointed, says Conacher. “They only included 29 of the 60 measures in the Accountability Act. They also included seven measures that were huge steps backward in areas such as ethics and transparency.”
That was only a taste of what was to come, unfortunately. “Since the Accountability Act was passed in December 2006 there’s been example after example of dishonesty, excessive secrecy, patronage — there’s just so many examples I can’t even begin to list them,” says Conacher.
In August, The Tyee published a list of what it described as 70 assaults on democracy and law by the Harperites. From proroguing Parliament to avoid non-confidence votes to omnibus bills stuffed full of legislative provisions that defy scrutiny to a micro-managing PMO to numerous election violations that have seen MPs and party officials jailed to the elimination of per-vote subsidies for parties and the Orwellian Fair Elections Act which made money a much bigger player in elections and created unnecessary hurdles to Canadians voting, the Cons have really done a number on democracy.
Every election, says Conacher, Democracy Watch grades the parties on their commitment to the principles of fair, open and efficient government. “In 2011, the Greens got our best grade and their policies haven’t changed since. They got a B-, the Bloc had a C-, and the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP all received F.”
When I spoke with Conacher, the parties were still unveiling their platforms. But he forecast the Liberals would be in line for a B or even an A-. That’s because in June the party released a 32-point plan to revitalize Canadian democracy. Highlights include changes to the voting and ID system, strengthening of access to information rules; merit-based appointments to cabinet, the Supreme Court and Senate; greater power for MPs and parliamentary committees, and restrictions on government advertising and party spending between elections.
With gaps in areas such as ethics, lobbying, whistleblower protection, political financing and watchdog enforcement, the platform wasn’t perfect. But it was a start. And Conacher expects it will resonate with voters.
“Over the last 20 years, any party that has seriously set out a platform that cleans things up has either won the election, or won more seats,” says Conacher. “Harper didn’t do it in 2004, but did in 2006 and won the election. Wild Rose did in Alberta, and won more seats. The B.C. NDP didn’t do it in 2013, and didn’t benefit. In 2010, the New Brunswick Conservatives beat the Liberals — it was the first time a government there had been defeated after just one term since Confederation, and they did it by putting out the same platform Harper did in 2006.”
Once the parties have released their platforms, Democracy Watch will issue its 2015 report card so voters can assess their various positions on democratic reform before they go to the polls. “We still have lots of watchdogs, so the situation isn’t dire,” says Conacher. “The problem is we have a bunch of loopholes and weak enforcement agencies. Prime Minister Harper and the Conservatives have exploited all the weaknesses, and the temptation is for any party that’s elected to continue doing that.”
Conacher expects the Liberals to push their reform agenda as election day nears, and he’s curious to see how the NDP responds. “Trudeau has said repeatedly the party is setting out an honest plan that offers real change. If the NDP doesn’t respond, they’ll lose five to ten per cent of their voters because swing voters want this more than anything. They want it because they know they won’t get anything else unless everyone in politics is more effectively required to be honest, ethical, open, representative and waste-preventing.”