Stephen Harper’s record of denying democracy

Stephen Harper has tried hard to obscure a hidden political agenda as prime minister but the reality is that he has 'abused, denied and diminished' democracy in Canada, say James Clancy and Larry Brown of the National Union of Public and General Employees. (NUPGE).

By James Clancy and Larry Brown
National President and National Secretary-Treasurer
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

James Clancy and Larry Brown, national president and national secretary-treasurer of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)Ottawa (24 Feb. 2010) - The conventional wisdom is that Stephen Harper, by moving closer to the centre on some public policy issues, has managed to show Canadians that he doesn’t have a scary hidden agenda. 

The problem with this view is that it ignores the larger role that Harper’s political temperament and lack of respect for democracy have played in reinforcing the hidden agenda theme.

Harper’s authoritarian tendencies and vindictive streak shatter any notion of moderation. Some people say these characteristics are simply a reflex he hasn’t learned to control.

A reflex? Probably. But we think there’s more to it.

Indulging the reflex is part of Harper’s long-held motivation and strategy to de-legitimize the very idea that government itself is valuable and beneficial (except for the military and law enforcement agencies). 

He has one simple ideological goal: to weaken and shrink the size of government. 

Of course, Harper has the right to pursue his goal of creating a minimal state. But he doesn’t have the right to demonize and denigrate public figures and public organizations that disagree with his ideological goal.

And he doesn’t have the right to subvert our system of democratic processes, or to violate fundamental principles of our democracy, in order to achieve his goal. Yet that’s exactly what he’s been doing for the last four years.

Stephen Harper loves power. But he hates government and the democratic process. That’s the hidden agenda that still scares most Canadians. 

We’ve outlined below three general areas in which Harper has abused, denied and diminished our democracy.

We’ve also assembled a longer list of specific examples which shows a clear, consistent pattern of anti-democratic behaviour since Harper came to office. You can access the full list by clicking on this link:

• Harper's Democratic Deficit

In a democracy, the public service isn’t made to serve the partisan interests of the party in power.

In a democracy, there is an important difference between the government of the day and the non-partisan public service. For the public service to be dragged into the partisan fray is a misuse of taxpayers’ money – because we all end up paying, unwillingly, for the advancement of the political agenda of the party in power. It’s also dangerously undemocratic because it assumes that the interests of the party in power and the interests of the country are interchangeable.
The Harper government uses public employees and systems to shamelessly advance its political cause and trash others. This is about more than the endless advertising of Tory programs that we are all forced to pay for, distasteful as that is.

Look at this example from the justice department website: “The (ministers) – today celebrated the appointment of five new members of the Senate of Canada … this has greatly strengthened our efforts to move forward on our tackling-crime agenda … the opposition has obstructed that agenda in the Senate, most notably by gutting Bill C-15, a key part of the government’s efforts to fight organized crime.” 

If the Conservative party paid for this, it would be reasonable party politics. But for the government to use the public service to argue its point is not legitimate.

The Revenue Canada website contains these ‘objective’ policy descriptions: “The Government has taken extraordinary and unprecedented action to help Canadian workers facing layoffs or job losses weather the economic conditions.” “The Government is also leaving more money in the hands of Canadians by freezing Employment Insurance (EI) premium rates.”  And “The Economic Action Plan is providing additional benefits now when Canadians need them the most.” Would the Tory website read any differently?

Using the whole apparatus of government, of public service, as if it was a part of the political party’s tool kit, is unacceptable and dangerous to democracy.

In a democracy, dissent is tolerated.

The Harper government recently cut funding to the faith-based group KAIROS and effectively blew up the respected organization Rights and Democracy. This action was taken because these two groups didn’t adhere to the Harper government’s rigid line on supporting Israel. 

That’s an undemocratic misuse of power. These groups weren’t supported by Conservative Party money; they were supported by money provided by the taxpayers of Canada. But the decisions to cut funding for Kairos and interfere in Rights and Democracy were never debated in Parliament on behalf of taxpayers; they were made behind the closed doors of Harper’s office.

Groups that work in the non governmental organization (NGO) field point out that one of the effects of these budget cuts is to cause a real fear that expressing a view different than the Harper government’s will lead to an attack on their funding. 

Private citizens, under this philosophy, can be openly attacked too, if they express a view not endorsed by the Harper government. Recently, Harper wildly and unfairly attacked Ed Clark, a Bay Street banker, for expressing his personal opinion that taxes might have to go up to deal with the deficit. Harper labelled him a Liberal hack and publicly slammed his personal wealth.  

Public servants who have run afoul of the iron thought control of the Conservatives, have been made to pay. Think of Richard Colvin, who raised his concerns about the treatment of Afghan detainees. He wasn’t merely rebutted, he was publicly smeared. Anyone who dared ask a question about this issue was labelled a Taliban supporter, or disloyal to our troops. 

Think too about the many leaders of independent watchdog agencies who have been fired because they did their jobs but didn’t toe the Harper line.

This fundamental rejection of dissent is an assault on our democracy.

In a democracy, Parliament is not held in contempt.

We all know the prorogation story. First, Harper shut down Parliament to escape defeat. Then he did it again to avoid uncomfortable questions about Afghan detainees and climate change.

But Harper’s contempt for democracy goes deeper than that. Remember, the Tory party issued handbooks to its MPs about how to make parliamentary committees dysfunctional. Conservative MPs are treated like robots, not allowed to speak but issued voice chips that endlessly repeat the party’s attack lines. 

The Senate is a part of our parliamentary system, like it or not. It’s supposed to be a body of sober second thought. The Conservatives have been appointing senators based on their promise, in advance, to support key government legislation. The newest batch had to promise they would support the government’s authoritarian justice measures. The ones before that had to promise to support Senate reform.

The Senate has gone from a body of sober second thought to a body of mindless obedience.

This is not what democracy looks like.

Democracy is more than the right to vote every so often. Democracy respects the views of all citizens; the principles of the democratic system are protected; the right to dissent is honoured; the informal and formal rules that protect our plurality are adhered to; and the requirement that the public service is non-partisan is strongly underlined.

All of these factors are being aggressively and systematically undermined by the Harper government. Harper isn’t scary anymore? His systematic dismantling of democracy surely is.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

More information:
• Harper's Democratic Deficit