Robyn Benson, PSAC



What kind of a government labels law-abiding citizens as “enemies?”

Political parties and their partisans may have enemies, but no democratic government should. Governments are supposed to govern for all of the people, not merely their own supporters (in Stephen Harper’s case, less than a third of Canadian voters at present).

But this government is different. The lines between it and the Conservative party itself have become blurred. Recently a leak to newspapers of allegations against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau proved to have been directed right out of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Instructions were given that the source should not be named, but one small-town newspaper refused to play along. Not, as the kids say, cool.

Now Harper’s new Cabinet has received a briefing that includes lists of alleged “enemies,” in the media, the bureaucracy and elsewhere. There is ample precedent for this, of course: one thinks of US President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” of 1971, and (perhaps less well-remembered) a similar, if somewhat half-hearted, McCarthyist flashback from a minister in the Trudeau government that same year.

The common denominator here is a fundamental lack of trust in other people, approaching paranoia, combined with a mean authoritarian streak that defines anyone who thinks differently, not as a fellow-citizen, but as an enemy to be eliminated. Such people, once in power, display a cynical shrewdness and a fetish for secrecy. They instinctively prefer the dark to the light. And theirs is an iron rule, or at least as iron a rule as they are permitted to get away with.

Those of us who are fundamentally opposed to the values and philosophy of the current government, or even question them, are not “enemies.” We believe in the democratic process: spirited debate, the exercise of our Charter rights to dissent, strong and organized political opposition. A government that defines us as enemies is itself an enemy of democracy.

And democracy in Canada is fragile enough as it is. The Prime Minister is granted powers that a US President would envy—the unilateral right to appoint members of the Senate, judges, and members of various boards and commissions, for example. Or to shut down Parliament when it gets inconvenient. With the increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the consequent lack of democratic accountability to the electorate becomes more and more a fact of Canadian political life. And when it reaches the point that the PMO becomes more or less an arm of a specific political party, running dirty tricks against opposition leaders, a line has been crossed, and it will not be easy to walk that one back.

The Harper government has the whole thing backwards. It exists to serve Canadian citizens and to work on our behalf, not the other way around. But as it continues to drop in the polls in the wake of scandal after scandal, it still prefers to lash out rather than to take responsibility.

Writing of riots in East Germany against their Communist government in 1954, the playwright Bertold Brecht wrote these sarcastic lines:

Some party hack decreed that the people
Had lost the government’s confidence
And could only regain it with redoubled effort.
If that is the case, would it not be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?

But this is Canada, of course. The Prime Minister would likely prefer to appoint one.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 18, 2013 8:30 AM.

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