Any group of people who band together to advocate for something could be called a “special interest group,” but some get labelled that way and some do not. What are the selection criteria?
That’s easy, actually. In Conservative politics, the phrase is only used to describe opponents. Conservatives have supportive organizations; we have “special interest groups.” Allegedly, the latter’s appeal to the public good is a mask: we have much narrower, self-interested aims, so our arguments can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Industry Minister James Moore once infamously spoke against extending the Canada Health Act to autism treatment, claiming that autism is not a disability but a “special interest.” Even those who opposed scrapping the long-form census were attacked in that manner—a bit ironic, as it turns out, since many of them had been Conservative voters up to that point.
More recently, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver described environmentalists as “radicals,” funded by “foreign special interest groups.” The Harper government even changed the tax law and set aside $8 million to have the Canada Revenue Agency go after charities deemed too critical of Conservative policies. Big Oil welcomed the move—just more special interest groups, “masquerading as charities,” to be weeded out. This didn’t apply, however, to the foreign-funded right-wing Fraser Institute—which continues to have charitable status, but openly advocates for “right to work (for less)” laws.
Special interests do seem to cut both ways. So let’s follow the Conservative inconsistencies on the subject a little further, into territory in which we are all affected.
In December of 2011, Big Oil wrote a letter to the Harper government. Briefly, it wanted a lot of pesky environmental regulations abolished so it could go on making large profits. It asked Harper to comply.
Our waterways, including lakes, have now been almost entirely exempted from government environmental oversight—except, oddly enough, lakes in Conservative ridings. This will make it much easier for oil and gas pipeline-builders like Enbridge, and other industries as well, to proceed with their projects free of environmental impact assessments, but the rest of us, including First Nations people whose communities depend on those waterways, have lost vital environmental protection. Transport Canada has predicted that this massive deregulation will give rise to numerous court battles, with litigation taking the place of government regulation.
Isn’t Big Oil a special interest group, after all? Who could seriously argue otherwise? Here’s the major difference, however, between advocacy organizations the Conservative government has been busy attacking, and the oil lobby. The Harper government jumps to its command, passing laws on request, while it denounces others as “enemies.” But individual Canadians, and those associations who work on our behalf, have a shared concern about a healthy environment, one which we hope to pass on to future generations to enjoy. And that makes us one very large special interest group indeed—the only one, I think, that really counts.