Conservative Expediency

I wrote most of this post two weeks ago but left it unfinished among my drafts. I’m mentioning this only so you’ll know why I’m talking about such old news.

The federal Conservatives (and former Reform/Alliance parties) have always adamantly denied that they have some kind of “secret agenda,” and with the Liberals in need of being sent to the political grazing pasture to ponder the errors of their ways, Canadians have granted last January — although with much reserve — that perhaps the Conservatives are not as scary as the other parties have long depicted them to be. While I wasn’t happy with the decision of my fellow citizens, I found some solace in the fact the Conservatives were handed the smallest minority government in this country’s 139-year parliamentary history. They would have to set aside their more ideologically right-wing policies and govern by moving more towards the centre in order to extend the life of the new Parliament, for neither the opposition parties nor the electorate have an appetite for another federal election in the near future. But without a move to the centre on the part of the Conservative, the opposition parties — particularly the Liberals — might feel compelled to bring down the government even if they didn’t really want another election so soon.

Yet, from their very first day at the helm of power, Prime Minister Harper’s government has behaved exactly as Conservative opponents feared they would if given a chance. It’s not so much that the Conservatives’ “agenda” has been rife with scary reactionary stances, as it is the fact that it is riddled with startling hypocricies. When the new government was being sworn in, and despite professing for so long the need for Senate reform, Harper appointed to the Senate the national co-chair of their federal campaign, Michael Fortier, and made this unelected politican the minister of public works and government services — a move that has been largely overshadowed by the appointment of David Emerson — the Liberal-elected-cum-Conservative — as international trade minister.

These first moves harbingered what we could expect — and have seen — in the subsequent months. From bluntly reneging Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Accord to alienating the parliamentary press gallery, Canadians have seen that blatant political expediency is the hallmark of the much-feared “Conservative agenda”: get in and quickly change the rules once in. The Liberals were rightly accused of such expediency — recall the immediate cancellation of the helicopter deal when Chrétien came to power in 1993, which was the starting point of a long list. But what is bizarre to me is that even though it’s clear that history is repeating itself with a vengeance under this (neo)Consersative government, many polls indicate that Canadians, and most astonishingly Quebecers, would be inclined to elect a Conservative majority government if an election were held presently.

In Harper’s world, however, why wait for the next election to secure his hold on power? Expediently selecting one page from the platform of proportional representation proponents, Harper promised a few weeks ago to pass a law that would set fixed election dates. What’s crass about this proposal is the attempt to pass this notion as Harper’s willingness to abandon “a prerogative traditionally enjoyed by sitting prime ministers” to call an election anytime within a government’s mandate. But, effectively, if this law passed at this moment, it would assist in buttressing our country’s weakest minority ever without changing the other rules that would make minority governments viable.

Even though Harper conceded that “If the government is defeated, loses confidence, it’s obliged by the constitution to hold an election,” it’s difficult for anyone not to view the timing of the suggestion as suspect. It’s thinly veiled expediency indeed. And it illustrates perfectly the tone of the “hidden agenda” so many of us feared the Conservatives held. Personally I remain committed to the idea of seeing a form of proportional representation (PR) implemented at all levels of government, including federally, but I despise seeing this kind of cherry-picking of the points that would lead to this much-needed electoral reform.

Indeed, the notion fixed election dates is only one component of a PR system as outlined by proponents such as Fair Vote Canada and Gregory Morrow at democraticSpace. In fact, Morrow immediately slammed the Conservatives’ proposal as falling short. He likes fixed election dates as have been adopted recently in British Columbia because they “allow the government to plan its mandate with a real deadline in mind,” but reminds his readers that “It is essential that fixed election dates be introduced together with more strigent campaign finance rules.” And of course, fixed election dates do nothing to redress the problem of the misrepresentation of the people’s will at the ballot box.

Alternately, the response from Liberals and Conservatives towards true electoral reform has been tepid, as both have greatly benefitted from the current unfair system. Furthermore, many suggest that the only reason New Democrats and Greens are so in favour of such reform is because they stand to gain the most from a “Mixed Member Parliament” (MMP) system that would assign one third of the seats regionally. However, while this is true for the NDP in terms of number of seats based on electoral patterns in the last decade, the fact is that MMP would, overall, advantage and disadvantage all parties after every election. But that’s the topic of my next post.