Subject: A Commonwealth issue - a Press Release
PRESS RELEASE to the British Press
"A Challenge to the Governor General of Canada "
This Press Release concerns an unprecedented constitutional situation in the Canadian Parliament. It may indeed be unprecedented in the Commonwealth, and so should be of interest to the people of Britain and other Commonwealth countries.
A Canadian federal election is underway, which was triggered by a vote in the House of Commons in Ottawa that found the Government in contempt of Parliament. This Press Release is in the form of an open letter that is being widely circulated today by a Citizens' Group that is concerned about the responsibility of the Crown to maintain our democratic values in the operations of our British system of parliamentary government. The letter was delivered to His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston on Saturday, 23 April, 2011.
Senator Tommy Banks Speaks Out
A letter from Tom Banks
It's worth noting that Tom was a conservative when he was appointed to the Senate. If you agree with this food for thought please feel free to send it to your friends of whatever political stripe. The bigger message here is how we want our government to behave, no matter who forms that government. Here's Tom's missive:
"There is only one thing about the outcome of the May 2nd election on which Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper agree. It is that one of them will be the Prime Minister of Canada. Mr. Layton, Mr. Duceppe and Ms. May are not in the running to form a government. They can't. It will be either Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Harper.
That is the choice, and it is a very clear – in fact, stark choice. We will choose between openness or secrecy. Between listening or refusing to listen. Between someone who respects Parliament or someone who disdains it. Between things we can and will do now or things that, (provided of course that everything goes well), we might do in five or six years. Between someone who answers all questions from Canadians, or someone who won't accept any.
Between Mr. Harper who said “It’s past time the feds scrapped the Canada Health Act”, or Mr. Ignatieff who said “ . . . we don't want user fees. We want universal, accessible, free-at-the-point-of-service health care, paid out of general revenue. That’s just bottom line. Otherwise we get two-tiered”.
Between buying jets or helping vets. Between real early childhood learning and care or Saturday-night babysitting. Between respect for our great institutions or contempt for them. Between helping families or helping big corporations. Between the Canada that we think we have, or the way in which Mr. Harper has already changed it.
Over the past few years Mr. Harper’s government has quietly engineered so many changes that there are some ways in which our country is barely recognizable. Many of us don't yet realize the extent of those changes, because many of them have been brought about very carefully and gradually – almost imperceptibly in some cases.
This is diabolically clever. If these things had all been done at once, there would have been loud protests and reactions. But moving just one little brick at a time doesn't cause much fuss – until you realize that the whole house has been renovated. And we've hardly noticed.
These are changes that are at the very heart of who and what Canadians are. They are changes to the protections that used to exist against the tyranny of the majority – or against a single-minded my-way-or-the-highway autocrat. These changes are losses to our very Canadian-ness. Let me remind you of some of them:
The Law Commission of Canada was created by an Act of Parliament in 1997. It worked very well. It kept an eye in a sort-of avuncular way, on necessary reforms of the law, including election law. The Commission couldn't actually change law; but it was very good at letting governments and everybody else know when changes needed to be made and why. It was our legal Jiminy Cricket, and it performed a valuable service for Canada . The Commission was created by an Act of Parliament, and any government wanting to shut it down should have been up-front about it. It should have come to Parliament with a Bill to rescind The Law Commission of Canada Act. That’s what any of our 21 previous Prime Ministers would have done.
But to Mr. Harper, Parliament is an inconvenience. Somebody might ask “Why are you doing this?” But he didn't want to go through all that Parliamentary trouble; so, rather than proposing the abolition of the Commission (a proposal about which there would have been pretty fierce debate on all sides), they just eliminated all funding for it in the federal budget. Governments can do that. Poof – no Law Commission.
Nice and quiet. Just one little brick. Hardly noticed.
Then there was the Court Challenges Programme, set up in 1994, which was the means by which a bit of legal help could be provided to a private individual or small organization who didn't have a lot of money, and who was taking on, or being taken on by, the Government of Canada. It leveled the legal playing field a bit. It was a perfect example of fundamental Canadian fairness.
By convincing a tough panel of judges of the reasonableness of your cause, you could get a little help in paying for some lawyers to go up against the phalanx of legal beagles that could always, and forever, and at public expense, be brought to bear against you by the State. In other words, if you weren't rich, and if you were taking on or being taken on by the Feds, you might have had a chance. But Mr. Harper doesn't like being questioned, let alone challenged. It’s so inconvenient! Solution? Quietly announce that the Court Challenges Programme is being, er, discontinued. Poof – no Court Challenges Programme – no court challenges.
The Coordination of Access to Information Request System (CAIRS) was created (by a Progressive-Conservative government) in 1989 so that departments of government could harmonize their responses to access-to-information requests that might need multi-departmental responses. It was efficient; it made sure that in most cases the left hand knew what the right hand was doing, or at least what they were saying; and it helped keep government open and accountable. Well, if you’re running a closed-door government, that’s not a good idea, is it? So, as a Treasury Board official explained to the Canadian Press, CAIRS was killed by the Harper government because “extensive” consultations showed it wasn't valued by government departments. I guess that means that the extensive consultations were all with government departments.
Wait! Wasn't there anybody else with whom to extensively consult? Wasn't there some other purpose and use for CAIRS? Didn't it have something to do with openness and accountability? I guess not. Robert Makichuk, speaking for Mr. Harper’s government, explained that “valuable resources currently being used to maintain CAIRS would be better used in the collection and analysis of improved statistical reporting”.
Right. In other words, CAIRS was an inconvenience to the government. So poof – it’s disappeared. And, except for investigative reporters and other people who might (horrors!) ask questions, its loss is hardly noticed.
And the bridge too far for me: Cutting the already-utterly-inadequate funding for the exposure of Canadian art and artists in other countries. That funding was, by any comparison, already laughably minuscule. Mr. Harper says that “ordinary” Canadians don't support the arts. He’s wrong. And his is now the only government of any significant country in the world that clearly just doesn't get it.
All these changes were done quietly, cleverly, and under the radar. No fuss. No outcry. Just one little brick at a time. But in these and other ways, our Canadian house is no longer the kind of place it once was. Nobody minds good renovations. Nobody even minds tearing something down, as long as we put up something better in its place. That’s not what has happened.
Mr. Harper fired the head of the Canadian Wheat Board because he was doing his job properly. He removed the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission because she wanted to make sure that the Chalk River nuclear reactor was safe.
There are many more things that were hardly noticed: Cuts to funding for the Status of Women, Adult Learning and Literacy, Environmental Programs, museums funding, and more. All quietly, just one brick at a time.
As to campaign promises, everybody in sight on every side is guilty of breaking those. Except the Federal NDP of course, who haven't yet had the opportunity. (It’s very easy to make promises that you know you will not likely have to keep).
But the government promised to end wait times in health care. They didn't. They promised to end, once and for all, the whining of some provinces about the non-existent “fiscal imbalance”. They didn't. They said they had brought final resolution to the softwood lumber problem with the U.S. They haven't. They promised to create thousands of new child-care spaces in Canada . They haven't. They promised not to tax income trusts (“We will NEVER do that!” they said). They taxed them. They promised to lower your income tax.
They raised it.
They said they had a good “made-in-Canada” plan to meet our obligations on climate change. They don't. Mr. Harper has said plainly that whatever the Americans do is what we'll do too.
They campaign on a platform of transparency and accountability; but they’re now trying to discredit the Parliamentary Budget Officer that they created, because he’s trying to do the job that they gave him. Mr. Harper said that our form of government, evolved over centuries from the 900-year-old British Westminster tradition, was all wrong. We had to have fixed election dates, because otherwise, democratic principles would be trampled. ”Fixed election dates”, he said, “stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar. They level the playing field for all parties”.
So Parliament (remember them?) at Mr. Harper’s insistence, passed a law requiring fixed election dates, which Mr. Harper promptly broke.
Somebody once said that we get the kind of government we deserve. What did we do to deserve Mr. Harper? He once said that we should all “Stand Up for Canada ”. Well, let’s do that. We just have to decide whether the present version of Canada is the one that we'll stand up for. Or stand for.
Tommy Banks (an Alberta Senator)