Stephen Harper: Friend or Foe to Democracy?

An interesting story coming from Ottawa, as the Senate put the kibosh on a climate change bill passed by the House of Commons. Bill C-311 was introduced by the NDP, and put limits on greenhouse gases, bringing them below 1990 levels. The bill was passed by the House of Commons in May and was sent to the Senate for final approval. But with some clever maneuvering, the Conservative Senators called a snap vote, and with many of their Liberal colleagues absent, the bill was defeated. The opposition leaders, specifically NDP leader Jack Layton, immediately set to work hammering the Conservatives over this decision.

Now the whole thing about calling votes when a certain party or individual is absent has always seemed suspect. How can a vote be called with such urgency, that it catches a large chunk of the Liberal Senators not present? Did the Conservative Senators really catch them off guard, or did the Liberal wing of the Senate goof and miss what turned out to be an important vote? It is my perception (and correct me if you think I am wrong) that being a Senator is not very fun. You show up, do the traditional ceremonial duties required of you, pass pretty much any bill that comes across your desk and pocket that nice little salary while doing so. Did the Liberals just not show up, as they perhaps do on many occasions, but this time get caught? That is the first issue which is perhaps being overlooked.

Secondly, we forget that there is nothing illegal or suspect about this action. The Senate has the power to kill any bill that it wants. Yes, by tradition it has become a body which does not exercise this power, and there are blatant problems with the legitimacy of such a decision, but to call this undemocratic is not necessarily true. Remember, the government that Canadians elected, has chosen these individuals. Therefore, it is not fair to say they are not representative of the will of Canadians. They do have a foundation to stand upon, although I acknowledge how frail and unbelievably weak it is. The real problem lies in the fact that these Senators are not accountable. The electorate has no way of directly voicing their displeasure with the decision. Yes, we can remove the current government who is affiliated with the Conservative Senators, but there is no way of keeping the Senators in check and that is where much of the problem lies.

When reading media stories on this issue, the word “unelected” is used over and over. And perhaps this is the reason this story is stirring such outrage in a country where many individuals do not understand how our system of government works. Just as was the case in December of 2008 when the coalition government was being proposed, people are calling this a threat to Canadian democracy. Once again, I remind these people that the Senate has every right to do this. Just because the Senate has not exercised this power since 1939, does not mean it is undemocratic. The same situation was true of the coalition government. The opposition parties were doing nothing wrong with their plan.

There is no question that Stephen Harper has some major questions to answer regarding this. Many Canadians have long considered him to be a hypocrite, and I may be joining them after yesterday’s developments. The word Conservative has become so intrinsically linked to Harper and he rules his party so firmly, that as soon as we hear Conservative anything, we associate him with the decision. All sorts of quotes from Harper regarding his pledge to open, honest government and his cries to protect democracy are being pulled out for this story. His major defence against the 2008 coalition attempt, was to appeal to the electorate’s sense of right, arguing this went against democracy. The average voter will not take kindly to this seeming about face.

This post is not meant in any way to be supportive of the decision to kill Bill C-311. There is a whole host of problems with this decision, and the Senate is moving close to a dangerous cliff if they continue to exercise their muscle in this manner. The topic of Senate reform once again comes alive as a result of this story. Is an elected Senate the answer? I am unsure about the mechanics, and the overall impact that would have. For the most part I look upon Senate reform with hesitation. The potential gridlock that could come with an elected upper chamber could be detrimental, but their is no doubt that the current form is troubling.

The title of this post is of course an overblown exaggeration. Of course Harper is a friend to democracy. The decent human being in me believes that despite his perception as a cold, heartless, power seeking man, he would never do anything to actually damage Canadian democracy. However, as is the case with many politicians, in his quest to govern, using the limited resources at his disposal, he pushed the boundaries to get his way. Unfortunately in this case, it will be difficult for him to fully recover. His party has been slowly sliding in recent polls. Could this be the push which sends them back to the opposition benches? Time will only tell.

P.S. Jim Prentice is probably thanking his lucky stars he is getting out. Perhaps the first to abandon a sinking ship?


About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on November 18, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. so people are mad that the senate did what they were allowed to do? i think that yes it was pretty sneaky and potentially “unfair” to vote when the liberals were no there, but i find it a little weird that the senate get in hot water when they do something they are fully capable and allowed to do… also to what extent is it actually stephen harper’s fault that the bill was shot down? is he able to convince the senate to do something like that or did they act on their own accord?

    • I have a hunch that Harper had something to do with it. He rules almost every aspect of the Conservative party and most related Conservative doings so tightly that it is hard to see any decision being made without his input and approval.

  2. Good commentary. You gave me some really good points to ponder. Friend or foe of democracy?? But maybe a better title would be Friend or Foe of the people who elected them. Are they really working for me? Doesn’t always feel like it. I think there is more to the story than we the elected public will hear and know. I truely believe that most of the games played by the current parties is to place them in a better position. And I the current Conservative govenment is starting to feel pretty comfortable. I think this is like a school yard bully daring the rest of the kids to cross him. Works for a while but pretty soon the other kids on the play ground team up to defeat the bully. Just my thoughts.

    • Yes, the parties definitely work to put themselves in a better position. The Conservatives have benefited from a weak opposition, but the bully could soon have someone big and strong enough to stand up to them. It will be interesting to see what they do when challenged!

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