Canada’s Conservatives change the rules of the game

Progressives face a tough fight in next year’s Canadian election. Even as their support outstrips the Conservatives’, the Harper government’s changes to the electoral rules will likely suppress voter turnout and leave the door open to more electoral fraud

As the year comes to a close and the next general election looms, it is worth taking stock of the Conservative government’s recent moves to stymie its progressive opponents. As previously detailed, this summer Stephen Harper, the prime minister, rushed through parliament the anti-democratic and ill-named Fair Elections Act. It eliminates the independent elections monitor (worrying, given the Conservatives were found to have committed electoral fraud in 2011); forbids campaigns to encourage voter turnout; disenfranchises aboriginals, young people, and seniors by changing vouching rules; and enhances the influence of money on election results. Arguably, all of these changes benefit the Conservative party.

Harper’s government has also tried to tilt the public discourse in its direction by preventing evidence-based policymaking and launching targeted audits of progressive thinktanks and charities.

In 2010, it eliminated the mandatory long-form census, replacing it with a voluntary National Household Survey. The reason? It claimed that the compulsory form was an intrusion into Canadians’ privacy. The chief statistician of Statistics Canada resigned over the issue, pointing out that even with the same questions, a voluntary questionnaire undermines the quality of data. Four years later, independent reviews have found the National Household Survey data of dubious and inferior quality; researchers have called on people to avoid using it. Furthermore, it has cost $22m more than the long form census, and has delivered data of limited use.

Furthermore, in the Conservatives’ quest to shape public debate around the mantra of ‘government bad, private sector good,’ they have targeted progressive thinktanks through extensive audits. The Canada Revenue Agency highlight that the audits are occurring because research and educational materials were considered “biased” and “one-sided”. Given that all thinktanks produce their research in light of certain values, it is odd that rightwing thinktanks have somehow escaped Harper’s special audit programme to monitor political activities.

As well as shifting the rules of the game, the Conservatives are pursuing a rightwing policy agenda.
The Conservative government has, for instance, been unashamedly leading the way in what not to do to tackle climate change. The Germanwatch Climate Change Performance Index 2014 finds Canada to be the worst performer of all industrialised countries, well behind India, China, the US, and Russia (based on emission levels, efficiency, renewable energy and climate policy). AnEnvironics Institute for Survey Research survey last week indicates this lack of action is in direct contrast to public opinion. Close to nine in 10 Canadians would like to see the federal government doing more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A large number would also be ready to accept a well-designed and effectively communicated carbon-pricing policy. Anti-pipeline protests have been happening across the country.

Aside from its risible environmental record, Harper’s government has also been taking what Andrew Coyne, a columnist for the National Post, calls “baby steps” towards a flat tax: income splitting for couples with children. The policy allows a high-income earner (typically a man) to transfer part of his income to a lower-earning spouse for tax purposes. Eighty-seven per cent of families will not benefit in any way. The 13 per cent who will benefit are high-income earners with stay-at-home spouses. Additionally, income-splitting reinforces men’s dominant role in relationships; it discourages women from working, as having their own income would increase their personal tax rate.

These are only a handful of the recent policies pushed through by Harper’s Conservative government. More instances are detailed in three new books: Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, and Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada.

The question, though, is whether there is a prospect for change next year. Canadians are due to go to the polls next autumn, though rumours suggest that Harper might call an early election. In terms of the polls, they have been relatively steady since early 2013 when Justin Trudeau took over as Liberal party leader: with the Liberals hovering between 36 and 38 per cent, the Conservatives around 30 per cent and the New Democratic party (NDP) between 21 and 24 per cent.

Source: [4 December 2014]
Note: Polls based on weighted averages of federal polls

What is remarkable is how this contrasts from the last general election, where the Conservatives won with 40 per cent, the NDP achieved 31 per cent, and the Liberals plummeted to a historic low of 19 per cent. Since 2011, it appears, the Canadian public has become either more aware, or less supportive of, the direction in which the Harper government has been taking the country.

However, like the UK, Canada is subject to a first-past-the-post system (which is likely to endure for the foreseeable future following the defeat of last week’s NDP motion “to commit to replacing Canada’s unfair electoral system with a system of mixed-member proportional representation following the next election” by the Conservatives and some Liberals.

Although popular opinion is currently with the Liberals, this would not necessarily translate into an electoral victory. The fear is that the centre-left vote is split too finely between the Liberals and the NDP, leaving neither with enough support to govern. More worryingly, Canadians should be concerned about the potential for more electoral fraud to suppress voter turnout now that the elections monitor is no longer an independent body, but an individual directly responsible to Stephen Harper himself.

Note: This post was originally published on the Policy Network website. It is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network’s regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics.

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