Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Reflection on This Past Year

Well, with the holiday season in more or less full swing, I think this will be my last post for the year. It's been an interesting one politically, both provincially and Federally, and I'm not really going to spend my time reflecting too much on individual events that popped up during the year.

We all know about the PotashCorp deal; we all know about the death of the long form census; and so on and so forth, to simply rehash them and re-debate them seems like a bit of a waste of time at this point. Not that these issues aren't important, it's just we all know the facts as they lay and there's no need to wake those sleeping dogs at the moment.

What I would like to talk about is current state of the Canadian Political System. For those of you hoping for a provincial post to wrap up the year, I'm sad to say you aren't going to see one. As a compromise, I'll be sure to open next year with a look at a major provincial issue.

As this political year comes to a close, as Parliament will be closing this session down on Thursday, I can't help but think of the events that brought us to where we are now and what Canadians have wrought in their Federal Political System.

I did say I wasn't going to reopen old arguments, but I do need to do a bit of reflection.

In 2006, Canadians voted for change in their Federal Government by voting out the 'corruption-plagued' Liberal Party of Paul Martin. Despite having more than two choices, Canadians turned to the united Conservative Party of Stephen Harper to fix the problems created by the Liberals.

Harper promised transparency; he promised protection for government whistle-blowers; he promised to change the political system in Ottawa for the better.

Now, as we approach 2011, we must ask ourselves what has Stephen Harper delivered on?

Despite promises of transparency, the Harper Government has been one of the most secretive governments in Canadian history. Every month, it seems that news of improper denials of Access to Information requests comes to head, as Canadians find their government refusing to release information or released documents so heavily redacted that they leave the person requesting information with less information than when they'd made the request.

Case in point (CTV News: Two Tory Staffers tried to Block Access to Info: CP)

Of course, this is nothing new. Statistics show that numerous Access to Information requests have been flat out denied or heavily redacted by this Conservative Government, especially request that have to do with Afghanistan.

So it would seem that Harper is only talk when it comes to government transparency, as it seems every other month a 'staffer' is blamed for problems within a ministry, while the Minister blissfully claims ignorance and sometimes indignation about what is going on with that particular issue.

As such, transparency doesn't seem to be a priority for the Harper Government. But surely they followed through on the other promises they made to prevent another 'sponsorship scandal' from occurring again.

So, how about protecting whistle-blowers? Well, the Harper Government did pass legislation to protect whistle-blowers, but what has it really done?

Well, the person in charge of being Ottawa's 'Integrity Watchdog' resigned in disgrace after news broke that she was not only berating and bullying her staff, but also failing to do her job. Despite receiving 170 complaints since her office was created, Christiane Ouimet launched only 3 investigations and found no cases of wrong-doing.

Furthermore, she failed to establish procedures for her office to follow and regularly dismissed complaints without an investigation even taking place. Then there were complaints about Ouimet's personal interactions with staff; given that apparently she was prone to 'swearing' and belittling staff members, including one she singled out after believing that the staffer had filed a complaint about her to the Auditor General.

So, here we have a person who is supposed to be protecting whistle-blowers, who apparently went out of her way to sabotage and personally attack staffers who left her office or were suspected of filing complaints about her to her superiors.

Glad to see that Whistle-Blowers Protection Act is working in Ottawa...

So, the Harper Government has failed on transparency and protecting whistle-blowers; and as Meatloaf would say, two out of three ain't bad, but what about the third one? What about changing politics as usual in Ottawa?

Well, the Harper Government has only made things worse there as well...

A.) The Harper Government attempt to remove public financing for political parties. While this may not be popular among some citizens, it's important to know that political parties should start on an attempt equal footing in a democracy, otherwise one party is always going to have an advantage over another simply because they can put out more of their message or more negative ads.

This polarized the opposition and helped lead towards the failed and much derided coalition attempt, which also helped contribute to the destruction of Stephane Dion's leadership of the Liberal Party.

For a moment, I'd like you to keep the idea of election financing somewhere as I'm going to return to it later.

B.) The Harper Government talked about 'working with Parliament' and the opposition parties; but has turned their back on this ideal as well. Given the current lack of a Liberal backbone, the Conservatives know they can pass any bill through Parliament they want, as the Liberals will not step up to defeat it.

Furthermore, the Harper Government has done more 'out of cabinet' motions than I can remember in recent history. Perhaps the better term is Act of Cabinet, in which certain things can be determined by the government and it's ministers, as opposed to Parliament. The scrapping of the long form census was one of these acts, as it did not require a vote in Parliament and simply happened under recommendation by the Minister; and of course, the $17 billion dollar purchase of stealth fighter jets, which was not a tendered or competitive contract, yet awarded to Lockheed Martin without the approval of Parliament...

The list goes on...

C.) Harper has attacked the Senate since he was leader of the Canadian Alliance. Yet, at every opportunity the Harper Government has used the Senate as an arm of the Conservative Party.

Despite opposing appointed life-long senators, Harper has appointed Senator after Senator to help push his own legislative agenda through the Upper House. And for the record, other Prime Ministers have appointed numerous Senators, but they also appointed Senators of differing political stripes.

For example, Paul Martin actually appointed a Conservative Senator during his brief time as Prime Minister. Whereas Harper has never appointed a non-conservative Senator.

On top of that, Harper's ministers and backbenchers have been manipulating the Senate in the House of Commons. It came out months ago that Conservative Members of Parliament were rushing to become sponsors of Senate Bills in the House of Commons, even though many of the bills they were sponsoring ran contrary to Conservative ideology.

Of course, this was because the Conservatives were killing Senate Bills without debate. By the sponsor of a bill not being present in the Commons for first reading, the bill is considered defeated. And that's what many of the Conservatives were doing to destroy legislation that they didn't want to discuss or debate.

Some Conservatives defended and denied the practice, but most steered clear of it.

D.) The Harper Government can also be described as the folly of the staffers, as evidenced above, as numerous staffers have been investigated, resigned, or fired over events that happened within certain ministries or departments.

On top of staffers finding blame for refusing and wrongfully editing access to information requests, it's come out that Saskatchewan (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar) MP Kelly Block had staffer problems of her own.

A staffer from Block's office forwarded confidential budget information to several lobbying firms, and it's now come out that said staffer was seeking employment with the firms he sent the information to, despite the information not being ready to release to the public, given the impact it could have on personal finances.

Some Conservatives, such as fellow Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski, have condemned the lobbyists and the staffer for their actions, but not much more than that has happened.

Furthermore, in regards to staffers, the Harper Government has forbidden staffers from responding to requests to appear in front of Parliamentary Committees, even if they've been summoned to appear before the committee.

E.) And we also have the problem of renovations. Parliament is an old building, as such, it's going to need some work done in order to keep it safe and beautiful for decades to come...As such, renovations are regular occurrences on Parliament Hill.

So, imagine the surprise when a contractor makes a bold claim that his contributions to the Conservative Party and spending money to a well connected Conservative lobbyist, helped him win the contract to renovate an area of the West Block.

Add to this some workers walking off the job and filing complaints with the RCMP over backpay, and you have to ask yourselves some questions about how renovation contracts are being rewarded in Ottawa...

And finally, we come back to election financing, as promised.

Elections Canada has had a long standing feud with the Conservative Party of Canada, over whether or not the party participated in an 'in and out' scheme during the 2006 Federal Election.

Effectively, an in and out scheme means that the party collected funds on a regional level (say for the riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt) and then proceeded to use those funds to organize the national campaign as a means of getting around national spending limits.

Let's try to make that clearer.

Take a riding like Calgary-Southwest (Harper's riding) where a Conservative victory is all but assured. Let's say that the Conservative Party raises $45,000 in Calgary-Southwest from supporters.

Obviously, given the Conservative bend in the riding as well as Conservative notoriety in the riding, there isn't a need to spend $45,000 within the riding.

So, the Conservatives could set up a campaign office within Calgary-Southwest which claims to operate for the riding, but actually does work for the national campaign instead. So, instead of spending that money in Calgary-Southwest, they use it to run ads throughout Canada instead of just within Calgary-Southwest.

It's a basic explanation, but I think it explains it well.

Well, Elections Canada is claiming that that is exactly what the Conservative Party did in Quebec during the 2006 Election, where $170,000 dollars was used as a national campaign expense but listed as a regional expense in order to get around the spending limit on national campaigns.

Of course, the Conservatives are denying the claim and appealing it, while Elections Canada continues to suggest that by doing this the Conservative Party of Canada broke Canadian Election Law.

So, with all of this in mind, has the Harper Government really changed the way things work in Ottawa?

The answer is a clear and resounding no. The Harper Government continues to be a force for the betterment of the Harper Government and the Conservative Party, not a force for the betterment of the Canadian People.

Despite promises of cleaning up Canadian politics and ensuring that the 'corruption' that existed under the previous Liberal Governments never occurs again; that the patronage and the favouritism that plagued departments and contracts would not occur, the Harper Government has failed on all fronts.

So, it would seem that the Harper Government is all talk and no action when it comes to improving the way things are run in Parliament.

And the reasoning for this is simple: The Harper Government simply doesn't care.

They are a party of populism, much like the Tea Party movement in the United States, that placate the people of Canada by telling them what they want to hear, by promising action on issues important to us, and by playing up problems the other side has created while promising to fix them...

But of course, once elected, they do nothing about the issues that helped sweep them into office. As stated, the only thing they care about is bettering their own poll numbers and ensuring that the next election will be the election that finally gets them the majority government they've been pandering for.

After all, would a government that really cared about getting things done trot out the Prime Minister to do a song and dance when their poll numbers start to dip, or would they get to work on an issue that would help them during an election?

Obviously, I hope, we all know the answer to that question.