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THE STEPHEN HARPER GANG AND THE APATHETIC CITIZENRY: THE UNDERMINING OF DEMOCRACY

The justification of majority rule in politics is not to be found in its ethical superiority. – Walter Lippmann

Along with responsible newspapers we must have responsible readers. – Arthur Hays Sulzberger

It is well to remember that freedom through the press is the thing that comes first. Most of us probably feel we couldn’t be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want newspapers to be free. – Edward R. Murrow

Frank A. Pelaschuk

PIERRE POILIEVRE, THE ARCHITECT OF PAIN AND RUIN

If anyone has lately seen Pierre Poilievre, the architect of the egregiously mistitled Fair Elections Act, on television news defending his vile handiwork, it can immediately become clear why all Canadians should be deeply troubled for the state of their democracy. His appearance on CBC’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon, March 27, 2014, immediately following that of Harry Neufeld, former B.C. Chief Electoral Officer and author of the report of his, Neufeld’s, investigation reviewing issues of non-compliance of election rules, ceaselessly cited by Poilievre as justification for reworking the Elections Act, provides the clearest evidence, and just another example of many, of Harper’s extreme lack of judgement. Placing Poilievre at the helm of the Ministry of Democratic Reform makes him the unlikeliest and most unpleasant candidate for the post, particularly in light of the campaign he and another vicious conservative sidekick, Dean del Mastro, now facing four charges for election irregularities, waged war in the House of Commons against Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, for their investigations of the Conservative Party’s role in the robocalls scandals and voter suppression. Poilievre, hardly non-partisan, poses the greatest threat to our democracy and to our electoral process. Not many, I suggest, were that surprised by the appointment. As has been demonstrated in the past, Harper is quite willing to poke his finger into the public eye as he did with his appointment of Joe Oliver, former Minister of Natural Resources, another partisan and vile adherent to a political ideology that denies and ridicules not only the opinions of others, but also the facts. It was he, on behalf of the Harper gang, who labelled environmentalists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline as “radicals” and stooges to foreign environmental groups and who has persistently denied global warming and climate change. Speaking in Washington, DC, last year, he savaged renowned NASA scientist climatologist James Hansen accusing him of “exaggerated rhetoric” for his position regarding development of the Alberta tar sands. Poilievre is of that ilk, only much, much more offensive and dangerous. The Conservative Party must draw these folks as naturally as road kill does carrion.

How is it possible that Bill C-23, a Bill that will alter the electoral system in such a profoundly fundamental way, be even considered without real, meaningful consultation with, or agreement from, the opposition parties, from Elections Canada and past and present Chief Electoral Officers, legal experts, academics, and the public? Imposing one’s will with the brute force of a majority is no way to operate in a democracy. That is not open, honest, transparent governance; that is control.

No one, absolutely no one, other than conservative partisans, agrees that this is a good revision of the Elections Act. This is not just the opposition opposing everything as the Harper thugs would have you believe, it is opposition by almost every segment of society except, sadly, the sleeping, indifferent, parochial, narcissistic public that seems to be reluctant to awaken to the hazard facing it.

The so-called, cruelly misnamed Fair Elections Act is unfair, discriminatory and clearly aimed towards benefitting the party in power. When Robert Fife of CTV’s Question Period asked Poilievre March 30th, 2014, why he hasn’t been listening to the critics, Polievre offered the smile of the cat swallowing the canary, saying, “We are listening.” My impression was that he didn’t believe it and didn’t care if we did or not. When Fife asked him if he would have supported the bill if the opposition had presented it, he replied, remarkably without even a hint of a smirk, “I would”!

I just hope no one hearing that was eating at the time.

To my mind, both Oliver and Poilievre are thoroughly unpleasant individuals and both are perfect emblems of the worst in the Harper regime but they are by no means alone: they are just emblematic of the rot that infuses this group. But Poilievre is even more troublesome because I believe him to be that much glibber, that much smarter, that much more shamelessly partisan; he has his own unique version of the “facts” and the “truth”. I do not know if he is an ideologue; that suggests an individual holding a set of beliefs and principles; he is certainly a partisan and a nasty one at that. Holding the position of power he does, he is about to impose on the public one of the most important changes that threatens to undermine our very democracy and he is about to do so happily and with utter equanimity. This is no exaggeration, no scare mongering. This is a man who refuses to listen to the opposition because, as is Harper, he is uninterested in the opinions of others, righteous in his own certitude; Pierre Poilievre knows best and all the rest are just whiners out to get the Conservative Party. And, because he knows best, and because the world is out to get the conservatives, he will rig the game and he will do so by changing the Elections Act. If successful, what he plans will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. According to some, those who will be disenfranchised are the least likely to vote for the conservatives and the conservatives know this. If true, if that is not fixing the game, nothing is.

But the truly disturbing thing is, Poilievre and the conservatives cannot do this without help. And that is were the public comes in. The conservative thugs obviously believe they can get away with it and the public silence appears to bear that out.

Apathy may be fine for the dead, but it has no place in the life of anyone who believes himself a sentient, living, breathing being. To ignore what Harper and his crew are doing is to be among the narcissistic living dead; it is not enough to simply eat, work, sleep and excrete, take selfies, twitter OMG! or tweet Facebook followers about the latest inanity as if one were the sun around which the earth orbits. Harper and his gang, indeed, too many politicians, rely on such as these as do maggots on a corpse; the egocentric airheads upon whom the Harper gang seem to rely appear to give permission to the likes of Harper and Poilievre and the rest to behave as they do, pulling fast ones in the hope that no one is listening, looking or caring. Self-absorption and self-love, the “what’s in if for me” attitudes, have no value and deserve no place in a vibrant, democratic society and yet, unlike voter fraud, it really is rampant. And it is this, the maggot of apathy, feeding on the body of democracy. It is numbing, distancing, and irresponsible. If this sounds like a lecture, it is; I am sick and tired of people boasting about not voting or whining about their one vote making no difference, or screaming over taxes while whining about hospital wait lines, deteriorating roads, crumbling overpasses as if none of these were linked. No one lives in a vacuum and none should be excused their indifference to their surroundings or insisting that other shoulder their responsibilities while they, these self-lovers, reap the rewards. But even they, the shirking nonentities, cannot sleep forever unaffected. Surely they will wake up, for isn’t democracy more valued, more sacred, than the loss of their favourite “reality” TV show that would almost certainly elicit screaming outrage and savage letter writing campaigns? Surely they are more than dazed, brutish oxen? But, how long will they sleep? Before long, it will be too late, the conservative Harper monsters will have won and fragile democracy reduced to the substantiality and hope of a soap bubble.

THE CONSERVATIVE END RUN ON DEMOCRACY

From day one, Harper and his crew have demonstrated their concerns were more on clinging to power than in offering sound, honest, open, and free governance. They have abused their majority with gross negligence and savage partisanship to promote a brutal laissez-faire Capitalism that is well on its way to creating a new world of “haves” and “have-nots”, those that “deserve” and the rest. That’s you and me, folks.

What the hell is wrong with us? Why are we letting this happen?

In the past, we have had many instances of conservatives skirting the rules. We have had Shelly Glover and James Bezan fighting Elections Canada over their failure to fill full reports regarding their 2011 campaign. We have had Peter Penashue resign for accepting illegal corporate donations during the same campaign. We have had Dean del Mastro facing four charges regarding breaches in the Elections Act for failing to report expenses in the 2008 election and for filing false documents. We have had the Conservative Party paying fines for the robocalls scandal, for workers posing as Elections Canada officials and directing voters to non-existent polling stations. That’s voter suppression. We have had Eve Adams making expense claims for spa treatments while campaigning and, even as I write this, facing allegations of abusing membership information to win a nomination bid in a new riding. Recently Shelly Glover again made the news for questionable ethical behaviour for attending a fundraiser in which the organizations of those in attendance stood the possibility of gaining from decisions made by her department. These are just some of the unethical, illegal, and contemptible abuses of the Elections Act that the conservatives have been caught at. In fact, contrary to what the Harper gang, and Pierre Poilievre in particular, would have us believe, it is not voter fraud with which public needs be concerned, but fraud committed by the Conservative Party, its members, and its supporters.

If Poilievre and the Harper gang succeed, Bill C-23 will not only disenfranchise voters, it will also entrench election fraud.

Almost all experts agree there is neither systematic nor rampant election fraud. In fact, they believe there is no problem of election fraud but, rather, a problem with administration and training of election workers. But, for Poilievre, that is too easy and it doesn’t help his cause. He has to justify the changes to the Elections Act; he offers them, as fixes to a non-existent problem he wants us to believe is real. The critics are wrong. As for rethinking, amending, or even cancelling Bill C-23? Not chance in hell. You just have to trust the Harper thugs.

But how can one? It’s not just how the conservatives have behaved during past campaigns. One needs only harken back to this past February when conservative MP Brad Butt stood in the House of Commons and vividly described, even acting out, what he personally saw, with his own two beady eyes, what happened to voter information cards discarded by tenants in an apartment building. He saw opposition campaign workers pick up the discarded cards with the purpose, he said, of handing them over to others who would then pose as the cardholders to whom those information cards were addressed while others, opposition supporters, of course, vouched that those people were who they said they were.

Naturally, this bolstered Poilievre’s claim voter fraud was a fact, even rampant. The story, however, was an outright fabrication. It was a lie. The only fraud committed, it appears, was the story told by Butt. There is no supporting evidence of widespread voter fraud, Butt’s fiction notwithstanding, nor has Poilievre produced evidence of it though repeatedly asked to do so by reporters. As for Butt the shameless liar? The conservative majority denied opposition moves to have him appear before a House committee to explain why he stood up in the House and gave that ridiculous performance and misled the opposition and the public. They want to know why he lied? But the conservatives don’t want you to know. But why do they worry? The majority of citizens are apparently asleep or indifferent, too busy exploring their navels or fretting about Justin Bieber or frozen into awed silence because they might have had a thought.

But why did Butt and the conservatives feel the necessity of the charade? Was it merely to bolster a claim that had absolutely no merit? It appears so. We do know this, the elimination of the vouching system is no harmless tweak; those who rely on vouching are likely to be those in the transient community, students, seniors, aboriginals, and seniors or those with severe disabilities, including blindness. If you don’t drive, you likely don’t have a driver’s license. If you just moved, your address may not yet be on record. The 39 documents that Poilievre harps on that can be used for ID at the polling stations are not all that easy to come by for many, especially those of no fixed address. Most of us will be unaffected; but does that justify our silence, excuse our indifference. Because we are unaffected, should we stand idly by while others lose their right to vote?

While the merits or not of vouching can be endlessly debated, what cannot be doubted is this government’s determination to ram Bill C-23 through without amendments and without meaningful consultation. Yes, they will pretend to listen, they may have their public hearings, but the Harper thugs will do what they want. That’s not consultation. That’s not even listening. Even if the Harper gang relent on amendments, it is almost a certainty that there will be another cost.

It’s the negative accumulative effect of many aspects of this Bill that makes it exceptionally bad. Eliminating vouching could possibly take away the vote of 120 thousand (Harry Neufeld says the numbers could go as high as 500 thousand!). The Bill also strips the Chief Electoral Officer of the power to investigate instances of election breaches. Nor will he be allowed to inform the public of such examinations without informing those being investigated and obtaining their permission to do so. The cheats have the upper hand. And who have been the cheats? Why the same folks who make the laws. What a surprise. Had this been in place before the last three elections, we might never have known of the conservative attempts to subvert our electoral process. Is that what we want? Is that what we are seeking?

Keep silent. The death of democracy as we have known it is approaching.

Of course, it gets worse, if possible. Elections Canada will no longer be allowed to promote and encourage voters to vote. Just think of that. So who does this affect? Likely the young, the elderly, aboriginal, the transient, the homeless, and the disabled. Nice touch. Again the least likely to vote conservative. As well, the investigative arm of Elections Canada, which reports to Parliament, the Commissioner of Canada, has been forced to move to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutors, which reports to the government. This is extremely significant and troubling; with this regime, it would almost certainly lead to political interference should there be more instances of conservative voter suppression and election fraud. We will never know of it. That is, if conservatives were involved.

The revised Act would also allow parties to escape accountability for the “misuse” of party databases “used without party permission”. In other words, party bosses could do what Harper and his gang always do: claim they didn’t know and blame others. Too, incumbents will be allowed to name polling station supervisors in their ridings to handle matters of dispute on Election Day. This is another important wrinkle because it introduces another element of partisanship that benefits the winning candidates of the past election. Further, candidates will be allowed to donate more for their campaigns. As well, the act allows campaigning Parties to call past donors (anyone who gave $20) without having to count them as part of the telephone marketing costs of election campaign expenses. This allows the richer parties, again the conservatives, to actually circumvent election-spending limits allowing parties to spend more on phone calls, marketing and advertising. Furthermore, Elections Canada will have no way of gauging the accuracy of the reports presented by the parties because there is no requirement that robo-marketing companies record the numbers they call. So, we just have to trust the richest parties or the ones most likely to cheat.

Bill C-23, as created by Poilievre and his boss, Stephen Harper, not only provides an incentive to cheat, it entrenches cheating. When there is almost no possibility of being discovered, why would not candidates and their powers cheat? Especially if lying, cheating, dishonesty, and lack of integrity doesn’t bother one at all.

Marc Mayrand, in his appearance before a Commons committee, said that his reading of the Neufeld report states that any irregularities in voting had to do with administration missteps by elections officers rather than voter fraud. As reported by the Canadian Press (March 7, 2014), Poilievre, standing in the House of Commons, challenged Marc Mayrand with this response: “This is what page 10 of his (Harry Neufeld’s) own report says: ‘The Supreme Court made it clear that such errors in other circumstances could contribute to a court overturning an election.’ That sounds serious to me.” Serious indeed. But the thing is, it is what Poilievre deliberately omits that is significant when he reads that. What is meant by “such errors”? If voter fraud is meant, why not say so clearly? No, Poilievre does not do that because he cannot. Neufeld’s report clearly estimated that an average of 500 “serious administrative errors” were committed in each of the 308 ridings. He further states, “Serious errors of a type the courts consider irregularities that can contribute to an election being overturned were found to occur in 12 per cent of all election day cases involving voter registration and 42 per cent of cases involving identity vouching”. There were many reasons for the errors, including “complexity, supervision, recruitment (of poll officials), training, updating the list of electors” (Canadian Press, March 7, 2014). Neufeld never claims that there are deliberate attempts to cast illegal votes. In fact, on Power and Politics with Evan Solomon on CBC, Harry Neufeld states categorically that Poilievre, in citing Neufeld’s report, was “selectively picking” and “selectively quoting” what was in the report. Poilievre would have us believe otherwise. But he did not write the report but he sure knows how to abuse it to his advantage. Poilievre apparently prefers to forget the many investigations the conservatives have endured for voter fraud, including illegal spending, illegal expense claims, in-out scams, robocalls, and four charges laid against conservative Dean del Mastro. For Harry Neufeld, voter fraud is akin to an “urban myth”.

Even Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former Chief Electoral Officer, who had originally given Bill C-23 an A minus rating, changed his tune after closer examination, saying to the Commons committee, “This will directly affect the constitutional right to vote for a significant number of Canadians without justification,” and “I have no problem whatever with vouching the way it is structured under the Canada Elections Act at this present time” (Canada.Com, Glen McGregor, March 25, 2014).

THE MEDIA AND THE PUBLIC

It is true; we have a free press. But how free can it be when it is denied the right to do its job, which is to inform the public and protect society by taking on the role of watchdog. An informed society is probably the best protected. Harper, apparently, does not believe that. Or, more likely, he does, and that is what terrifies him. An informed society is a threat to him and his gang.

When was the last time that Harper has stood before a scrum of reporters and answered all questions thrown at him in an environment that has not been heavily controlled, the questions unscripted, the “message” set aside, the “journalists” real? It has been years.

The relationship between Harper and the media has become poisonous. Talking bobbleheads give their relentless messages of the day and hardworking journalists struggle to break through the plastic façade of smiles, faux equanimity, phoney indignation, and the endless litany of denial and fingerpointing. If only they could get a straight, honest, unscripted, answer to even one hard question!

But even this iron curtain of defence against a press is not enough for Harper and his gang. They don’t mind using the media when it’s clear the message is one most Canadians would support, as in Stephen Harper and John Baird’s strong denunciation of Russian incursion into the Crimea. But it’s the other things, the Senate scandals, Harper’s apparent lack of judgement in appointing Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau to the senate, or his recent hiring and firing of Dimitri Soudas, robocalls, the in-out scams and on and on. One can only take so much and besides, does the public really want to hear about this? Who cares? Harper and his gang have had enough so they push back: the press is out to get them. They have a message and by God, the world is going to get it.

So 24 Seven, a video, online, taxpayer funded propaganda organ, is born, initially to provide Canadians with insight into the weekly life of Harper and family and gang. Unfortunately, it morphed into something more, staffers or supporters, posing as journalists asking Harper soft questions before a friendly crowd getting his message out. The viewer is expected to take all this seriously, as “real” news, “real” exclusives. It’s clumsy, heavy-handed, and might be laughable if not so serious. Avoid accountability; create your own Ministry of Propaganda. Truth takes another blow and democracy another cut.

It’s not insignificant. There is a level of distrust, suspicion, and animosity from a government that views knowledge, truth, openness and transparency as things to be feared rather than embraced.

Harper’s conservatives have demonstrated a keen willingness to betray the trust of Canadians. Moreover, it is clear they do not trust Canadians, especially Canadian voters. They point fingers at others in the world and pontificate about democracy. But, to conservatives, democracy is only a nine-letter word. Because it holds so little meaning to them, they are willing to debase and corrupt it to their own ends. With the arrogance of the truly ignoble, Harper has shown a profound lack of judgement in his appointments and his appointees. As a leader, he has, I believe, presided over one of the most arrogant, dirtiest, most corrupt, most secretive, most mean-spirited, most vicious and most anti-democratic regime in the history of Canada. He have conservative Mark Adler working on a bill to force employees of Canadian watchdog agencies to disclose past political activities. This is a free society? Staffers in the PMO must sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Binding for life! His contempt for Canadians and democracy is writ large in almost everything he does. He appears to detest the thought that Canadians possess knowledge. Apparently, he feels he has reason to.

If Democracy holds no true value for them, there is another word that does, that means more to them, which they hold in higher, if not the highest, esteem. That word is POWER.

Why are Canadians untroubled by all this? Where are their voices of outrage?

When a government fears an informed public, when it fears the truth, when it sneaks legislation into omnibus bills without consultation or debate, when it acts to subvert democracy and the electoral process by “tilting” the field in their favour as Harry Neufeld has suggested with the Fair Elections Act, when it charges that the press is out to get them, it should surprise no one that the end result would eventually be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Canadian must wake up. What Harper, Poilievre and the gang are proposing with Bill C-23 is nothing less than an assault on democracy. We can sit by and do nothing or we can fight back.

I chose to fight. How about you? Even as I am writing these words, there is news that Poilievre may consider amendments to the vouching items. That’s not enough. He and the Harper gang cannot be trusted. Bill C-35 must be thoroughly examined with considerable consultation. It must be amended with the agreement of the opposition parties or, better still, simply scrapped. Despots may rule, but they never really conquer.

Tyranny does not happen overnight. It’s often a slow, incremental process of rights removed and voices silenced while a public looks away.

What will you do when they say to you, “You cannot vote”?

In Germany, they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up. – Martin Niemoeller

***

But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. – Thomas Paine.

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About Frank A. Pelaschuk

I am the author of two works of fiction reviewed by Brian Porter, author of Lonely Together and The Atlas Proxies. He called the novel, Serpent in the Garden, "A convincing, seductive tale of coming home to the enemy". Of Ambiguities of Love in Six Stories, he wrote, “Moving, intelligent, and thoughtful storytelling." Both works are available on Amazon as soft cover or e-book where the full reviews also appear.

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