Harper’s Drive to Demolish Dissent

Contempt of Parliament was the issue that felled the Harper government and it has continued to be a focus of opposition forces in the current election campaign, along with charges of corruption, arrogance and a lack of accountability. Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin says he can name 50 examples of abuse of power. No doubt.

The most dangerous abuse, however, has been neglected – perhaps predictably enough – by the mainstream media and high-profile political pundits: The Harper regime has systematically stripped the country of its infrastructure of critical thinking, silencing whistle blowers and voices of dissent, defunding advocacy groups, and undermining the ability of independent organizations to confront the policies of Harper and his helpers.

Examples abound: axing the Law Commission of Canada; firing the managers of Rights and Democracy and replacing them with Harper cronies; humiliating and intimidating diplomat Richard Colvin; muzzling Environment Canada scientists; sacking Linda Keen, President of the Nuclear Safety Commission; gutting the research capacity of women’s organizations or, as in the case of the Status of Women, changing their mandate to exclude “gender equality and political justice”; revoking funding for the likes of Sisters of the Spirit and the National Association of Women and the Law; eliminating most of the grant moneys for many progressive magazines; defunding research, human rights and advocacy organizations like Alternatives, Kairos, and Climate Action Network. The Voices–Voix coalition has assembled a list of some hundred organizations defunded or otherwise silenced by the Harper government over the past few years.

We know that Stephen Harper has zero tolerance for dissent, but his bullying personality is not the real issue. There is a cold logic to his strategy of cracking down on dissent and it has to do with his hatred of government deficits. Harper’s failed budget was scheduled to eliminate the deficit by 2015 by means of spending cuts, the targets of which remained a mystery. They would have to be major cuts because with unemployment hovering near 8 percent and with his refusal to raise tax rates there is no other way to achieve a balanced budget.

Early this year the corporate tax rate was reduced to 16.5 percent with another reduction planned for 2012. With spending on defence and prisons set to soar, it’s a safe bet where the cuts will be made: health and education and any program area that can open up space for the private sector. Already Corrections Canada’s budget is set to increase by more than 21 percent, while Environment Canada’s budget will be slashed by roughly the same amount. A drastic reduction in the CBC’s funding is also in the offing. Harper claims he will not touch health care, but members of his government have hinted at cuts to health-care transfers, which amount to tens of billions of dollars annually.

Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin tried likewise to slash government spending in such vital areas. Only Martin succeeded. Parts of civil society revolted – as they have in reaction to austerity budgets in Greece, Britain and elsewhere in Europe. From Ontario’s Days of Action to Wisconsin’s popular resistance protest against austerity has not prevented the punishing programs, but has clearly forestalled further cuts.

Harper’s moves can be construed as part of a calculated bid to cripple our capacity to rally against austerity measures in Canada. As long as he remains in power we have no choice but to retrench, build up our defences and continue to marshal the forces of opposition to his government and its ultra-neoliberal agenda.

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