It has the makings of a B-grade political thriller: a mysterious “Pierre Poutine” uses a disposable “burner” cell phone and an anonymous prepaid credit card to buy a series of automated outbound phone calls designed to harass voters in key ridings and mislead them about where they should vote in the May 2011 federal election. The drama here lies in the sheer scale of the skulduggery. Fraudulent robo-calls have been reported in over 100 ridings, and more than 31,000 Canadians have complained to Elections Canada. While Harper’s Conservatives claim to have no knowledge of this attempted sabotage of electoral democracy, the robo-call company has strong links to the party, which also seems to have disproportionately benefited from the deception. To date, at least one Conservative staffer has resigned over the scandal.
The sad fact is that the robo-call scandal should hardly come as any surprise since, to advance their agenda, Harper’s Conservatives will evidently use any and all means at their disposal to circumvent and subvert carefully crafted regulations and rules of fair play. This was patently clear in Harper’s proroguing of parliament on two occasions and in his attempts to have his MPs stymie the work of parliamentary committees through procedural chicanery.
Dismantling regulation: attack on the Wheat Board
In a revealing series that should send shudders down the spines of all thinking Canadians, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has been documenting the ongoing dismantling of the country’s regulatory system. One of the harbingers of Harper’s demolition derby was, of course, its attack on the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), which protects smaller prairie grain farmers from discrimination by a handful of giant transnational grain companies. Without that mechanism, less privileged farmers must sell below market price. While still a minority government, the Conservatives trotted out a bag of dirty tricks to weaken the Wheat Board, including tampering with the elections of the CWB board of directors, before finally gaining the majority it needed to disembowel the CWB altogether, effective August 2012.
In a recent contribution to the CCPA series, aptly titled Disaster in the Making, researcher Trish Hennessy traces the trend in recent decades towards deregulation, driven by incessant influence-peddling. She underscores the particular zeal with which the Harper regime is eviscerating the regulatory framework, from financial rules to food safety. And since that report was published, the Conservatives have pursued their demolition work, turning the sledgehammer on the refugee system, with the aim of impeding the entry of Roma asylum-seekers in particular.
Gutting environmental protections and gagging scientists
Another prime target of the Tory wrecking crew is environmental regulation, which poses some pesky obstacles to the savage (but lucrative) destruction of the natural world. The gutting of the Fisheries Act shows the depths to which Harper’s government will sink to give industry — in this instance the oil industry — a free hand. The decision to downgrade the requirements in the Act so that rather than protecting all fish habitat it affords protection only to fish that are of “economic, cultural or ecological value” was motivated by the desire to accelerate approval of pipeline projects. That elicited a collective cry of alarm from more than 600 Canadian scientists. But it is plain, particularly in light of such manoeuvres as the gagging of scientists employed by the federal government, that the Harper regime harbours contempt for scientific opinion.
The March budget served as another occasion for environmental deregulation, this time in an effort to further undermine the environmental assessment process, with Flaherty announcing time limits on reviews of natural resource projects such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The modus operandi is obvious: when Harper and his friends in industry find the rules constraining, the rules are to be bent, broken or scrapped altogether.
“Industry self-regulation”: Harper appointments and conflict of interest
Under the guise of that oxymoron “industry self-regulation,” business is being given an ever-expanding role in the regulatory process to the detriment of public safety, the environment and any other interests that may need protection from the predations of profit-seeking.
This facet of the Harper government’s corruption finds its culmination in the practice of recruiting wolves to watch over the sheepfold. One of the most scandalous examples to date was the 2009 appointment of Bernard Prigent, vice-president of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian_Institutes of Health Researchers (CIHR); in stunning disregard of the rules concerning conflict of interest, Harper named Prigent to the CIHR council while he was a registered Pfizer lobbyist whose precise objective was to influence policy at the CIHR.
And there is reason to suspect a vast amount of covert industry–government collaboration that flies in the face of strictures against conflict of interest. A recent example, unearthed by Canadian Dimension’s own Martin Lukacs, is the secret committee set up to_coordinate lobbying efforts for the Tar Sands. Formed in 2010, it comprises representatives of the federal and Alberta governments as well as the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the foremost oil industry lobby group.
A new low
Undemocratic and underhanded behaviour by our two traditional governing parties is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the Harper Conservatives are taking things to an unprecedented low. It’s as though we’re trapped in an inverted version of the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. In that piece of fiction, a seemingly normal president is a secretly brainwashed ideologue; in our reality, the ideological extremism of our leaders is undisguised while far too many citizens appear to think that all is well and normal.
We can hope that relentless scrutiny and exposure of their many misdeeds will erode Conservative support. And indeed the popularity of the Harper government has begun to decline since the May election, down about 10 points according to a March 22 Environics poll, placing the Conservatives on an equal footing with the NDP. Whether this is attributable to public perception of bad conduct or is largely a response to the more immediately felt pain of Conservative financial and social policies, such as pushing back the retirement age, is hard to say. Whatever the case, many more Canadians must start to see the Harper regime for what it is if we hope to contain the irreversible injury it is inflicting upon the health and welfare of the nation.
Front Page image by Sweet one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetone
This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Labour and Austerity).