Canada's Harper lays out Conservative agenda


Conservative leader Stephen Harper waves to supporters gathered at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary, Alberta, May 2, 2011 as he celebrates the election of a Conservative majority government in the federal election. Harper outlined the aims of his government in the "Speech from the Throne" that was delivered by the Governor General.


Geoff Robins

TORONTO, Canada — Political science students in Canada have long been taught that a window to the country’s soul can be found in section 91 of its 1867 constitution, which gives lawmakers the task of ensuring “Peace, Order, and good government.” No doubt to emphasize the more important of those concerns, the words peace and order are capitalized in the document that gave birth to the nation.

It’s customary in university lectures to contrast that phrase with the famous proclamation, in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, of the inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They help explain, students are told, the collective and socialist tendencies in Canada and the robust individualism in the U.S.; the dull staidness in the north and the Wild West wackiness in the south.

Order, by definition, demands submission. At the highest political level, it’s symbolically displayed in Canada’s so-called "Speech from the Throne," the latest of which was delivered last Friday. It’s the ritual where the Governor General, the Queen’s representative, reads the new legislative agenda of the government and reminds Canadians in almost every breath that they remain subjects of an unelected monarch.

Friday’s speech took place in the Senate, where non-elected senators, appointed by current and past prime ministers, serve until age 75. Both the Governor General and Senate do little more than rubber stamp government legislation passed by elected politicians in the House of Commons. Yet both institutions cost taxpayers more than $100 million a year — outrageous examples, to some critics, of how order, however farcical, takes precedence over good governance.

Friday’s ritual was dedicated to outlining the agenda of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recently re-elected, after several minority governments, with an absolute majority. As the Governor General solemnly read how Harper planned to transform the country in his conservative image, a 21-year-old Senate page, in black bow tie and white gloves, walked to the middle of the Senate floor and held up a red stop sign with the words, “Stop Harper!”

It was an unprecedented act of civil disobedience. Some wonder whether it’s a taste of things to come in a country that emerged from May’s federal election more polarized than ever.

Facing what is arguably the most conservative government in Canadian history is the New Democratic Party, the first party with deep roots in socialism to win the second most number of seats and become Parliament’s official opposition. The centrist Liberal Party, which governed for much of the country’s history, has been reduced to a rump of its former self, a political beating that forced its leader, Michael Ignatieff, to promptly quit politics.

Harper outlined Friday the agenda he’s determined to push through this most polarized of Canadian parliaments. It includes a series of U.S.-inspired “tough on crime” laws which, among other things, removes a judge’s sentencing discretion by imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for people caught growing a small amount of marijuana. Plans for new and bigger prisons are in the works.

To satisfy his party’s rural base, Harper also plans to eliminate the national database for registered rifles and shotguns, despite pleas to the contrary by most of Canada’s police chiefs. He also promises closer cooperation with the U.S. on border security and to spend billions buying U.S.-made fighter jets. But he said nothing about climate change in the "Speech from the Throne," despite deep concerns over the “dirty oil” being produced for the U.S. market from Alberta’s massive oil sands projects. Talk of civil disobedience is especially being heard on the environmental front.

On the economy, Harper vows to lower corporate taxes while eliminating Canada’s $55.6 billion deficit within four years. It’s the kind of equation that has many fearing social programs will be placed on the chopping block.

It’s an agenda sure to spark heated debates both in and out of Parliament. Increasing the potential for a popular backlash is the fact that Harper’s majority government was won with only 40 percent of the vote — a byproduct of Canada’s British-style electoral system. Most Canadians who voted, in other words, didn’t want Harper as prime minister.

The Senate page with the stop sign, Brigette DePape, was fired from her job immediately after being ushered out of the Senate chamber by security.

“Harper's agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation,” DePape said in a written statement. “We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.

"This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring, a flowering of popular movements that demonstrate that real power to change things lies not with Harper but in the hands of the people, when we act together in our streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces,” she said.

If DePape is any indication, peace and order will be tested in Harper’s Canada.