Canada voted Monday, and in the end, centrist Canadians decided - thanks to some effective Conservative Party messaging and third-party vote-splitting - that they were more frightened by "socialism" than they were by the thought of a theocratic-influenced, Republican-style, control-fixated Stephen Harper majority government.
For my international readers who view Canada as a kind of liberal oasis and are envious of developments like equal marriage and the near-passage of a transsexual & transgender human rights bill (actually, it did pass, but died in the Senate when the election was called), they may want to watch what develops in the next four to five years. Because Canada has had Conservative governments before - and even Conservative majority governments - but there is clear indication that yesterday's vote signals a hard turn toward the right, and with fewer mechanisms than in previous years to hold that in check.
There had been no shortage of speculation on either side of the map as to what a
non-progressive Conservative majority would look like in Canada. By some accounts, we'd see a new capitalist utopia of unfettered crime fighting and McJob creation. By others, we'd see a social agenda unleashed which, now completely unbridled, would rewrite Canada into a Christian Nationalist dictatorship.
The truth is more likely neither: a majority Conservative government is really far more likely to continue the tightroping trend it began five years ago, when first elected to a minority government and faced with having to work with centrist and left-wing parties to pass legislation. From the Globe and Mail:
Mr. Harper's long game, as he's discussed in years past, is to shift Canada rightward politically so that the Conservatives replace the Liberals as the "natural governing party" in the eyes of voters. That's not going to occur overnight and it's not going to happen by spooking voters with radical changes from a party the Tory Leader has acknowledged is more conservative than the Canadian public.
The Conservative Leader will likely seek to change Canada more incrementally.
Which is exactly what Stephen Harper has been doing for five years. But even so, the activities the Conservatives have undertaken by stealth signal some serious transforming changes in the air for Canada - even if you look only at those things the party has indicated it intends to do, has attempted to do and has already achieved off the public radar.
It is worth noting that Stephen Harper isn't himself as extreme as his political base, but that he is very control-oriented, a fear-based motivator, and has found far-right elements a dependable constituency during an election. However, after five years of faithful support and in light of a major rightward surge against abortion in the U.S. this base will be expecting far more from a Conservative majority government.
It is also worth noting that in terms of popular vote, the progressive parties combined far surpasses that of the Conservatives, and pundits this morning are more often lamenting a Conservative majority than hailing an historic breakthrough for New Democrats. In some ways, the election was less a vote for a hard right turn and more one of growing division between the left and right, with the center effectively frightened.
I ran an in-depth, three-part series at Dented Blue Mercedes, which has much more information for those who are interested, and I'll only lightly touch on here. I discussed how the current Conservatives grew out of a political reform movement in a disaffected and disillusioned west, a movement that called for Senate reform, pension reform, transparency in government, responsible oil sands development and an end to scandals.
That first article is worth noting, because Canada is very much a multi-national and multi-cultural state, being a loose coalition of English-speaking and French-speaking people of European descent and a marginalized and often completely forgotten Aboriginal population. There are major cultural, economic, and political rifts in the country, the latter highlighted dramatically by the stark polarized election of both a hard-right government and an opposition that is further left than Canada has ever had.
Ultimately, there are two possible directions for Canada's future: a visionary rethinking of multiculturalism from a decolonial perspective (which is admittedly difficult to coalesce, and not on the horizon) or a more strongly centralized authoritarianism. The Harper Conservatives are the latter, but are also the next step in a gradual evolution in that direction started by a number of previous administrations.
I've also gone into depth (fully linked) about how the political reform movement that merged into and dominated the new Conservative Party was hijacked from the beginning by social conservatism, trained in spin by U.S. far-right personalities like Frank Luntz and Ralph Reed, and outlined the infrastructure that forms the new Conservatives' base: allied Evangelical and Catholic Fundamentalist brands of Christian Nationalism (which needs to be recognized as being something very different from Christianity), a derailed version of Fusionist Libertarian perspectives and anti-Islam/Christian Zionist sentiment. When that article was first posted, I had to revisit it due to an unrelated concern, but the response to it (some of which had to be moderated and banned) surprised me with just how much Islamophobic and anti-Arabic sentiment has been fomenting in Canada's far right.
But as far as I am concerned, faith - whether Muslim or Christian - is not the problem: individuals who are inclined toward fascism based on any particular overriding hardline literalist ideology is.
I concluded with how what we got instead of reform was the social redesign of Canada, the dismantling of democratic and community organization infrastructure, and the revisiting of social agendas by stealth - without "reopening the debate." And in fact, that particular piece of Harper phraseology is worth noting because debate is exactly what Harper does not want: better instead to act by stealth and hope it's unnoticed until the landscape has overwhelmingly changed in his favor.
The social change by stealth approach was most recently illustrated when a backbencher bragged to an anti-abortion organization of "defunding" International Planned Parenthood, which American readers will recognize as the clarion call of the resurgence of anti-abortion activities in the U.S. Indeed, a developing pattern of attempted restrictions on access, funding and awareness, attempted elimination of abortion, and even contraception from womens' health programs beyond our borders and attempted fetus personhood bills have not only mirrored the wave occurring in America, it has been occurring since the Harper Conservatives first came to power.
One of the figures at the heart of the Conservative base is a leading international anti-abortion figure and another publishes Matt Barber, so there has doubtlessly been some cross-pollination of ideas. With a majority government, however, there are now fewer obstacles to the passage of such bills. And what is about to occur in Canada may not simply mimic U.S. Christian Nationalist and Republican techniques, but in fact may end up teaching our American counterparts how to perfect them.
There has been more occurring in the background. In the same way that Toronto Pride has been defunded behind the scenes (without any need for Parliamentary approval), the Harper Conservatives have already been busy stacking the non-elected lifetime-appointed Senate with conservatives, appointing right-leaning Supreme Court and lesser court justices, allowing and even assisting government employees to foment anti-gay, anti-woman and anti-Islam agendas, making immigration for LGBT people more difficult, and targeting left-leaning organizations for defunding, especially womens' health, Aboriginal and LGBT organizations - ostensibly for cost-cutting, while at the same time announcing new funding for theologically-biased initiatives. In the months before the election, news leaked that the Government of Canada had been rebranded the "Harper Government," and in the middle of the campaign, Sun TV - referred to as "Fox News North" - launched with a former Harper advisor at the helm.... and quickly hatched a bogus smear tactic against NDP leader Jack Layton.
We will probably not see a government initiative to ban same-sex marriage, although we could certainly see a private member's bill to attempt to do so (which is a technique the Conservatives have used to put forth anti-abortion initiatives thus far without seeming to support them as a party). However, here are some of the things the Harper Conservatives will very likely do in short order:
- Citizens United, Canada-style: Canada currently has a vote subsidy based on the popular vote that helps provide funding for political parties based on the amount of national support they have. This is to help offset a limit that was placed on the amount of money corporations and private parties can contribute to campaigns. The intent of that is to ensure that democracy isn't determined solely based on who has the most money. Even with those restrictions, the ability of the Harper Conservatives (who have previously found loopholes to skirt them) to buy top-dollar and often pre-election ad time during the Oscars, Grammy Awards, Hockey Night in Canada and Super Bowl was cited as a reason for the demise of the Liberal Party. Even before becoming leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper has tried to have the corporate donation cap struck down, and the first prorogation (shut-down) of Parliament occurred when opposition parties united to block his attempt to eliminate the per-vote subsidy. Harper has vowed to eliminate all party subsidies if given a majority, so expect "electoral reform" bill which will result in democracy being decided by whoever can obtain the most corporate funding.
- In the third part of "In the Bedrooms of the Nation," I outlined how the Harper Conservatives were working to defund womens' health and anything reproduction-related that wasn't abstinence-only in nature, as a way to erode abortion and womens' health infrastructure overall. Expect that to continue, and a new onslaught of private members bills to try to ultimately twist legal abortion into murder. Some of these techniques will likely include legislation to grant health care providers the right to refuse medical treatment to anyone they morally object to, and things tried in America like legislation that would call for investigation of miscarriages or roadblocks like 72-hour delays, lengthy psychiatric intimidation and reductions in the number of locations providing care. If these bills continue to be handled as free votes, their success rate may remain low or mixed.
- Conservative appointments throughout Canada's governmental infrastructure will continue, with Harper's Christian Nationalist base being given ever-increasing positions of influence.
- Republican-style attack ads and tactics to marginalize and discourage left-leaning voters - which occurred on a few occasions during this campaign - will increase in occurrence and become better-hidden.
- New Internet changes will be proposed, including ISP surveillance and a collection of overly broad anti-pirating initiatives.
- Expect a return of omnibus crime bills designed to fill all the prisons Harper is building and expanding, further encourage prison privatization, and ensure that release becomes increasingly unattainable. The Conservatives have already arbitrarily eliminated health care funding for transsexuals in the correctional system, even though there is a Supreme Court ruling which mandates its availability.
- Increasing militarization is also expected. This has been no secret, and in fact it was lies about the price of engineless F-35 fighter jets that led to historic charges of contempt and the collapse of the minority government and election call in the first place.
- The Harper Conservatives have mulled changes to the Canada Human Rights Commission before and eliminating statutes addressing hate speech. This is another area he will be facing renewed pressure from his political base on.
In other words, more of the same, but with care to avoid visibility, and without an opposition able to provide an effective buffer.
So What Now For the Progressive Left?
Although Canada is more federally-controlled than the US, much of what governs our lives in terms of social accommodation, human rights, civil institutions, medical access, education, immigration and more are still very much decided province-by-province. While it is unlikely LGBT-affirming and protective legislation will go anywhere with this government, as we've seen with womens' health, the worst damage the Harper Conservatives can do is in the area of government funding.
It's a serious concern, yes, but advocacy now needs to refocus on the local level, to find areas where we can improve life on the smaller scale, and educate Canadians along the way. And in the meantime, we need to hold the Conservatives accountable for their ongoing stealth activities.
Image from sxc.hu