Thursday, June 9, 2011

Stop Harper: The G8 Legacy Fund, Dishonesty, and the Danger of Conservative Values-Based Patriotism

Today, a series of long-awaited Reports were made to Parliament by now former Auditor-General Sheila Fraser. One of those reports, alluded to during the federal election campaign as a result of a draft version of the report being leaked, is making headlines across the nation today. The Report on G-8 spending in then Minister of Industry Tony Clement’s riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka suggests that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government misled parliament by slipping the $50 million so-called “Legacy Fund” slush-fund into a larger $83 million bill to relieve border congestion, despite there being no international border anywhere in the riding. The Report goes on to identify that the usual methods of oversight were not employed for the use of the $50 million slush fund in this one riding, nor were the usual strings attached, which required other levels of government (Provincial, regional and municipal) to chip in their fair share.


For anyone who was following this issue during the election, the release of the A-G’s report today really comes as no surprise. The furious denial of the current Harper regime that they in anyway misled parliament, and that all of the spending in the riding was warranted and necessary, also really comes as no surprise.

What’s galling, though, is the level of dishonesty which this government will go to in order to justify whatever it is they’re doing or have done. Whether it’s $50 million in spending decisions made by the Minister in consultation with a municipal mayor and resort owner, or whether it’s $15 billion in unsourced spending on fighter jets which may double by the time the jets are delivered, or whether it’s cutting off funding to a humans rights organization by altering documents produced by staff to change a funding recommendation (and then completely misleading parliament about the alteration), we’ve seen far too much in the way of dishonesty from the Conservative government.

Now, you may say, “But Steve, all governments are dishonest, especially when it comes to spending which benefits their buddies.” And you may point to the Liberal Sponsorship scandal as a prime example of the level of dishonesty and cover-up which Canadians appear to have come to expect from our governments. Why should the Conservatives be any different? Why hold them to a higher standard?

I don’t believe that the Conservatives should be held to a higher standard. The Liberals were just as bad as the Conservatives; of course, Prime Minister Paul Martin at least called for a public enquiry into the Sponsorship scandal, and reaped the whirlwind at the ballot box in the next election. The Conservatives have not been similarly punished; in truth, they've been rewarded for their serial dishonesty with a much stronger mandate to govern, despite an historic contempt of parliament ruling.

In truth, all of these spending scandals have caused the trust which Canadians put into their government to plummet over the years. As a result, these scandals have led to increasing the democratic deficit within the nation, as more Canadians turn away from voting and other forms of political engagement. And who can blame them? Who would willingly want to be associated with “those guys”, unless you’re someone who is eager to figure out a way to get your own share of the goodies being handed out.

Of course, a lack of political engagement on the part of the public means that we can expect to see even more dishonesty. If fewer Canadians are paying attention to what's going on, what's to stop the current government from doing pretty much whatever it wants to do?

In part, that's why we are in the midst of a democratic crisis in this nation.

Slush-Fund Mentality

One thing that I found interesting was an argument being used mainly be Conservative pundits and commenters during the last election that certain ridings needed to elect Conservative MP's so that they would benefit by getting more of the goodies being handed out like candy by a Conservative government. What might have inspired a public outcry a few decades ago (the idea that our government is really only there to support those which support it, or to woo those living in marginal ridings, and not actually for all Canadians equally), barely even registers today. In fact, many voters probably bought into the notion that it’s better to be on the “winning” side, else their geographic locales will experience a form of economic punishment.

No doubt there are Conservative pundits writing in their blogs today that the Conservatives did nothing wrong by rewarding the voters of Parry Sound-Muskoka for their continued loyalty, and that other ridings now in the hands of the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens should smarten up and vote for Conservatives next time out, or else risk losing even more access to funding (or worse, risk losing existing funding).

Certainly, when you look at what transpired in Parry Sound-Muskoka, it’s hard not to feel that way.

Shrug it Off

What’s troubling for me today, though, is something which again doesn’t come as a surprise: that the Conservative Party will simply shrug off the A-G’s Report on the Legacy Fund. They’ll disagree, they’ll insist that it’s being made into a political football, pointing to the posturing of the Opposition NDP and whatever polysyllabic righteous indignation emerges from Bob Rae’s mouth as proof. You see, they know that Canadians will have forgotten all about this in 4 years, which is the next time we’ll be going to the polls. This is really no big deal from their perspective.

In fact, the Conservatives might be enjoying all of the close scrutiny of the A-G’s Report on the G-8 slush fund. There were 6 other Reports released by the A-G today which won’t receive anywhere near the coverage of the $50 million slush fund Report. One of those reports in particular should be considered a monumental and on-going embarrassment to our current government, to the detriment of all Canadians. The A-G’s Report on the status of On-Reserve Housing which shows that the gap between housing needs and housing outcomes continues to grow, to our collective shame. It’s doubtful that it will receive the kind of media and public attention that this continuing historic injustice deserves.

Values-Based Patriotism as Partisan Political Tool

The dishonesty of the current government is going to impact us in many ways over the next four years. Brigitte DePape, the courageous Senate Page who decided that it was more important to be civilly disobedient than to retain an excellent job, had it right when she wrote “Stop Harper” on an octagonal red sign. DePape claimed that despite Harper’s say-so, the values of the Conservative Party are not Canada’s values. She pointed to the 60% of Canadians who voted for a party other than the Conservatives in the last election as part of her proof. She indicated that another 40% of voting-age Canadians chose not to cast ballots at all.

But even DePape didn’t capture the full range of Canadians who do not share the values of the Conservative Party, as she neglected to mention that there are also some very politically engaged youths under the age of 18 who could not vote. And finally, she failed to identify that many of the voters who cast their ballots for Conservative candidates might not actually share the values of the Party, for whatever reason. Sometimes these voters have been misled by Conservative candidates, spokespeople and the media. We know that Conservatives have been dishonest about numerous things; we would be na├»ve to think that their dishonesty didn’t contribute to their vote totals in the last election. And perhaps some voters simply bought into the “slush fund mentality”, thinking that their ridings would benefit by having an MP in government.

Yes, many Canadians do share the values of the Conservative Party. But it’s purely partisan patriotic rhetoric to believe that those values are universally shared amongst Canadians. DePape seems to understand where this kind of dishonest rhetoric leads. It’s almost as if Harper is saying you’re not really Canadian if you don’t hold Conservative values. With a majority of ridings in Quebec having for the first time elected NDP MP’s to the house, you can see how this kind of dishonest values-based rhetoric could be very dangerous for Canada.

The Conservatives continue to practice the politics of division, though, and that’s not going to change any time soon. They’ll continue to inject their version of patriotism into debates, and we can expect that their brand of values-based patriotism will become an even more important tool to implement the future government agenda. Those who disagree with government decisions to slash and cut spending (primarily on social programs) or to lower taxes for the rich will increasingly be seen as being “un-Canadian”. Being something less than a true Canadian will, of course, lead to the increasing marginalization of voices which disagree with the Harper government. It’s dishonest and it’s wrong, and it must be stopped, as the Harper government really is a threat to the well-being of a majority of Canadian families, and to our future generations.

I hope to write more about the perils of so-called “Conservative values” in a future blog, which will include a look at how economic austerity measures which benefit the richest amongst us will be forced on the majority of us as part of our “patriotic duty”.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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