There is a central issue in this election, but it is being downplayed by the Canadian establishment.
The issue is reform.
For decades, successive Canadian governments have drawn more power into the Prime Minister’s Office.
Jean Chretien’s government was called the “friendly dictatorship,” a reference to the degree of influence the former prime minister exerted from his office.
It was easy to ignore, because Chretien wielded the power with a measure of subtlety, grace and good humour. And, so, the public largely ignored the issue.
But it laid a foundation for future, more significant power grabs.
In 2006, Stephen Harper was elected Canada’s 22nd prime minister.
And we reached a tipping point.
Even with his power curbed by minority Parliaments, Harper has seized more power than any of his predecessors, exerting that control with open contempt for established precedents.
Within two years, political scientists started reporting Canada had the most centralized power of any Parliamentary democracy in the world.
Today, the public is aware of, and disquieted by the effects of such control.
The facade is over. We’ve gone from the friendly dictator to something else entirely.
And Harper is not done consolidating his power.
Over the last five years, we’ve watched as he’s sacked, maligned or forced out civil servants who have disagreed with him, including diplomat Richard Colvin, Rights and Democracy president Remy Beauregard, Statistics Canada deputy Munir Sheikh, RCMP Public Complaints Commission chair Paul Kennedy, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission chair Linda Keen, Veterans Ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran, among others.
Openly dismissive of global warming, the Harper government barred author Mark Tushingham, who worked at Environment Canada, from talking about his book on climate change, a novel.
The Harper government has also cut funding to many NGOs and research bodies that run counter to his political objectives, or tied their funding to contracts that bar them from advocacy, research or lobbying.
A small slice of those affected organizations include International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Law Reform Commission of Canada, the Status of Women, the Climate Action Network, the Canadian Council on Learning, The Canadian Council for International Development, the Court Challenges Program and First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. But there are many, many more.
The Harper government knowingly suppressed research, like a report from the Commissioner of Firearms that showed police use the long-gun registry. The report was intentionally delayed until after a vote was held on the gun registry in the House of Commons.
Harper’s office set up a system of vetting even the most innocuous of government releases, exerting a level of control over government communications that has never before been seen in this country.
He’s also cut funding to the CBC, crippling the national broadcaster’s ability to deliver programming and, hence, reducing its relevance to its audience.
His contempt for reporters is well documented.
And knowledge of his contempt for people who may hold views contrary to his own is growing – throughout this election, citizens have been forcibly evicted from Harper’s carefully scripted campaign stops if they are suspected of not being a party supporter.
And dozens of Conservative candidates have been ordered to refrain from fielding questions at all-candidates debates.
His party drafted a 200-page handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees, eroding the influence of another check on government power. Among other things, the document urged members to flee hearings if the grilling got too uncomfortable.
He also ordered that cabinet ministers and staffers didn’t have to testify before such committees, again putting politics ahead of longstanding precedent.
His contempt for the established process didn’t end there, however.
He brought in a law setting fixed election dates, then proceeded to break his own law and called an election when it was in his best interest to do so.
Harper’s Conservatives willfully broke the election spending rules during the 2006 campaign. The full impact of that illegal move on the outcome will never be known. The only consolation is that high-ranking party apparatchiks have been charged with offences under election finance laws.
In this latest sitting, the Speaker of the House of Commons, elected by all members, found Harper’s government in breach of privilege after refusing to turn over documents relating to the treatment of Afghan detainees.
The Harper government was then found in contempt of Parliament – a first in Canada – after refusing to properly cost its programs and make that available to the House of Commons.
And he’s openly rejected a underlying principle of our system that government remains in office so long as it enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons.
Twice, he prorogued Parliament – gamed the established system simply to save his political skin.
And on it goes.
Harper’s vision for Canada is that of a fundamentalist – he favours political doctrine (we will build prisons across the land to fight crime) over provable facts (crime is dropping across Canada and there’s no evidence more prisons will curb crime).
And, he’ll take any action to preserve power to further his right-wing doctrine.
There are plenty who support this vision.
They will vote. They will endure ice storms and broken glass to get to the polls – they believe in the doctrine.
It’s the majority who are complacent. Harper’s banking on you staying home – he doesn’t want his hardcore support diluted by a bunch of … run-of-the-mill Canadians. It messes with his vision.
He knows most people disagree with him – probably close to 70 per cent.
Which is why Canadians face a clear choice on Monday – reform.
It’s a trust exercise, writ large.
Harper wants a majority to seal his reforms – he desperately wants to put the finishing touches on his consolidation of power and to drive home his doctrine.
An uncontested majority would do it.
So, do you trust him? Do you support his single-minded vision of the land?
Or do you support a Canadian government, with respect for the nation’s laws, institutions and existing values, and a willingness to reform the system – to make it more democratic, not less.
If so, you could probably support any other candidate – Liberal, New Democrat or Green.
So, the question becomes, which candidate will deliver a seat for the Canadian government? And who delivers one to the Harper government?
Remember, that’s the devil’s choice this time out.
Will your support split the vote? If so, who wins and who loses?
That’s the calculus.
Now it’s up to you to decide.
Do you feel comfortable playing the odds? Or playing it safe?
Harper government or Canadian government?
The only choice you don’t have is to stay home.
If you do, you lose.