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Harper Shuts Out Committees on Crime

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Canadians may be sleepwalking while the seat of their country's democracy is being slowly choked. Canada barely has a properly functioning Parliament due to the anti-democratic instincts of the Harper Conservatives. The techniques being used, in a historically unprecedented way, have included not only proroguing Parliament in the 2008-2009 period, but now with a majority invoking closure on some of the most important legislation in recent history such as the omnibus Crime Bill. This has occurred as frequently as four times in 25 days. This is unprecedented. In contrast, the Chr├ętien majority government used closure 10 times during the four year period from 200o to 2004.

Committees are also being shuttered before they can perform what their members were elected to do. For example, in the Standing Committee on Justice, using their majority on the committee, clause by clause review was shut down to ram through many of the extremely controversial provisions of Bill C-10, the Crime Bill that will greatly increase incarceration in Canada while also imposing huge extra costs on the provinces, such as Ontario, already struggling to reduce huge deficits.

While the crime rates are decreasing, the real purpose of the Harper executive for refusing to let Parliament do its most critical function is to play to the politics of fear. The once independent public service and leading experts have warned that many of the provisions of the Crime Bill make little sense, would cause huge backlogs in the courts, and could actually increase crime through the expensive and enlarged schools for crime.

This authoritarian strategy took the specter of farce when the Harper government rejected amendments propose by Liberal M.P. Irwin Cotler and then proposed the same amendments in the Senate.

Not satisfied, the Harper strategy to make Parliament irrelevant seems to be extending to forcing committees behind closed doors, in part, to keep out the media and muzzle members from disclosing anything that takes place during the in camera meetings. This is happening even to parliamentary committees that are tasked with examining governmental transparency, accountability and oversight of expenditures.

There is one already well-tried way to oppose this strangling of Parliament. During the prorogation shut down by Harper of parliament in December of 2009, the Liberal opposition effectively triggered a naming and shaming exercise by holding well publicized forums on a variety of topics from democracy and governance to the economy and jobs in Parliament during the democracy shut down that brought thousands of Canadians to the streets to demonstrate across the country in the middle of a cold winter.

The message that Canadians would not tolerate such a cynical disrespect of Parliament did get through to such an extent that it is unlikely that either the present Prime Minister or a future one would consider a repeat of the two anti-democratic prorogations that triggered a political and a potential constitutional crisis.

It is time for that naming and shaming tactic to be revived to communicate to Canadians that Parliament, especially the House of Commons and its most important committees, are being shut down in a profoundly undemocratic way and that if Canadians care about democracy they should make their voices heard loud and clear.

Where the most critical committees have been shut down by the Harper majority, the opposition could conduct public hearings that have been denied on the issues most critical to Canadians such as the disappearing middle class and growing inequality that is causing severe hardship to millions.

In addition, even if the Crime Bill becomes law, it is critical that such forums continue to monitor the anticipated negative consequences on crime and insist on a proper accounting for the costs that the federal and provincial governments will face from this ill-considered product of the politics of fear. Parliament can't be the plaything of one man or one party.