by Barry Weisleder
How ironic would it be if Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ultimate downfall occurs due to a scandal involving some rip-off artists he appointed to the Senate, rather than as a consequence of Harper’s bestial record on the economy, the environment, First Nations and Canada’s wars of occupation abroad? Very ironic, eh?
But as things go in Ottawa, where both an ominous trade deal with Europe, and a meandering but menacing Throne Speech were quickly eclipsed by the deepening Senate imbroglio, anything seems possible.
The Conservative P.M. dug in his heels, and fired back at blistering Opposition attacks on his credibility. Harper insists that he knew nothing about the scheme to bail-out Senator Mike Duffy. He coldly disowned Senators Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau when scrutiny of their mis-spending habits became too hot and too damaging to the Conservative Party.
Harper even prorogued Parliament in a vain effort to ride out the storm. Still the crisis persists, undiminished by the so-called free trade triumph, or the baubles offered to consumers in an otherwise toxic Throne Speech.
While the political crisis, now six months old and deepening, widens rifts in Tory ranks, it is important not to lose sight of the threat to the common good posed by the still-gestating deal known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union.
In the first place, like its predecessor ‘free’ trade deals, NAFTA and the FTA, CETA is not primarily about trade. Tariffs and duties between the two regions are, on average, less than four per cent. Nor will we see a major impact on sales of beef overseas, or cheese here. CETA is overwhelmingly a corporate bill of rights. It will jack up Canadian drug prices (by $2 billion a year) by extending patent protection for multinational pharmaceutical companies, mostly based in Europe. It will be harder for provinces and cities to favour local businesses when they buy goods or services. And it will enable corporations to sue governments if their owners think that environmental, labour or other regulations interfere with the maximization of profits. (Canada is facing $2.5 billion worth of corporate lawsuits under NAFTA.)
Secrecy marked the CETA negotiations, and still shrouds the contents. Progressive economists say Ottawa’s claim that the pact will create 80,000 new net jobs is entirely bogus. Europe’s 500 million consumers are enduring an economic recession, worsened by austerity measures that curb workers’ ability to buy much of anything beyond essentials. Unifor economist Jim Stanford predicts that CETA will, over time, vaporize up to 150,000 Canadian jobs.
Since 28 EU countries have to endorse the deal, and Ottawa needs to get the provinces on side by guaranteeing compensation for higher drug prices and for any harm done to home industries, there is thus time to defeat the deal before CETA is entrenched.
Likewise, there is an opportunity to challenge the pernicious plans outlined in the October 16 Tory Throne Speech. Harper’s endeavour to change the channel on his Senate problems includes promises to cut cellphone roaming costs, to unbundle cable-TV channels to allow consumers to pick and choose, and to allow people to carry booze across provincial boundaries for personal consumption.
But Harper’s mailed fist is revealed in core measures, such as a federal budget freeze, and curbing costs in the public sector by shedding staff. Legislation to require balanced budgets aims to entrench austerity. New laws to ensure life sentences for those convicted of major crimes, and to bar the release of serious repeat offenders, would help the Conservatives to posture as ‘law and order’ enforcers, as does their plan to shut down centres that provide drugs to addicts to wean them off dope dependency.
Then there is Omnibus Budget Bill C-4, tabled in the House of Commons on October 22. Part of the 321-page compendium of assorted, but unrelated items is a piece that would give the federal government the power to decide which of the 187,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada are “essential” and who therefore will be denied the right to strike. Forty thousand of them presently lack this right; many of the rest are likely to be deprived as well. Not only that, the new law would exclude dispute arbitration, except when the government agrees to it, and arbitrators would be obliged to give a “preponderance” of weight to the government’s claims as to what it could afford. Say good bye to the right to strike and to any semblence of fair arbitration in the federal public service. And this is buried in a bill that includes changes to employment insurance, workplace safety, veterans affairs, conflict of interest, immigration policy and more.
But where there ought to be concern about corporate criminality in the shipment of hazardous substances, in ravaging the environment, in violating indigenous peoples’ land rights, in hiding billions of dollars in offshore banks to avoid tax obligations, ‘law and order’ seems to be missing in action.
That brings us back to the parliamentary crisis. It operates on many levels. One more dimension is evident in Harper’s bid to ram through his appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court. The latest high court vacancy had to be filled, as a constitutional requirement, by a judge from the Quebec bar. Harper’s choice (for ideological reasons we can only imagine), is Marc Nadon, who once practiced maritime and transportation law in Quebec. But Nadon spent the last 20 years at the Federal Court’s appelate and trial divisions in Ottawa. So Harper aims to jam a square peg into a round hole. How? By amending the Supreme Court of Canada Act.
Like suspending Parliament four times over the past seven years, like trying to bully out of the Senate his own mangy appointees, those who he shielded and defended until recently, Stephen Harper’s actions on labour and the economy are those of a man who doesn’t take no for an answer, regardless the spirit or the letter of the law.
The saddest aspect of this ugly chapter is that most of the media attention focusses on the misdeeds of certain powerful individuals. But those potent hacks can be replaced by the ruling class when push comes to shove. A superficial approach to corruption, rather than a serious examination of the system that drives its minions to do what they do to perpetuate human exploitation, social oppression and the devastation of nature, is what passes for politics in the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the workers’ movement, including those who sit atop the unions and the labour-based New Democratic Party, are complicit in this artful misdirection. They demonize Harper. This in turn tends to foster a ‘get rid of him at all costs’, lesser-evil, unprincipled politics. The net effect is the mis-education of the many, helping to keep the criminal elite class in charge of the sinking ship, weighed down as it is by stupendous capitalist greed.
Urgently needed is mass job action to stop the Tory attack on the right to strike, to defeat CETA, to reverse the public service cuts, to uphold aboriginal land rights, and of course, to abolish the Senate and the monarchy.