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Democracy’s future — the issue of issues

It was billed as a rally on “The Future of Canada’s Democracy” and it turned out to be that and much more. Only hours before, the election had been called for May 2 . The timing changed it from a Town Hall-type meeting to an enthusiastic campaign kickoff for Dr. Ted Hsu (pronounced shoe), Liberal candidate for Kingston and the Islands, one of the fifty ridings the Globe and Mail has identified as key to the election outcome.

Several hundred people filled the Memorial Room of Kingston’s historic City Hall to hear the candidate, supported by Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal MP for Toronto St. Paul’s, deplore the anti-democratic practices of the Harper government. Examples included prorouging Parliament to avoid accountability, refusing to spell out the $40 billion costs of buying fighter aircraft and building unneeded prisons —  all culminating in the historic vote that found the Harper regime in contempt of Parliament. That brought down the government Friday and set the election machinery in motion.

Retiring MP Peter Millikan, whose even-handed performance as Speaker of the House of Commons has won him much praise, got a huge standing ovation from the mostly partisan crowd. There were a few Conservative voters there. One stood and admitted he’d made a mistake in 2008, and would never again vote for Stephen Harper & Company.

The issue that turned him around  was the government’s insistence on closing prison farms, a big issue in a riding with four federal penitentiaries. Shutting down the farms is symptomatic of the Harper government’s preference for vindictive punishment rather than reform and rehabilitation. Better to keep men locked idly in cells, they seem to think, than let them practice responsibility and healthy work — useful habits that just might motivate a few to take up a law-abidng life. The Liberal party has pledged to reopen the farms, which incidentally pay for themselves many times over in what they produce.

The former Conservative voter paid tribute to the 26 Kingston people, ranging in age from 14 to 76, who suffered arrest in protesting the closures. Outside City hall stood Bossy the cow, symbol of the campaign.

There was talk of Coalition and its role in Parliamentary life. Hours earlier, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had made clear the party’s position. His exact words were:

“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government. If that is the Liberal Party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly-elected Parliament. If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenge. That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land.”

(This is more or less what I had written a couple of days ago. Ignatieff went on to pledge that a Liberal government would enter no Coalition with the NDP and would never countnenance a partnership with the Bloc Quebecois.)

Campaign coverage today has Mr. Harper still pushing  his Coalition strategy, claiming he needs a majority to stop the Liberals and NDP from ganging up and installing a government which hasn’t won the most votes. It’s a clever message — will it work?

It’s hard to see how  this issue will last until  voting day. Liberals will try to get the campaign back on ethical and economic issues — the lack of ethics in the Harper government and its economic mismanagement. Far from handling the economy well, Conservatives have blown the surplus they inherited and through unwise tax cuts for banks and corporations, have crippled our ability to get out of deficit.

Another word about the Future of Canada’s Democracy. Never have we had a government so centralized and controlled by one man. This has put Parliament, according to Dr. Bennett, in a vice between an ever more powerful executive branch, and an activist judiciary. It’s usually the right wing that complaints about the power of judges. But when you add judicial power to the power of the PM’s office, it emasculates Parliament and its authority, reducing MPs to constituency social workers helping people to get their passports on time.

Not exactly what the Magna Carta — or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — is all about.

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