Hurtig Lecture resonates

(Edmonton) Few people would say it’s good to be in Edmonton on a cold October day, but veteran journalist Lawrence Martin began his speech the evening of Oct. 6 noting to those in attendance that it was nice to be out of Ottawa and instead somewhere “where real thinking takes place.”

Martin, an author and national affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail, regaled attendees of the annual Hurtig Lecture with a view of Canada borne from someone who has been immersed in political reporting from Washington to Moscow for more than 30 years. During his presentation, Martin made it clear that he does not believe that Prime Minister Steven Harper is solely responsible for the decline of democracy in Canada, but that he has taken it to a frighteningly new level.

The dumbing down of politics

Martin decried what he described the anti-intellectual era in North America, wherein one’s education could be seen as a defect in the political arena. From the scrapping of the long-form census to ignoring data on failure of incarceration of criminal in place of building new and bigger jails on instinct, Martin listed current-day examples of how politics no longer seems to be a thinking-man’s game.

“How can we have a democracy in which knowledge is belittled,” asked Martin. “Erudition is not valued by this (federal) government in so many areas. It’s well possible to make good public policy on the basis of gut instinct, but surely the odds are better if gut instinct is closed with a degree of erudition.”

Martin says technological advances are partly to blame for the dumbing down of political dialogue. He says we have become a culture of “power browsers,” surfing the net for nuggets of information more entertaining than intellectual. And while the state of democracy in Canada has not reached the crisis levels in other parts of the world that have sparked mass protests by disenchanted youth, in the age of global electronic communication, complacency on the part of our leaders is not a wise course of action.
“In the Internet age, these movements have spillover potential in a very accelerated way,” he said.

PM as elected king?

Martin contends that Canada’s democracy today is essentially “one-man rule interspersed with a democratic election every four years or so.” Yet, he is quick to note that the genesis of such a state can be traced back to the Trudeau era and tracked into Jean Chretien’s time in power. But the centralization of power in Ottawa has reached its zenith with the Harper’s Conservative government, he notes, stating that Harper campaigned to bring transparency and accountability to government, but, once there, “proceeded to outdo all others in going the other direction.” Canada’s constitution, Martin cautioned, is ripe with opportunity for one to set themselves up as a sort of an elected king.

“Our constitution leaves much to convention and custom,“ said Martin. “Our system is highly vulnerable, therefore, to the work of a strongman leader, one who is unburdened by democratic scruples.”

Putting the watchdogs to sleep

Martin cites examples of systems in place to keep the political system in check: media, public service, courts, watchdog agencies, caucus, opposition and senate, and public opinion. Harper has, he contends, systematically taken them all down by centralizing control of all government messaging, no matter how minute it may be. Controlling the information and the message are key traits of the Harper government.

Yet, he notes, this strategy has worked quite well for Harper but not for those below him, notably public servants and diplomats, especially those whose messages run counter to the government’s. Not even Harper’s friends, said Martin, are immune from the authoritarian hand of influence; he described the case of his former adviser Tom Flanagan, whose book, Harper’s Team, Harper tried to prevent from publishing, but ultimately only being able to have certain sections removed.

“If the Prime Minister’s office would try and censor his friend and leading expert Tom Flanagan, you can imagine the lengths to which the centre will go to get its way,” he said.

Martin outlined a strategy to remove and stifle any and all opposition, through firing civil servants, obfuscating inquiries and commissions and proroguing parliament twice. He spoke of the lengths that the Conservatives have gone to, to render parliamentary committees impotent, including circulating instructions on tactics to shut them down and decreeing that cabinet staffers could refuse to testify before them.

“The list of anti-democratic and authoritarian muscle-flexing just goes on and on,” said Martin.

The winter of Canadian discontent?

Though Harper was the first prime minister to be found in contempt of parliament, Martin laments that Harper is making all the right moves to remove the democratic processes by which he can be challenged or penalized, including party subsidies. He says, though, that the opposition has yet to come up with any platform outlining viable democratic reform. A new democracy, he offers, does not likely lie in the status quo but likely with the new generation, one that opposes conventional structures in favour of a more participatory system.

“With the Arab spring we saw what the new forces can do to autocratic regimes,” said Martin. “What can happen before too long is that that same spirit will be applied, changed and forced on our own governments, which have moved so far away from the ideal of democracy that they have become an embarrassment to the world.

“When Canada was created, a democracy of one was not what we had in mind.”