My esteemed peers Montreal Simon and Owen Gray at Northern Reflections have highlighted today Bob Hepburn's op-ed piece in the Toronto Star asking the thorny, but essential, question of how Harper has gotten away with the slow but sure destruction of our country and our democracy. Strangely enough, though he asks the many important questions of how Harper has gotten away with the various, and atrocious, anti-democratic things he has done, Hepburn has no ready answers. He seems to point to apathy or simple complacency as the primary culprit in Harper's ability to undermine our democratic system. And there is no doubt that the Canadian public has been apathetic and have ignored much of what Harper has actually done. This apathy has been fed by a media that, despite Conservative efforts to portray themselves as the underdogs hated by a "Liberal" media, has utterly failed to do its job in exposing what the government has been doing. But beneath the hapless, rightwing media, the efforts of the Conservatives to change things quietly behind the scenes and through legislation hidden in omnibus bills, there is another central factor in this debate that people just don't want to talk about - ignorance.
The plain and simple fact is that Harper has systematically disassembled our democratic system and has gotten away with it because the vast majority have absolutely no idea how our democratic system is supposed to work and has worked. At the level of practical political science, most Canadians don't know how parliament is supposed to function. They don't know what prorogation is, they don't know how legislation gets written and put through parliament, and they don't know how the Westminster System has traditionally functioned. As a result of this ignorance, many of Harper's outrageously anti-democratic efforts don't register with most of the Canadian public. When Harper was found in contempt of Parliament, for example, it appeared that the vast majority of Canadians didn't understand what that meant and what the implications are of the first government ever to use the Westminster System to be found in contempt. Many people might know at a very basic level what an 'omnibus' bill is, but few understand its implications. Most people don't know how parliamentary committees work so it means little to them when they hear that the HarperCons are manipulating them and shutting them down. Canadians don't know that one of the functions of parliamentary debate is to help inform citizens about what the government is doing, so when the HarperCons shut down debate people don't really know what that does to public discourse. The simple fact is that if you don't know how your parliament works, it is easy for the government to pervert that parliament without people's notice.
But at a more troubling scale, Canadians don't understand how the Canadian Government has traditionally functioned in its wider relations with civil society, the civil service, and with other branches and parts of government. Thus, when Harper dismantles the freedom of information system, when he muzzles scientists, when he dispenses with environmental review processes, when he attempts to interfere with the Supreme Court, when he refuses to meet with the provinces, or when he intentionally thwarts the efforts of Elections Canada to ensure fair and legal elections in this country, most people don't care simply because most people don't know what any of these things mean or how they work. Furthermore, people have little clue about how previous governments have conducted themselves in their relations with government appointees who are meant to monitor our system, or with NGOs, or on the international stage. So when Harper fires government monitors like Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen, when the HarperCons refuse to release documents relating to residential-schools, when the Harper government undertakes a surveillance program of a lawyer like Cindy Blackstock simply because she is an advocate for First Nations peoples, when Harper signs trade documents that de facto give foreign governments powers over our citizens and resources, when Harper instructs Revenue Canada to audit only those organizations which dare to question government approaches and policies, when the Harpercons end almost all funding for literacy programs across the country or organizations that advocate for women's rights, when the Harper Government actively criticizes provincial governments and their policies against all Westminster traditions, or then Harper dispenses with every tradition of diplomacy on the international level, these things don't mean anything to most Canadians. Most people just don't know that our democracy, though far from perfect, has been protected by a particular approach of governments to civil society that prevents governments becoming tyrannical organizations and has traditionally maintained a certain degree of openness in our society and our social and political discourse. Harper has been able to eliminate these traditions simply because the majority of people didn't know that they were traditions.
I think we can say that the HarperCons have been able to destroy our democracy because most people didn't actually know we lived in a democracy. For most people democracy means nothing more than voting every four years or so and it ends there. They just don't understand that a healthy democracy requires an open civil society, an open political and social discourse, a system with arms length advocacy groups and systems of review, and significant controls on arbitrary powers. The Harper government has undermined and destroyed all of these things. But the majority of Canadians go happily on because they just don't know what is going on. MSM and even many bloggers don't want to talk about this because they fear that it would sound elitist and condescending. But it is time to admit that ignorance has been Harper's greatest ally and in many cases that ignorance is not only willful but a matter of pride for many people who advocate a know-nothing ideology.