Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stephen Harper - Canada's most socially progressive Prime Minister ever - against his will

Prime Minister Stephen Harper - most socially progressive ever?
Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday February 10, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

"Life is never free of contradictions." 

Manmohan Singh, former Indian prime minister. 

Stephen Harper has surprisingly become Canada's most socially progressive prime minister -- even though it's against his will and personal beliefs.

Why? Because his right-wing Conservative government has been in power for the most dramatic positive changes ever made on a series of personal rights and freedoms.

Despite Harper's own social conservatism and that of many Conservative members of Parliament, his government has presided over Supreme Court decisions that have seen Canadians gain the right to:  union strikes; safe injections sites; RCMP unionization; and now even physician-assisted dying, all while avoiding revisiting the abortion issue and giving up on fighting same-sex marriages.

It is an irony that must rankle Harper mightily -- even former Liberal PM Pierre Trudeau doesn't come close.

Even before the most recent court decisions -- and the Conservatives' declining to try to overturn them -- his political friends were frustrated.

"It's my hope that Stephen Harper will soon get back to the values we had in 1993," former Reform and Conservative Alberta MP Myron Thompson said in 2013. "I hope he hasn't lost them, but he's certainly gotten away from them."

A still lower blow came from Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at the right-wing National Citizens Coalition. Harper, at the time, he toldThe Globe and Mail in 2013, was "second to none when it came to criticizing conservative leaders who strayed even slightly from ideological purity."

But even by 2013, Nicholls said "what Harper is doing and what a Liberal government would do" were not very different.

Unanimous ruling

Despite that view, last week's stunning Supreme Court of Canada decision on the right to die was strongly opposed by the Conservative government in legal submissions. But government lawyers failed to convince even one of the nine justices. The Feb. 6 Supreme Court decision was unanimous.

The attorney general of Canada argued that "an absolute prohibition sends the message that all lives are valued, and worthy of protection from those who may subtly encourage vulnerable people to terminate their lives."

But the Supreme Court of Canada completely rejected the Harper position.

"The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice," the court decided in a unanimous decision released Feb. 6.

It is extremely unlikely that Harper would now invoke the "notwithstanding" clause of the Canadian Constitution to override the court after that powerful ruling and huge public support for allowing doctors to help end the lives of those suffering pain and despair from terminal illness.

With an election scheduled for Oct. 2015, Harper will not want to risk defeat by going against the tide.

And to do so would maintain an unjust law that dictates imprisonment of up to 14 years for anyone aiding or even counselling someone to commit suicide -- something intolerable to Canadians.

Meanwhile, those who fought long and hard on this case are grateful.

"This is one incredible day. Physician-assisted dying is now recognized for what it is: a medical service that brings an end, for some individuals, to unbearable suffering," Grace Pastine, litigation director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which started the challenge, said in Ottawa Friday.

Indeed it was incredible. 

I was with both my parents when they died in hospital. Sadly, it was neither painless nor peaceful. This decision is merciful but tragically much too late for far too many people.

Harper must listen to both the court and public -- and not stand in the way of ending further unnecessary suffering. 


scotty on denman said...

Fun backhander; everybody knows Harper's "progressiveness" has been entirely against his will, that his "support" of Insite (safe injection place for addicts) is really just his failure to shut it down, as he tried to do but was prevented by the courts. The courts, in fact, have handed him quite a few disappointments, probably the biggest by way of the Tsihlqot'in (William) SCoC decision which snuffed his position that his government had fulfilled its obligation to consult meaningfully with First Nations on traditional territories not covered by treaties, which most of BC is, and which spoiled his Northern Gateway pipe dream. His government was ordered to back up and start over by the SCoC on prostitution, medical marijuana, and the Wheat Board, which didn't prevent him from killing it, but did prevent him from mutilating it before doing so. The courts also convicted his party and a few of his MPs for illegal campaign funding tricks, and, so far, one campaign worker for illegally misdirecting voters to incorrect voting places; he tried to blow off the "In&Out" conviction by calling it merely "a difference of opinion", which, of course, was all of that and more: another in a list of fails. To whatever extent these fails can be interpreted as progressive, none were Harper's intent or expectation.

Senate reform, a longstanding Harper pledge, might have provided opportunities for progressiveness, but instead didn't provide even any kind of progress; it has been, and promises to continue to be a complete disaster for the Conservatives, sordid and hackneyed instead of honourable and effective. The fails here just keep on coming.

The provinces have not lent Harper any accolades of progressiveness, although at least one of them might be said to have affected as much for its own citizens; curiously he eschewed basking in the friendship offered by Ontario which hadn't rebuffed pipelines or fracking like some of his other reputed ideological friends, BC being a prime example. Albetar, of course, is run by Progressive Conservatives, but we recall Harper preferred the far-right Wild Rose party, now faded and folded into a PC government led by former Conservative MP Jim Prentice, who loves politics---just not with Harper. Nope, H-Boy's made no progress or progressiveness with the provinces either.

Joking aside, though, Harper has in fact been starkly retrogressive, in some areas pushing us back to medieval, pre-democracy attitudes. If he was a real progressive he would have supported places like Insite, instead of trying (and failing) to shut it down, nor attempted to beggar medical marijuana users by forcing them to buy from the Harper-approved monopolies' shitty, expensive product ( and failing at that too). Surely a Progressive wouldn't bump Canadian workers by bringing in Temporary Foreign Workers like Harper tried to do; and wouldn't a real Progressive do something about problematically low wages?

There is a certain Schadenfreude to enjoy in the perversity of Harper's "progressiveness": he's progressive insofar as he's largely failed to implement many of his intended retrogressive policies. And that's gotta bug him every night while he stares at the bedroom ceiling.

Anonymous said...

Someone has too much time on their hands. Has he stared working for the federal NDP's policy bureau?