Canada: Conservatives use anti-democratic powers to suspend parliament

Autocratic powers, Afghan war and job losses/wage cuts provoke protests

As of 25 January, the Canadian parliament, led by the Conservative Prime Minster Stephen Harper, was due to resume after the Christmas break. However in the midst of allegations that Canadian soldiers have tortured Afghan detainees and with the continuation of economic instability, Harper announced just before New Year that parliament would be prorogued (suspended) until 3rd March 2010.

The main excuse given was to “focus on strategies for Canada’s economy”. But the prorogation was seen by most people for what it is – a move to temporarily escape from the above mentioned issues and to try to figure out how to protect a minority government from further attacks and instability. The prorogation of parliament is an attack on democratic rights and is an example of an autocratic law that is kept in place for the prime minister’s disposal.

Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper

Harper’s hope was that while he and his government were trying to deal with their problems, the rest of the country would be distracted with the Winter Olympics, due to start in February.

This is the second recent prorogation in recent years. At the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, parliament was last prorogued to escape the possibility of the Liberals, NDP (New Democratic Party) and Bloc Quebecois voting motion of no confidence in the conservative government and for the opposition parties to agree a combined take-over. This came to nothing and revealed the weakness of the opposition parties.

Understandably, Harper and his government are now facing a lot of criticism over their tactic of proroguing parliament whenever they face a crisis. During this recent prorogation, Harper also appointed five new senators to fill vacant seats, which now gives the conservatives majority support in the Senate.

Both the NDP and Liberals have called for new rules that would require the prime minister to warn parliament of such measures. Yet all the parties fail to provide any solutions to the deep economic and social problems facing working-class Canadians.

There is underlying anger and opposition to the latest prorogation of parliament which was reflected in protests which took place across the country on 23 January. The protests were initiated after a facebook campaign was set up, which quickly escalated to over 200,000 members. Estimates were that Toronto saw over 7,000 protesters and that Ottawa had 3,500 protesters. There were also smaller protests across the rest of the country. CWI members in Quebec are also planning a protest in the near future, against the prorogation and the Afghan war. Actions such as these are vital to express the widespread anger which exists on these issues.

Many working class people are beset with huge problems, such as unemployment and job instability. As of October 2009, 809,000 Canadians were claiming Employment Insurance (EI), up from 500,000 in October 2008.

As well as many people losing better paid, skilled and unionised work, an estimated 500,000 more people are due to join the EI lines in the next five weeks. This will leave many without even a minimal income and will amount to even more families living in poverty. Those who have been able to find work are facing taking lower paying, part-time jobs.

Although the government tries to claim “we” are coming out of the recession, the reality for many working class people could not be any further from the truth.

In addition to this issue, there is increasing anger over a proposed HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) which already exists in some provinces and is now due to replace the current PST (Provincial Sales Tax) and GST (Government Sales Tax), in both Ontario and British Columbia, this year. Currently many items bought do not always have both taxes added and for some items this will remain true. But in many cases people will be paying much more for everyday items. In British Colombia (BC), the HST will be 12% and in Ontario 13%. This is seen by most workers as a money-grabbing, tax shift from big business to individuals. In an IPOS REID poll, over 90% of both people in BC and Ontario think the move is “a tax grab by both levels of government”.

For many people, particularly those out of work, it feels like an extra kick when they are already down.

Torture allegations

As well as the economic issues, there is growing anger and criticism over the alleged torture of Afghan detainees by Canadian soldiers. For some people, these revelations have come as a shock, as Canada is usually presented by the establishment as playing more of a ’peace keeping’ and ’rebuilding’ role militarily. But the grim reality of the war in Afghanistan is coming home, with a growing death toll of Canadian soldiers and the recent torture claims, which are blatantly being covered up by the Conservative government.

The failure of the opposition parties to provide an alternative to these issues is no surprise. They offer no alternative to the system of capitalism, which is the cause of these problems.

Therefore, the task of beginning the building a new democratic, fighting party, run by and for the working-class, falls on the shoulders of the best activists in the unions, and socialists, community activists etc.

Many jobs which have been lost in the recent recession, such as in the car and manufacturing industry, were better paid and in many cases provided better working conditions because they were fought for and won by working class people. The loss of these jobs is therefore also a loss for the organised working class. It brings home the need for a fighting socialist alternative more urgently than ever. These ‘failing’ industries should be taken into public ownership and control, under the democratic management and control of the working class, as should the big banks and the other major planks of the economy.

The CWI in Canada and Quebec campaigns for a socialist alternative, in opposition to all the pro-capitalist parties, for a new mass party of the working class. We fight for jobs for all, a living wage and fully-funded health, education and other vital public services. We also campaign for real democratic rights, including the ending of undemocratic powers, such as the prime minister’s power to suspend parliament, which are held in reserve to defend the interests of capitalist parties in power and the ruling class, as a whole.

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February 2010