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Opinion

Life Under Harper's Majority

A dozen high profile BC voices weigh risks, opportunities in the new political landscape.

By Tyler Harbottle and Jamie Williams 9 May 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tyler Harbottle and Jamie Williams are pursuing a Master's degree at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism and completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Canada's political map, redrawn.

It's been a week since voters drastically altered the Canadian political reality. A majority Harper government. A Layton-led NDP official Opposition. What opportunities and risks lie ahead? What lessons were learned, or need to be? The Tyee asked 12 influential people in British Columbia. Here is what they told us.

WHO'S THE REAL STEPHEN HARPER?

Matt Mills, Editor, Xtra Magazine

"One of the things that I'm looking forward to is that we're going to find out what Stephen Harper is going to do, given the influence he gains from having a majority government. That has been the $64,000 question from the outset -- what his real intentions are, what he would really do. He's such a mercurial guy.  

"I don't imagine that we'll see movement on the criminalization of HIV, which is something that has gotten out of control. In Canadian jurisprudence, our nation has very much lost on this matter, and I don't think we're going to find constructive solutions under a Conservative government because they don't have a history of that sort of forward thinking.

"I think it's important to underscore that this is not the end of the world, that the sky is not going to fall, that the Conservatives are dedicated to their vision of Canada. It's not doom and gloom and destruction for everybody. It's just a little disappointing, that's all."

IF YOU'RE POOR, BRACE FOR WORST

Jean Swanson, Coordinator, Carnegie Community Action Project

"The Canada Health and Social Transfer expires in 2014, and that's the law by which the feds transfer money to the provinces for health and education. Will (Harper) use that to further privatize those two areas? The expiry of that is a real risk.

"The whole idea (Harper) has of smaller government and the whole message he has to help families by tax reduction serves only people who already have enough, at the expense of people who don't. It only promotes more inequality, because the higher the tax bracket you are, the more help you get. So if you are poor, income tax cuts don't help you at all and just promotes more inequality.

"And of course, there is all kinds of research that shows that inequality causes all kinds of social problems.

"We desperately need housing, and we desperately need a national housing program and (Harper) is against that. He'll cough up a drib and drab here and there. We did get the $1.4 billion (in 2006), but that was what he had to pay to keep the government going, because the NDP negotiated for that. Now the NDP doesn't have the power to negotiate because the Tories are the majority.

"We used to have 600 units of housing a year built in Vancouver -- a year! That was the average over the '80s and the '90s. That is a possibility. We can do that. We are rich. All we need is a different way of organizing things."

A SENSE OF BALANCE

Bernie Magnan, Chief Economist, Vancouver Board of Trade

"Whenever you have a majority government, you always have to remember that everything you do you has to be approached from a balanced perspective. What is in the best interest of business and the citizens of Canada in terms of job creation, in terms of affordable housing, in terms of other policies -- both economic and social -- that they would want to enact or look at working on?

"The fact that we have the first majority government in a number of years is a good thing in a number ways, because there can be some policies enacted which you can only really do under a majority government."

A 'PERVERSE' ELECTORAL SYSTEM

Shannon Daub, Communications Director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

"It's not so much the Conservative majority that gives me hope. It's the fact that 60 per cent of the vote was for parties other than the Conservatives, and yet we ended up with a majority government. So it's the perverse outcome of our first-past-the-post system that has been highlighted for people in a way that is perhaps more stark than ever before. The fact that it produced this outcome is going to create a lot of interest and hopefully broad-based support for adopting a better electoral system over time.

"This may be our opportunity to push for electoral reform. Now's the time. There are a few options that could work, from a proportional representation, to a mixed proportional representation and multi-party system to a single transferable ballot.

"There are a lot of things that were done in the previous mandate that I have serious concerns about. The tax cuts that were handed out over the last several years to corporations were not only unnecessary, but part of what contributes to the federal deficit.

"The CCPA has done a lot of research in this area and what our research has shown is that corporate tax cuts are not a job creation strategy and are not going to drive a solid economic recovery for Canada."

'NEW BLOOD' BRINGS HOPE

Kaitlin Fontana, Writer and Comedian

"I'm scared of some of the things that could be done -- scared as a woman, as an artist.

"On the night of learning that there was a Harper government, my first reaction was shock. But once the dust settled and I knew what else was going on, there was a huge injection of hope. I mean, the 'Harper majority,' as a phrase, is totally scary, but then if you look at the numbers and it's like 39 per cent of people who voted, voted for Harper, I mean that's not many people. And the fact that 30 per cent of people who voted, voted NDP is like, whoa, you know? There is all this new blood being injected into the political system through the NDP.

"I keep hearing from people who are afraid saying that, 'Well, it doesn't matter because the Harper government is going to squash any possibility of dialogue with (the Opposition) anyway.' I just don't think that's true.

"People get that fear because their knowledge of politics comes more from the American system. But our system is not the American system for a very good reason. I think the opportunity exists for that healthy opposition to happen."

CLOSE EYE ON COURTS

Rob Holmes, President, B.C. Civil Liberties Association

"Some of the things that were proposed had been held up in parliamentary committees and Senate committees for study. Things like mandatory minimum sentences and changes to drug policy. Those kinds of things I would expect to get passed by Parliament now after some kind of debate. The Opposition would continue to make points they were making in the previous Parliament, but they won't have the votes. The government will get its way in enacting changes to the criminal and narcotics control laws we have in this country.

"We have obviously the Insite case, which is going to the Supreme Court of Canada. If it's taken as a health matter and a matter pertaining to people's rights, then it's something that would most likely take away federal jurisdiction dealing and put it squarely in the hands of the province to address. The upshot would be that the Insite clinic could stay open, but until we get a final word from the court system on that, the federal government is not likely to shift its position at all.

"Same kind of thing on the polygamy and the prostitution cases. As they wind their way through the courts, it's doubtful to me that the government will actually take hold of those and put through any new legislation on them until the courts come to the conclusion whether they are in whole or in part unconstitutional."

BACK TO DRAWING BOARD

Darcie Bennett, Campaign Director, PIVOT Legal Society

"I think one of the places where we made a lot of progress working in partnership with other groups was around the issue of pushing for a national housing strategy. During the minority government it looked like it might, in fact, pass. But now it will be back to the drawing board, and there was only one Conservative supporting that bill. We are definitely feeling some pessimism about that being able to be revived.

"We did a series of questions for all of the parties to find out what their platforms were on housing around a national housing strategy. We didn't get a response from the Conservatives. We got a response from all of the other parties.

"Other key issues are in the courts right now, including our Sex Work Charter Challenge. We're just going to keep bringing the voices of people in the community forward through any channel that is available to us, whether it is through the media or the legal system."

EXPECT LESS FOR BASIC SCIENCE

David Ng, Faculty, Michael Smith Laboratories, UBC

"The Conservatives in particular tend to value the scientific literature less than the others, things related to climate change in particular.

"I think their official stance might be that they agree with the tenets of climate change science, but their actions might not necessarily conform to that statement. Like the things they do in terms of how they moved away from Kyoto, how they are always changing their emissions targets and how they are biased towards certain projects that might favour big oil, and things like that.

"So even though their official line will be 'this is what the science says, and that's important,' their actions don't really seem to follow that.

"There are certainly some things in the Conservative platform with regards to science that look promising, especially in terms of the funding schematic. They have a number of different funding schemes where money, as opposed to going through certain central granting agencies, will actually go to the institutions themselves. Maybe now with the majority, they will be less political in a sense and just get down to business.

"The Conservatives tend to have a more economic type platform, there tends to be a general favouring for applied or industry type science projects. For those who are in the scientific community, there is real value in making sure that basic science doesn't suffer. Because at the end of the day, the discoveries that come out of basic science -- those are the things that actually fuel the innovations later on, that do have economic benefits."

ENVIRONMENT TRANSCENDS 'POLITICAL STRIPE'

Jeffery Young, Biologist, David Suzuki Foundation

"We know that clean air, water, soil, the basis of our health and our economy is fundamental. So given that Canadians have that interest and concern, we expect any government to act on that and with a majority to act on that strongly.

"There's a real opportunity for Canadians to demand these things from this current government. And we definitely don't think that the environment is an issue that should be viewed as really only associated with one or the other party, that the opportunity and the need is real regardless of your political stripe.

"We do have some concerns as to whether those issues will be properly picked up now.

"There's been reductions in critical Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada staff necessary to just do some of the fundamental responsibilities the government of Canada has around protecting fresh water ecosystems, ensuring that development is well planned and is being pursued in a way that considers the things we rely on. I think the worst fear is that these critical needs are not addressed, that the opportunity given a majority government, given the strong opposition, that these critical issues aren't well addressed at all."

CANADA POISED TO BE 'DISMANTLED'

Jim Sinclair, President, BC Federation of Labour

"The Conservative government that's been elected with a majority now, a lot will depend on what it decides to do. It can govern from the centre or it can move on with its agenda -- buy more planes, to give more tax cuts, to spend billions of dollars on things that people don't want, including more prisons.

"The labour movement will be challenged, as we are in B.C. with the (provincial) government, to not only represent union members but to represent values of all Canadians -- for justice, for fairness, for equality, for environmental sustainability. None of those values are the values of Harper.

"My primary concerns are that with a Tory majority government our country will be dismantled program by program, piece by piece, that the basic values of sharing and caring and medicare and education and environment, all those things will be dramatically cut as we spend more and more money on war and give more money to people with money."

MAJORITY BRINGS CLARITY

Niels Veldhuis, VP of Canadian Policy Research, Fraser Institute

"Certainly they have now an opportunity to deal with what I think is our biggest issue, which is our deficit situation, in a way that they probably couldn't with a minority government.

"There's some important things that are going to come up in the next four years -- I would highlight one being the renegotiation of the Canada Health Accord and what we do with transfers. I think this removes, in part, some of the politicking around that very important issue. Obviously if you're in a minority situation, politics enters into those negotiations more than it would with a majority government."

LEARN, AND UNIFY

Ronald Wright, award-winning Canadian author

"Canada's multi-party democracy has been dying ever since the right united. It is now in the oxygen tent, despite the electoral victories of Jack Layton and Elizabeth May. Without unity of the middle and left, we face one-party rule installed by only four voters in 10. Canada must now become a two-party democracy or will be no democracy at all.

"That's the choice, like it or not.

"Five steps:

1) The drive to create the Liberal Democratic Party of Canada must start right now, while the wounds still hurt.

2) The LDP will bring in the Greens (or at least agree not to compete in certain ridings).

3) For LDP PM: Jack Layton.

4) For LDP Deputy PM and/or Foreign Affairs: Bob Rae.

5) For LDP Minister of Environment: Elizabeth May.

"Stephen Harper has taught us this: unite!"  [Tyee]

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