Osgoode Hall Law School students left Gowlings Hall Thursday afternoon with an array of insight into what the Conservatives have done wrong since coming to power.
Guest speaker and former interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae discussed the imbalance of power in the current government and answered questions from students on everything from immigration, to abortion, to Idle No More.
He said tensions are caused within attempts to “limit power, define power, share power, and protect the rights of the individual.”
Rae believes the Harper government is not on the right track to resolving these tensions.
“The Reform Party believes that Parliament should be sovereign and that should be the end of it. If Parliament decides that a horse is a donkey, a horse is a donkey and it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. And that’s very problematic from the point of view of the rule of law,” he said.
Rae reflected on his time in Sri Lanka, where he met a Japanese government official who inquired about the location of power in the government of Canada.
“He said power has to be in one place,” said Rae, replying, “If it’s only in one place you’ve got a problem because if power is only in one place it tends to be abused. And it’s this problem of abuse that I want to focus on.”
He believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper is central to the current imbalance of power in Canada.
“How do we control the power of the first minister who picks the cabinet, picks the representative of the Crown, picks judges, picks senators, and the only people that the prime minister doesn’t pick are the members of Parliament,” but he still has to approve every candidate?
Rae concluded, “I think that gives a huge amount of power to the leader of the party, a huge amount of power to Mr. Harper. The only effective way to deal with this is for the parties to essentially give up some power and secondly for the prime minister to give up some power.”
That said, Rae does not agree with assertions that Canada is becoming more conservative.
“I’d have to say the most dramatic change that’s taken place is our view about sexual identity,” he said, “In the 1980s the defence of people who were homosexual was based entirely on the rights to privacy. But now we’ve gone from [tolerance] and acceptance to celebration.” He added that our country remains liberal on issues surrounding marijuana, and that “when Prime Minister Chrétien didn’t send our troops to Iraq the support was huge. So, I don’t buy the view that we’ve suddenly become more conservative.”
Rae pointed out, “A lot of Mr. Harper’s dissenters are coming at him from the left as well as from the right,” especially on the issue of abortion. “He basically made a deal with the Canadian people saying ‘give me a majority and I promise you that I will not bring in the abortion debate again.’ So he feels a sense of personal obligation to make sure that he lives up to that. But there was nothing Harper could do about the recent backbench motion to create a committee to determine when life begins and “everybody knew what that was code for,” said Rae.
This led to a question about allegations of Harper silencing his caucus on issues such as abortion.
Rae said, “Does Mr. Harper have a problem within his own caucus? I think he does . . . you have dozens of members who are in favour of new criminal legislation in Canada to deal with the issue of abortion.” Rae said we should not be afraid to reopen the debate, but “a significant majority of Canadians do not believe that this is an area that is appropriate for the criminal law.”
Rae’s critcism wasn’t all for the Conservatives. The increased popularity of the NDP is not based on changes being made within the party, he noted.
“I think people made a big mistake if they read too much into what happened in that last election. I think the last election was particular to the last election. I think there was a deep wave of affection for Jack Layton,” said Rae.
“On the trade agenda,” he went on, “they’re still basically hostile to most motions of markets being more open and markets being freer. The rhetoric is still very much ‘corporations — bad guys; unions — good guys, and ‘what’s your problem?’ This is not a very satisfying recipe for being a potential government. It may be an effective way of being in opposition for a while, but I think even that has its limitations.”
He defended his liberal perspective on the economy, saying we should raise taxes instead of borrowing money.
“The orthodoxy of the Conservative party,” he said, “is that it’s more moral to borrow — this year $25 million — than it is to add a point or two to the GST. I have a real problem with that. I think that the issue of intergenerational equity also has to do with how much debt we’re transferring to future generations.”
Another hot topic of the question period was immigration and Canada’s role on the world stage. He said the Conservative’s reform to immigration law are “going to fail in court.”
He said, “we’ve been too laisez-faire” in dealing with immigrants. “We’ve allowed ourselves to believe that everyone will just make their way,” but at the same time, “we’ve all had experience with people who come to the country believing that something good’s going to happen and it didn’t happen.”
He raised the question of “is it first come, first served? Is it based on ‘we actually want to recruit some of these people and more of these skills than those skills?’ My sense is that we are as a country moving a bit more to the second rather than the first.” But that is also problematic.”
Rae added, “This government does not like the United Nations. They don’t like it as an institution. They don’t even like it as an idea. I think if they could pull out of the UN they would.”
In terms of our own cultural diversity in Canada, Rae called the Idle No More movement “an expression of frustration,” but was quick to point out that aboriginal protesters need to determine “to what extent this new movement takes on a stronger, keener sense of what the objectives are beyond simply that of protest” because “protest movements eventually have to turn positive and have a series of practical objectives that are very focused and very achievable. Otherwise they tend to evaporate.”
In short Rae doesn’t agree the areas of law the Conservatives have focused on. He said they are too concerned with following popular opinion. For instance, Rae said the current version of the Criminal Code is probably three times the size of what it was when he was in law school.
“I think they only way we’re going to be able to deal with the mess that’s been made with the Criminal Code is to have some sort of a law reform commission on the whole Criminal Code.”