The Voice of Experience: Bill C-51 allows government too much power

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In the U.S.A., the Founding Fathers believed that the form of government they had successfully rebelled against was not only insensitive to the American colonies’ needs but inherently tyrannical. So they created a system in which the legislative and executive/administrative powers were completely separate, each supreme in its own sphere.

As might have been expected, that invited standoff situations. One such exists now between President Barack Obama and the Republican-dominated Congress.

No doubt it will be resolved, as has been the case in the past, through a less-than-satisfactory compromise, leaving ordinary citizens much relieved and taxpayers a bit poorer. It is not, I think, an admirable form of government.

Canadians, as semi-independent colonies and later as self governing provinces and a national union, kept the British system. Parliament and each provincial legislature is supreme within the area of power bestowed on it at Confederation.

In theory, the monarch’s representatives can refuse to approve legislation, but the contemporary conception of democracy discourages the exercise of this authority, as the King-Byng affair of 1926 and a much more recent case have shown.

I prefer our way to the American, but I recognize that it is open to a more dangerous kind of abuse. Indeed, I would argue that it is being frighteningly abused at this very moment.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers assure us that the wide powers embodied in their Bill C-51, now being debated, will not be used improperly. They say that the measure’s sole purpose is to authorize the government to take action to prevent terrorists from doing things that might harm Canada or any of its citizens.

However, the bill’s critics — the most vocal of whom are highly reputable people outside Parliament, including some with experience in the national security area — suggest that in an election year Harper and company are simply trying to win votes by assuring the citizenry that Ottawa will keep the country safe, come what may. They contend that existing legislation already gives the government all the power it needs for that job.

That may be true, but it doesn’t follow that we should dismiss Bill C-51 as just a bit of politicking.

For one thing, introducing the bill risks increasing the public’s anxiety about security unnecessarily. More importantly, however, there is nothing to stop the government from using the bill’s powers for purely partisan ends — that is, simply against legitimate activities that they dislike.

We have every reason to worry on that score. In recent years, Harper has shown himself to be not above breaking Parliament’s unwritten rules — and even, on occasion, written laws — to gain his own ends,

A prime minister who has thus shown himself to scorn the degree of restraint that is required if our system of democracy is to work as it should is not to be trusted with a blank cheque like Bill C-51.

Almost as alarming is the failure of enough of the Conservative MPs to refuse to support Harper’s undemocratic behaviour — and, if it comes to that, the lack of vocal objection among the Canadian electorate.

Democracy is indeed in peril in Canada.

Peter Hepher is a retired journalist and Creston’s 2014 citizen of the year. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.