He also provided a clear reminder that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance
The predictable post-election criticism of Stephen Harper – even from within his Conservative caucus – fails to acknowledge that we have much to thank the soon-to-be former prime minister for.
Yes, losing the Oct. 19 federal election should rest on the shoulders of Harper and a decade of government decisions. But many Canadians are thankful for the outcome, and happy to credit Harper.
1 Increasing voter turnout
Voter turnout in Canada has been declining for decades. It dropped to 59 per cent, the lowest ever, in 2008 and only recovered slightly, to 61 per cent in 2011.
Since the Conservative’s Fair Elections Act prevents Elections Canada from mounting a campaign to encourage young voters or First Nations voters, others stepped into the breach.
Defeating the Conservative government would appear to be a strong driver of the spike in voter turnout. From non-partisan appeals to youth by indie band July Talk, to clear attempts to get people to vote against the Conservatives by bands like Blue Rodeo and Yukon Blonde, youth were urged to exercise their franchise. In First Nations communities, Rock the Indigenous Vote organizers were successful in increasing voter participation.
And despite concerns that provisions in the Fair Elections Act would make it difficult for some electors to provide adequate identification, turnout was 69 per cent on Oct. 19, up almost eight percentage points from the last election.
2 Forcing Canadians to contemplate existential questions
Stephen Harper tried to focus the Conservative message almost exclusively on the economy but other issues landed with a thud on the campaign trail. The Syrian refugee crisis and wearing of a niqab during citizenship ceremonies forced fundamental values and multiculturalism onto the agenda. A spirited defence of Canadian diversity was provoked by the Conservative government’s reaction to the niqab issue and its proposal to introduce a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline.
It was encouraging to hear ordinary Canadians articulate what is important to them: diversity, inclusiveness and the values set out in the Charter of Rights. Perhaps Harper sincerely believed that Canadians were brainwashed by the “chattering classes:” academics, journalists and other politically correct do-gooders. But after this grueling campaign, I believe we can lay that myth to rest.
3 Alerting us to the dangers that lurk in our parliamentary system
The British-style parliamentary system confers almost unlimited powers on a majority government. This is especially troublesome given that, during Harper’s time in power, the prime minister’s dominance over the executive branch reached alarming proportions.
Our system does not have the checks and balances present in the American presidential system; it rests on a host of conventions and traditions inherited from Britain. These are not legally binding and can be exploited for partisan gain in unprecedented ways, for instance when Harper asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid a vote of confidence.
4 Awakening two sleeping giants
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson observed that Harper “awoke a sleeping giant” in First Nations communities because they turned out in great numbers to vote against him.
For the first time, aboriginal leaders across Canada arranged for buses to take people on reserves to polling stations. Previously, some indigenous people felt that participating in federal elections compromised their sovereignty.
Having succeeded in electing a record 10 First Nations candidates on Oct. 19, you would expect the giant will stay awake!
It appears that another sleeping giant, Canadian youth, was also jolted into action. Although there are no official figures, it is believed that young people were very active in this election. From selfies at polling stations to anecdotal reports of youth voting in advance polls, it would appear that a group whose apathy has caused anxiety in the past has seized the baton.
5 Making us realize how fragile democracy is
Recent low voter turnout demonstrates that many Canadians had become complacent about democracy. However, Harper strained the democratic sinews to the limit over the past decade and the people took note. His government is the only one in history to be found in contempt of Parliament. It passed massive omnibus bills and retroactive legislation, and, as the Sen. Mike Duffy affair revealed, engaged in unsavoury practices behind the scenes.
Canadians should be thankful that Stephen Harper pushed the envelope – he provided a clear reminder that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.
By Doreen Barrie
Doreen Barrie is a Political Scientist at the University of Calgary.