The Harper government has come under fire after Elections Canada’s announcement in February that it had traced fraudulent phone calls made during the last federal election to an Edmonton-based call centre that worked for the Conservative Party in ridings across the country.
Elections Canada launched an investigation after receiving thousands of election day complaints from Guelph, one of 18 ridings in which voters received harassing or deceptive phone calls designed to discourage turnout. Guelph was the focus of a particularly tight race between the Conservatives and Liberals.
In cases of harassment, voters received messages purportedly from Liberal Party campaign workers at dinner hours, late at night, or on the Sabbath for Jewish voters.
In other instances, purely deceptive tactics were used. On election day, voters in Guelph received a message, apparently from Elections Canada, informing them that their polling stations had moved. Such disinformation led to chaotic scenes at polls and in many instances discouraged voters from casting their ballots at all.
Elections Canada traced the calls to Racknine Inc., a call centre that worked for the Conservative Party’s national campaign and the campaigns of at least nine Conservative candidates, including Stephen Harper’s own race in Calgary Southwest.
The “robocall” allegations have led to a flurry of accusations and denials on Parliament Hill. Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister has strenuously denied any allegations of wrongdoing, asserting that “the Conservative Party...has no role in any of this.” His party’s MPs, meanwhile, have fired back at a variety of targets.
Conservative backbencher Maurice Vellacott suggested that Elections Canada voter lists were flawed. Harper’s parliamentary secretary Dean Del Mastro, taking a lead from his boss, turned the tables by arguing it was in fact the opposition parties who had been conducting a sleaze campaign. Del Mastro accused Liberal MP Joe Volpe of hiring a North Dakota-based automated calling company during the federal election. Del Mastro’s accusations have subsequently been proven false. But, voters in Volpe’s riding did receive harassing phone calls that were traced to a North Dakota area code.
Harper’s former chief of staff Guy Giorno went on the offensive, self-righteously proclaiming to the Toronto Star that “suppression of vote is a despicable, reprehensible practice and everybody ought to condemn it...I wish Godspeed to Elections Canada and the RCMP investigators. We want them to get to the bottom of this and let’s hope the full weight of the law is applied.”
To date, Elections Canada has received a massive 31,000 complaints related to the federal election. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the chief electoral officer of Canada from 1990 to 2007, described the level of complaints as unprecedented; the agency typically receives between 500 and 1,200 complaints per election.
The robocalls fiasco underscores the hypocrisy that underlies the facade of bourgeois democracy. The Canadian government, like its counterpart in the United States, parades around the world as a self-appointed expert in freedom and democracy, even running overseas “democracy training” programs.
We are told that we live in a thriving democratic society in which everyone’s vote counts. As Canadian workers increasingly realize, this Schoolhouse Rock conception of how government works is largely myth, yet it remains enshrined in ruling class dogma.
After the latest scandal came to light, the universal reaction among bourgeois analysts was to condemn it as an isolated instance of corruption in an otherwise functional democracy. “This is a direct affront to the very foundation of our system,” said Kingsley. “We’re talking now about the very core of it.”
But contrary to the proclamations of bourgeois moralists, such corruption is not an exception in an otherwise fair and democratic system. Rather, it is the inevitable consequence of a system that is unfair at its core.
In his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels noted:
The democratic republic no longer officially recognizes differences of property. Wealth here employs its power indirectly, but all the more surely. It does this in two ways: by plain corruption of officials, of which America is the classic example, and by an alliance between the government and the stock exchange.
Engels went on to describe universal suffrage as merely another instrument of bourgeois rule:
Universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more, in the present-day state; but that is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know what to do.
The robocalls scandal has led to a visceral sense of anger among the Canadian working class and brought it that much closer to boiling point. Demonstrations have already taken place in Ottawa and Vancouver. At the time of writing, more protests are planned in Toronto and Calgary.
The bourgeois parties’ involvement in the robocalls has deepened a growing sense among Canadian workers that their democracy is a sham. The anger against the robocalls recalls the widespread protests that accompanied Harper’s repeated prorogations of Parliament.
Harper first prorogued Parliament in 2008 to defeat the proposed Liberal-NDP Coalition. At the end of 2009, Harper again prorogued Parliament, ostensibly to keep the legislature in recess for the duration of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. But the move was widely seen as an attempt to distract attention from revelations of Afghan detainee abuse. 20,000 people across the country protested Harper’s blatantly anti-democratic move.
In each case, the Conservative leader turned to an unelected representative of an unelected monarch, the Queen of England, to shut down the democratically-elected Parliament. As Fightback pointed out in 2010, any such move by an opponent of Western imperialism, such as Hugo Chavez, would be endlessly decried in the bourgeois press as an authoritarian affront to democracy.
Many commentators have suggested that the robocalls scandal may represent Harper’s “Nixon moment.” Indeed, there are many parallels between the two leaders in terms of their obsessive desire for secrecy and total control. However, objective conditions have changed greatly in the past four decades.
Today, the capitalist system is in crisis everywhere. Credit was used for decades to artificially extend the postwar boom, but the 2008 crisis indicated that the economic day of reckoning could be postponed no further. At present there is nothing on the agenda for workers but austerity, layoffs, cuts and poverty.
Workers now broadly perceive the blatant inequality of the system. If the bank bailouts illustrated that the wealthy have incomparably greater sway over elected politicians than ordinary workers, anti-democratic moves like prorogation and the robocalls have thrown into doubt one of the most cherished myths propagated by the ruling class: that the Canadian form of government is fair and democratic.
The suppression of democracy in Canada is only an expression of a deeper crisis within the system. The Occupy movement struck a chord in its depiction of a battle between the long-suffering majority in society and an obscenely wealthy minority that controls the levers of power. An ever increasing number of workers and youth realize that, in truth, the vast majority of Canadians have little say over the political process.
Record low turnouts in recent elections are an expression of the instinctual feeling among Canadian workers that their votes do not count, that no matter which party wins the banks and corporations decide policy. The robocalls scandal, like prorogation, is only the clearest manifestation of the contempt that the ruling elite has always held for democracy, which is favoured only when it is convenient.
Any movement against the anti-democratic actions of the government, whether real or alleged, will inevitably find itself awash in opportunists from the Liberal Party and elsewhere. The NDP and the unions must put themselves at the forefront of the fight by making concrete demands that illustrate the connection between economic and political democracy.
So long as a tiny minority controls the wealth of society, the notion that we live in anything approaching a real democracy will always remain a farce. True democracy can only be attained when the majority of the population, in the form of the working class, gains control over the economy and runs it democratically for the benefit of all.