6 min

Can we trip Harper?

Tactics available to gays in the next Parliament

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

Given the drama of a federal election — equal parts Beckett and Kabuki, as it turned out — and the stress of a seemingly imminent Stephen Harper majority, many gays and lesbians breathed a deep sigh of relief on election day.

Few, by Oct 14, held out hope for a progressive Hail Mary. But as the results poured in it became increasingly clear that we’d held a majority government at bay. The Conservatives fell short by some dozen seats, thanks to a coalition of strategic voters including artists and environmentalists and — we can address the thank-you notes accordingly — Quebeckers.

But what now?

Can an opposition bench that’s thinner than before fight off whatever bad laws Harper proposes? And can the three nominally progressive parties in the House of Commons push forward on platform planks where they broadly agree?
It’s possible, says Jonathon Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University.

“There are things they can do but they’re tricky, procedurally. There are private member’s bills; there’s also the Senate, which is still Liberal-dominated,” says Malloy.

The Government must set aside 20 days per year for opposition bills and motions but those bills can’t involve allocation of funds. As well the senators can — but rarely do — put forward legislation. Senate bills still have to be passed by MPs before they become law.

Malloy isn’t holding his breath. He suggests that, while the opposition parties may be able to fight off socially regressive legislation, they’re unlikely to work together to tick off items on their own wish lists.

And with the leadership of the Liberal party in play, Malloy says the opposition parties are “probably not prepared” to work together.

But NDP house leader Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver’s Eastside, says they will.

“We have to stand up to” Harper, says Davies. “I hope very much that the opposition will work closely together to defeat bad legislation.”

In the last session the opposition was hamstrung by Harper. His strategy was to make even minor bills into matters of confidence — making MPs choose between bad laws and yet another election.

Usually in a minority the Government consults with opposition parties before introducing major bills, but Harper espoused a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
“He cannot be acting as if he had a majority,” says Davies, an out lesbian. “The biggest issue is does he finally acknowledge that he doesn’t have a majority and will he work with the opposition parties?”

Toronto-area Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett agrees with Davies’ assessment.

“He has to understand that the way he was perceived was not particularly appreciated,” says Bennett. “I hope that he will now have somebody explain to him how parliament is supposed to work.”

Bennett says that in minority governments all parties must “put a little water in the wine,” to find areas of agreement. But that means Harper would have to reach out to the opposition.

“We should put him on notice that we want consultation before the speech from the throne, before the budget, and so on,” she says. “There is going to have to be some compromise, or else the other three parties who agree on lots of things would do a better job.”

Bennett is referring to a coalition government between the Liberals and the NDP, a prospect that had more traction before election day when Canadians elected just 76 Liberals and 37 NDPers. That totals 113 seats, roughly a third of the 308 in the House of Commons. Only with the Bloc Quebecois do they hold the majority of seats.

But Bennett’s point may yet have traction, since focus-group testing by Ensight Canada after the election revealed the obvious: that Canadians want parliamentarians to work together, and they don’t want to go to the polls for a fourth time in five years.

During the last Parliament the Conservatives turned question period into a bitter, partisan circus, where questions on topics ranging from Afghanistan to food safety were answered with jibes at their Liberal predecessors. The vitriol may subside now, a point underscored by Helen Kennedy, the director of Egale, a national queer equality lobby group.

“Canadians are telling them to get over party politics and partisanship,” says Kennedy, who is also a former NDP organizer. “There’s lots of room for consultation and discussion. It’s an opportune time.”

But even when the opposition was in a stronger position in the last Parliament they were too permissive, says Peter Bochove, founder of the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century.

The NDP had some success in watering down Harper’s crime agenda through amendments and the Liberal-dominated Senate gummed up the film censorship bill, stalling it in committee until the election was called.

Still, over and over again, the opposition fell into line — or disappeared from the House — when it was time to vote. In particular the Liberals’ strategy of evacuating the caucus allowed several key bills to pass, including the budget and speech from the throne and the controversial immigration bill.

Bochove is particularly upset by the way the NDP capitulated on a bill to raise the age of consent, although he notes that some members publicly opposed it, including Davies and fellow gay NDP MP Bill Siksay who was the only MP to actually vote against it.

Bochove doesn’t see it getting better in the next Parliament. He says that the Conservatives “have no incentive to hold out an olive branch to the gay community.”

What would it take for progressives to put forward their own legislation?

“It would require a careful coordination between the parties,” says Bochove. “Egos would have to be put aside.”

Rob Teixeira, who was part of the Age of Consent Committee, presented at Senate hearings on the bill. He’s not optimistic about progressive legislation coming forward in the 40th Parliament.

“It is really, really difficult to present a different perspective within this system,” says Teixeira. “I don’t think that the current political climate allows for nuanced debate.”

Teixeira is particularly disturbed by the Conservative plan to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act to increase penalties for teens between 14 and 17 and take away the mandatory publication ban on their names.

“They get conservative capital by stoking fears of youth as out of control and dangerous,” says Teixeira. “It rips agency away from youth, it’s a political fulcrum for conservative parties around the world right now.”

The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois denounced Harper’s plan during the election. The NDP, says Davies, are going to “carefully discuss” the merits of the Conservative plan, but she says that she personally has “problems” with what the Conservatives proposed in their election platform.

If the NDP support the bill it could sail through Parliament. In 2007 the NDP and the Conservatives agreed to increase mandatory minimums on a variety of crimes from four years to five years the first time — and seven years for second and subsequent offences. The Conservatives had originally proposed a 10-year minimum on third offences.

The Liberals, meanwhile, with their leadership up in the air, could again find themselves abstaining or disappearing from votes, as they did during the last session.

And with those scenarios in the cards, neither Teixeira nor Bochove are ready to suggest things would change anytime soon. Teixeira says a direct kind of politics may be the best way forward.

“It may sound like I’m cynical,” he says. “I’m cynical about the party system and Parliament. But I’m not cynical about community activism.”

After all gays have a long history of creating the world they want to live in, regardless of who’s pulling the levers in Ottawa. While gays were frequently the subject of debate in the House of Commons over the last decade, organizers like Teixeira point out that the queer community must also focus its efforts at street level.

But with a long way to go to liberalize Canada’s sex laws and advance social justice, lobbying that’s urgently needed can’t be shelved until the next Liberal government.

Legislative action is needed in reforming the immigration process for gay refugees, to reduce bullying in schools and to end Canada’s ban on gay blood and tissue donors, says Kennedy.

Harper and his opponents could use “palatable” issues to warm up relations when Parliament resumes in November, she says. That might include reinstating the Court Challenges Program which helped equality-seeking groups make arguments before the Supreme Court. The Conservatives axed that program in 2006.

Amending the Canada Human Rights Act to include trans people could also be on the horizon, says Kennedy.

“That would be a goodwill gesture that everyone could get their heads around,” she says.

That amendment has the advantage of not costing any cash, making it easier to pass without the Conservatives’ support. Other non-monetary objectives could include repealing the age of consent for anal sex (currently 18); repealing Canada’s prostitution laws, which also leave bathhouses vulnerable to police action; repealing the seldom-used polygamy prohibition; reversing the criminalization of HIV-transmission; lifting Canada Blood Services’ gay donor ban and ending the Canada Border Services Agency’s antiporn policies.

All of those issues require significant lobbying on the part of progressives of all stripes. So, with the election finally over, the real work begins.