In a world where the political directions of Right and Left make less and less sense, one direction continues to hold some meaning. The Far Right, at least in North America, still conjures up with some accuracy visions of an ideology that opposes gender equality, abortion, same-sex marriage, government-subsidized child care programs, and just about everything else that has been hard-won by women's rights and minority rights activists over the past three decades.
So it should not have come as any surprise to Canadians when its new, minority neo-Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, cut $5 million from the $13 million budget of its own federal agency, Status of Women Canada; it also removed the word "equality" from the agency's mandate. The government also announced that organizations would no longer be eligible for funding for advocacy, government lobbying, or research projects - although funding to REAL Women (a right-wing women's organization supporting so-called "family values") and faith-based groups would apparently continue.
Nor should it have come as any surprise that this government is cancelling funding for the Court Challenges Program, arguably disadvantaged and marginalized groups' best chance to challenge this body blow to their rights in Canada.
The cuts to Status of Women Canada, still described on its website as an agency "to promote gender equality and the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country", appear to support what are widely seen as this government's views that women's equality is no longer an issue in Canada.
Dolly William, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said that this government "is simply applying Conservative Party ideology to propagate the notion that women have reached equality. This is especially puzzling when only 7 of the 27 of Harper's cabinet are women. Is this what they mean by equality?" It is also puzzling given that the Canadian government's own figures show that the average income of women aged 16 and over from all sources in 2003 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) was 62 per cent of that of men. (Source: Women in Canada. A Gender-based Statistical Report. 2006. Statistics Canada)
The Court Challenges Program is a national non-profit organization funded by the Canadian government, set up in 1978 to provide financial assistance for important court actions that advance language and equality rights guaranteed under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Cancelling the Court Challenges Program is a good move for any government opposed to equality rights, for it has provided one of the primary underpinnings for court challenges that have advanced French language rights, aboriginal rights, women's rights, gay rights, disability rights and the rights of other vulnerable and disenfranchised peoples in Canada.
These cuts were not made in order to save money. They were announced at the same time that it was announced that 100 per cent of Canada's $13.2 billion surplus was being used to pay down the national debt. These cuts are entirely ideological in nature.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), an independent, non-partisan research institute that examines issues of social and economic justice from a progressive perspective, is critical of Canadian government priorities of speeding up debt reduction at the expense of social and other needed programs. "Canada is hoarding unprecedented economic wealth while human insecurity - at home and abroad - deepens," wrote the CCPA of the previous Liberal government's debt-payment schedule in the face of enormous spending cuts.
The current Conservative government's decision to spend the entire surplus on paying down the debt, while at the same time eliminating funding for equality-seeking, democracy-enhancing agencies makes the previous Liberal government seem like a bastion of democratic engagement.
These organizations and programs were not eliminated because they were not doing effective work. On the contrary, they were eliminated because they were doing effective work - work that this government does not want done.
At a recent meeting of a mainstream international aid organization, the CCPA executive director commented on the dramatic difference between this government and its Liberal predecessor. "With the previous government", he said, "no matter what our differences, we were always welcomed at the table. They may not always have implemented our policy suggestions, but they considered us legitimate players in the game, and always listened to what we had to say. This government is completely different. They do not care what we have to say and they do not want to hear it. It doesn't matter how many voices are raised in protest against their policies or how good their suggestions are. They don't want to know, because they already know everything. Public input is simply not of interest to them."
That is what is different about the Far Right agenda and the Far Right's approach to policy development. And it appears to be one more thing that the Harper government has in common with the Bush government: democracy is only as deep as the last election. If the electorate elected them, then this must be democracy. Any further discourse is not only beside the point; it gets in the way of getting the job done.
Canada is a democratic country where the Charter of Rights and Freedoms often speaks in the voice of the disenfranchised and where the judiciary can make decisions independent of whatever government is in power. It is frustrating for a government that knows exactly what it wants to do and how to do it, to have to suffer dissenting voices. It is tempting to silence those pesky dissenting voices, especially when it can be done in the name of efficiency, "fat-trimming", and government accountability. Who in their Right mind, after all, would argue that government should fund the voices that question them? Isn't that what elections are for?