I have a good friend in Calgary who boasts that he never picks up after his dog. “When my dog poops, it stays where it lays,” he explains. “I don’t care who steps in it!”
Considering who he is, this is a genuinely shocking admission. We’re talking here about pretty much the most law-abiding person you’ll ever meet. He hasn’t had a speeding ticket in more than 30 years, pays his taxes fully and on time, and he refuses to pull into a handicapped spot, even for a minute at 2 in the morning!
What’s with this?
My friend explains that he used to work for a Calgary business that was bought by an out-of-province businessman. The workers got worried about their future and voted to join a union, as is their right under the law in Alberta. What didn’t occur to them until it was much too late was that there really isn’t any labour law in Alberta if an employer doesn’t feel like obeying it.
Now, my friend wasn’t the union type, but he figured, what the heck, his co-workers had legally voted for a union, so he’d stand with them. That was the right thing to do, but maybe not the smart thing for a guy in his late forties with children, a career and debts to pay.
You see, the way it works in this province – and not just in the realm of labour law – is that the law applies to most of us, but it doesn’t apply to friends of the government. Or so my friend sees it. “The company refused to negotiate in good faith. They provoked a strike. They broke every rule and regulation imaginable. The legal authorities did nothing. We heard that they were laughing at us and hoping our lives would be destroyed in the premier’s office. The owners got away with it. They busted our union, got rid of most of us and took our pensions. Nobody gave a damn.”
The bosses’ attitude, he explains, was that they were unlikely to be caught breaking the law. If they were caught, the party in power supported them and the laws were weak – they could afford the penalties, such as they were.
On the other hand, he noted, if the union ever broke a rule, the authorities slapped them down, and quickly.
Now, there’s a concept called “the Rule of Law.” The rule of law is the principle that no one – no one – is above the law. Halsbury’s Laws of England explains the rule of law at length. Here’s an excerpt: “…every official from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen.”
“In Alberta?” My friend scoffs: “Rule of law doesn’t exist here, except at the federal level. A friend of the Tories can break any law he wants – if murder was a provincial statute, they’d get away with that!” I know environmentalists right here in St. Albert who feel pretty much the same way about how the province’s laws are enforced.
The federal Conservative minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper hails, philosophically speaking, from Alberta. Harper, an Alberta MP himself, sees the way Alberta does business as a model for all of Canada. They also have a lot of time for the American Republicans – swift-boating, vote-suppressing, lobbyist-pandering and all.
So it is appalling, but hardly shocking, to read in the Globe and Mail this morning that yesterday 11 senior Conservatives failed to show up for a House of Commons committee investigating a controversial election-financing scheme. Two of them refused to respond to a summons, the Globe reported, while several others ran and hid to keep bailiffs from serving them.
Earlier this week, the Globe also reported, three other witnesses who were official campaign agents for sitting MPs didn’t bother to appear despite having been summoned.
This is pretty obviously contempt for the law and contempt for Parliament, too. But then, why not? The government’s on their side. They’re unlikely to get caught. If they are, there likely won’t be any penalties. If there are penalties, they can afford them.
Moreover, the rewards for their contempt may be significant, politically speaking. Without a specific hearing to tie it to, a scandal in which they are implicated may never be reported in the lead-up to a general election by a compliant, lazy, right-wing news media.
In other words, the law is only for little people – like you and me.
Opposition MPs say they want to call a separate inquiry into whether Mr. Harper’s Conservatives actively plotted to obstruct the work of the committee. Good idea. And good luck with it!
One New Democrat MP – not from Alberta, obviously – was quoted as saying the Conservatives contempt for Parliament “sets a terrible, terrible precedent for all future committees if people can … ignore a summons.”
Well, that it does. But that’s the idea. That’s the Alberta way, as my friend discovered to his horror when he went on legal strike in this province and learned that the law has no meaning if an employer feels like disobeying it.
So my law-abiding friend decided that what’s good for the goose is good, in a small way, for the gander. When he walks his dog, what’s left behind gets left behind. “Just like my former employer,” he says, naming a well-known business person, “I’m unlikely to get caught. If I do get caught, I’m unlikely to be punished. If I am punished, I can afford the fine. So to hell with it!”
“Thanks to my former boss and me,” my friend concludes, “Calgary’s just a slightly poopier place than it used to be.” (Actually, my friend uses a somewhat less fastidious word than “poop.”)
And that’s the problem with contempt for the law and governments that allow it to happen. It breeds more contempt for the law. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll music, comic books and beer sales in grocery stores, contempt for the law really does start to break down what makes a society civilized.
From yesterday’s events, we can see clearly that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives are a party that holds the rule of law in contempt, that believes the rules that apply to the rest of us shouldn’t apply to them.
If Canadians elect a Conservative majority government in Ottawa, Canada will be left a poopier place than it used to be.