And his party is jettisoning conservative principles
over what it thinks will win it votes

Someone once said power corrupts. It also seems to cause amnesia. Just consider the case of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, since achieving power, seems to have forgotten that he was once a staunch defender of free expression.

Certainly, Harper defended free speech in the days when he was still president of the National Citizens Coalition. Back then, he believed in free speech so much that he actually launched a constitutional court challenge to overturn Canada’s election gag law.

This gag law – enacted by former prime minister Jean Chretien – imposed severe restrictions on how much money citizens or independent groups could spend on “election advertising” to promote political opinions. Under this law, it would essentially be illegal for socially conservative organizations to mount any kind of effective ad campaign during federal elections on issues like same-sex “marriage” or abortion.

Clearly, the gag law stifles free election speech. That’s why NCC president Stephen Harper wanted it overturned; he saw it (rightly) as a draconian infringement on a key individual freedom.

So why has Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed to scrap the gag law or at least reform it to make it a less severe infringement on our freedoms? Has he suddenly forgotten that infringing on free speech is wrong?

And it’s not just that Harper is leaving a Liberal gag law on the books. What’s even worse is that he has actually decided to impose a gag law of his own called the Federal Accountability Act. This act makes it illegal for individuals to contribute more than $1,000 to a candidate or political party. And yes, imposing legal limits on what individuals can contribute to a political party or candidate certainly counts as a gag law. It is, in fact, a serious assault on free speech.

When I make a contribution to a political party I am making a political statement. For Harper to limit my right to donate my own money to my own political cause is to limit my democratic right of expression. Harper, given his past history in defending free expression, should realize this.

Likewise, he should also realize why it’s wrong for Human Rights Commission bureaucrats to have the power to censor Canadians. Indeed, in his NCC days, Harper once declared, “Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society … It is, in fact, totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff.”

Yet today, as prime minister, he seems to find have forgotten his fear.

For instance, Harper has remained silent as overzealous HRC investigators target people like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, both of whom stand accused of violating Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits speech “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” Levant, it was alleged, may have violated this section when he published the Danish cartoons; Steyn, when he wrote about demographics.

If ever there was a case of outrageous government censorship, this is it.

Indeed, the Levant/Steyn saga has even led Liberal MP Keith Martin to introduce a private member’s bill to kill Section 13(1), precisely because it gives the government too much power to suppress free speech.

How have the Harper-led Tories responded to all this?

Well it has been reported that the justice minister sent out a secret memo to all Conservative MPs, essentially telling them to change the subject whenever Section 13(1) is brought up.

As Kathy Shaidle noted in a National Post column, it’s “too bad the PMO’s response to citizens’ concerns about the erosion of their free speech rights is to issue a (secret) document, telling our elected representatives to keep quiet or change the subject.”

Yes, it’s too bad, but given Harper’s new stance on gag laws, hardly surprising.

Why does he no longer stand up for free expression?

Of course, it’s not really amnesia. It’s politics.

Harper and his political brain trust have come up with a strategy they call “incrementalism,” meaning they will only advance conservative ideals in tiny, incremental, baby-sized steps. Mind you, if the Tories conclude that conservative ideals might frighten or otherwise offend Canadian voters, they won’t be advanced at all.

Any conservative principle, in other words, that is deemed to stand in the way of winning votes is quickly jettisoned.

That’s why you never hear Prime Minister Harper really espouse conservative values – any conservative values. That’s why the Conservative government sometimes acts like a Liberal government. And that’s why Prime Minister Harper refuses to defend free expression.

Unfortunately, in his mind, defending individual freedom is just another conservative principle that must be sacrificed for the sake of winning power.

How sad.

Gerry Nicholls is a senior fellow with the Democracy Institute and former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition.