Paul Martin’s Liberals won the 2004 election, but they almost didn’t.
Polls showed the Conservative Party in the lead for a big chunk of the race. Late in the campaign, the Tory lead disappeared in the wake of some controversial comments on justice and social issues.
MP Randy White was caught on tape saying “To heck with the courts”. MP Cheryl Gallant compared abortion to terrorist beheadings in Iraq. And leader Stephen Harper refused to apologize for a party press release that claimed Paul Martin supported child pornography.
The comments – along with the fact that the Conservative Party was a new party, running in an election before deciding on its official policies – allowed Martin to claim Harper had a hidden agenda. On election day, the Liberals squeaked back into office with a minority government.
Fast forward 18 months to last winter’s election race. Harper’s Conservatives ran a much smoother campaign – one that brought them to power with a minority government of their own. But some say their victory could have been greater if Harper hadn’t caused one bump in the road with a statement he made shortly before election day. In an apparent effort to assure voters that he did not have a scary hidden agenda, he said that it didn’t matter anyhow, because Liberal-appointed judges and a Liberal-appointed bureaucracy would keep a Conservative government in check.
Being in power does a lot to deflect claims that one has a a hidden agenda, because the agenda is out there for all to see. Since the election, Harper and his justice minister Vic Toews have introduced legislation that some say sets them apart from their predecessors.
Harper promised to crack down on crime and his government has introduced much criminal justice legislation, including mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, a “reverse onus” clause on bail for those accused of some crimes and a “three strikes you’re out” bill for dangerous offenders
The government has attempted to reverse some of the justice policies of the previous government, including shelving Liberal plans to decriminalize cannabis possession and holding – and losing – a vote this week to reopen the same-sex marriage debate.
Finally, the government has attempted to change the way judges are selected in Canada, by holding public hearings for Supreme Court nominees and changing the makeup of advisory boards that pick judges.
Both of these measures were criticized by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Beverly McLachlan. And other critics say that these measures especially point to an agenda that aims to limit the Charter-given power of judges, and move that power back into the hands of Parliament.