This morning CBC Radio called me to do an interview about Bills 45 and 46—the Alberta government’s recent legislation aimed at punishing illegal strikes in the public sector and imposing a wage settlement on civil servants. I had a scheduling conflict so we pre-taped the interview.
When I was listening to the final interview, I found they had edited out a part where I indicated that Bill 45 was anti-democratic, both in its content (it stifles free speech and civil disobedience) and the manner of its passage (the Tories are ramming it through with minimal debate despite there being no need for haste).
After querying CBC about the edit, they explained that they found my use of the term “fascist” to be “too strong for the conversation we were having.”
Now, hell, I like irony.
For example, when the province promised a 2% boost to PSE funding, delivered a 7% cut, and then restored a third of the cut and the Deputy Premier tweeted “promises made, promises kept”, I had a good chuckle. (At least I assume he was being ironic.)
But censoring criticism of legislation that itself seeks to censor criticism is a bit much, no? Generally I like the CBC crew—they tend to be pretty balanced and open to hearing opinions you don’t hear amid the mindless community boosterism of most local media. So I was a bit taken aback at the censorship.
After giving it some thought, it seems to me that the term fascist tends to make folks pretty anxious. During the interview, for example, CBC played a clip from NDP leader Brian Mason wherein he danced all over the map to avoid directly saying the legislation was fascist (“unprecedented in Canada”, “Draconian”, etc.). Maybe internet angst over Godwin’s law (where the first person to invoke the Nazis looses an argument) has made us leery of the term fascist.
So was I took quick to hit the Nazi button when I characterized Bill 45 as fascist?
Well, fascism is a complex subject. Yet common features of fascist governments include the suppression of trade union liberty, using parliamentary politics to destroy parliamentary democracy, and a police apparatus that prevents, controls and represses dissidence and opposition.
With Bill 45, the Redford Tories are using parliamentary processes to repress trade union liberty. Specifically, Bill 45 will dramatically penalize unions, their organizers and their members for undertaking acts fundamental to trade union activity and democratic discourse, such as talking about illegal strikes and expressing political protest through collective actions (such as illegal strikes).
Bill 45 draws the Labour Board and the Court system into the mix by compelling them to impose outrageous and disproportionate sanctions upon workers, journalists, academics and trade unionists for under-taking Charter protected actions (anyone remember freedom of speech and freedom of association)? Bill 45 clearly violates such constitutional protections but, until struck down, it will be the law of the land and thereby repress dissidence and opposition.
Indeed, Bill 45 is clearly political retribution against the trade union (and AUPE in particular) movement for embarrassing the government with wildcat strikes in health care and correctional services. The average Alberta is going to see that meaningful protest will result in subsequent and severe persecution. That can’t be good for democratic discourse.
And Bill 45 will be rushed through the parliamentary process as quickly as possible, thereby stifling debate. There was no real notice of this legislation. And debate has been truncated. There is no real reason for this rush. There aren’t any wildcat strikes going on or looming (although Bill 45 may in fact trigger them…). The rush here is entirely political—the government is seeking to minimize the debate and the political damage the legislation will cause them.
There are lots of historical examples of union suppression among fascist regimes. Hitler arrested trade union officials and confiscated their funds in 1933 because they posed a threat to his power (hmmm… sounds a bit like Bill 45). In Francoist Spain, the government directly set wages (which is what Bill 46 does) and strikes were forbidden (which the Public Service Employee Relations Act does). Illegal strikes were met with brutal police repression, including imprisonment and beatings (Bill 45 doesn’t go quite that far but its multiple sanctions will cripple unions). In Pinochet’s Chile, trade union rights were restricted and dissidence was repressed. Ditto Communist Poland throughout the 1980s. The list goes on and on.
The point of these examples is not to equate the Redford government with the totalitarian regimes in Chile, Spain and Germany, but rather to demonstrate that trade union repression—through limits on unions’ ability to carry out associational and expression activities—is consistent with fascist treatment of trade unions. And quite contrary to the values enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
While characterizing Bill 45 as fascist may well make CBC’s gentle listeners uncomfortable, it is a discussion that is necessary. And censoring criticism of a bill that censors criticism is both ironic and profoundly undemocratic.
-- Bob Barnetson