Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Gordon Campbell and the Rule of Law

BC, Strikes and the Rule of Law

The teachers' union in BC is on strike and it certainly does not seem to be going well for the union. The government of the day passed legislation, imposing a settlement (0% increase) on the teachers and making labour action on their part illegal. When the teachers defined this ban, the government imposed further penalties, had union assets frozen, and went to the courts in an effort to force the teachers back to work. BC Premier Gordon Campbell says he will negotiate with the teachers but only after they return to work. He tells them that they must obey the law and that, in a society based on the rule of law, they cannot pick and chose which laws they will obey. I want to maintain an objective demeanour here, but ... Premier Cambell has no idea what the rule of law means and his statements are a perversion of an important value. Quite simply he is twisting the whole idea of the rule of law for his own partisan purposes. I find it disturbing, almost enranging. I expect political figures to lie, cheat, and steal. Not all of them. In fact, only a small minority. I respect most political figures in Canada. Let me be clear: most of them are well-meaning, hard-working individuals who are committed to performing an important public service. They don't deserve the cynicism that greats them almost daily in the press. Yet, when an important individual like Premier Campbell manipulates the such an important ideal as the rule of law to accomplish his own political aims, well, one can begin to understand where at lesat some of the cynicism comes from.

Let's start by setting the record straight. The ideal of the rule of law is not about obeying whatever law a government decides to impose. Stalin's communists had laws that sent people to gulags. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had laws. Hittler's Nazis had laws. According to the logic of Premier Campbell's argument, we would have no choice. If we believed in the rule of law, we would have to obey these laws. Is there anyone other than Premier Campbell who believes that blind acceptance of whatever the government says is the principle standing behind the rule of law? I hope not.

The idea of the rule of law is that government operates by principles and not the whims of leaders or whomever happens to be in power. The idea of the rule of law is that government must obey its own rules. The idea of the rule of law is that leaders cannot set themselves above the law, engaging in actions that for ordinary citizens would be illegal. The idea of the rule of law is that the higher principle of our society are respect by those in power. The idea of the rule of law is that those accused of a crime have the opportunity to defend themselves before they are considered to be guilty and that the alleged crimes for which they are charged do not contravene higher principles established by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or other foundational documents of the Canadian political community.

I ask this: have the teachers done anything that contravenes these ideals? They have exercised their right to freedom of assembly, free association, right of free speech. The BC government has attacked this principle by freezing the assets of their union. In so doing, it has challenged the the right of free association. By making a particular association of Canadians unable to use their own resources — the unions funds are those of the union members, they raised them and they can do with them as they please. In defense of the rule of law, Premier Campbell's government has then attacked the rule of law and a principle — the right of association — that is as old at the Magna Carta. The government made this strike illegal. It was not illegal to begin with. It required that the government pass a special law. The teachers had the right to strike but, at the last minute, the government removed it and then when the teachers tried to exercise a right they had right up until the government introduced special legislation — let me say this again, the BC government had to introduce a special law that previously did not exist to make the labour action by the teachers illegal — they are called criminals.

This strikes me as very odd. I'd be happy if, in defense of the rule of law, the government of BC stopped passing special laws which make freedom of association illegal. I'd be happy if they would stop passing special laws that make it illegal for people to use their own resources that they themselves have raised. I would suggest that Premier Campbell has it wrong. The right to dissent is fundamental to democracy, the right to consistent legal treatment is too. Special arbitrary laws, attacks on private resources, attacks on freedom of assembly and association are not the stuff of the rule of law. If Premier Campbell tried to defend his conception of the rule of law in my intro Canadian Studies course, he'd fail because he just doesn't know what he's talking about.


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