In the 1960s the German philosopher Jugen Habermas wrote a book entitled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. When this book was finally translated around 1990 it helped to spark significant debate in the Anglophone world about what we usually refer to as Civil Society. It is a vague, difficult concept the meaning of which has changed through various historical times but Civil Society essentially refers to the area of society where public debates about norms, standards, ethics, and social goals are discussed and formed through various forms of public discourse. Because of Karl Marx's own use of the term as well as an inherent skepticism about capitalist social realms, many progressives have been understandably dubious about the role that public discourse can play in change and reform, and instead often see civil society as a realm of hegemony, an area of society in which the capitalist order finds legitimacy through falsely portraying its openness and flexibility.
Though I share much of this skepticism, I also think that the Harper decade has taught us something important about the public sphere. Stephen Harper had a number of policy agendas, but in a sense they all revolved around a fundamental effort to shut down discourse in the public sphere. Witness, shutting down debate in the House, muzzling scientists, attacking environmental organizations, ending the court challenges process, effectively shutting down freedom of information, refusing to reveal government financial information, creating and atmosphere of fear not just among government employees but among NGOs in general, etc. etc. Harper knew that it would be very difficult to institute his extreme rightwing agenda unless he could effectively truncate and cripple public debate on as many important issues as possible. The more people could talk about his policies, the more experts, public servants, NGOs, MPs etc could engage in open public discourse, the more people would be aware of just how dangerous and devastating his policies would be to our freedom and our future. I think it is fair to say that Harper's effort to cripple civil society was the most important part of his entire political agenda because without that effort the rest of his agenda would have been simply impossible. Furthermore, Harper and his ilk were hoping to create long term effects of limiting debate and discourse in the public sphere so that corporations and rightwing politicians at other levels of government would be able to continue his agenda long after he was gone.
Thinking in these terms, the election of a Liberal is important not because of any particular economic or social policy, but to the degree to which they allow the opening of space in the public sphere. Though I don't share the basic socioeconomic outlook of the Liberals or the Conservatives, I understand that various kinds of social and economic progress has occurred under both parties in the past. These efforts have happened in part because, through efforts in the public sphere, progressive people have been able to exert pressure on governments in acts of active citizenship through rousing public sympathy to certain positions. This, more than anything else is what Harper wanted to stop, he wanted to put an end to the very notion of active citizenship itself, to end public discourse, and to undermine the most basic elements of democracy.
Perhaps the most obvious, and devastating, result of Harper's efforts to shut down the public sphere can be seen in his treatment of the Indigenous population. The Indigenous people have been the most startling example of our failure as a nation to treat people fairly, and the most obvious failure of our civil society to properly expand our discourse and understanding into real positive change. But Paul Martin, for all his faults, was trying to rectify those failures. Harper, on the other hand was desperate to put the issues and struggles of Indigenous people out of our collective minds and visions. His continual refusal to meet with Indigenous leaders, and his failure to respond to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were part of a direct effort to undermine the possible positive effects of public discourse. Recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous struggles (a legitimacy that has been slowly rising over time in many people's minds) would have undermined not only Harper's image of himself as the only expression of government in the nation, but would ultimately have undermined his efforts to strip all the environmental regulations in the country.
What we really need to remember and keep clear in people's minds is that the most dangerous element of the Harper years was not his policies per se (though God knows that those were indeed dangerous), it was his effort to replace Civil Society and public discourse with his voice alone. Let's try to remind not only the new government about their responsibility in this regard, but let's remind each other that civil society is our collective responsibility and that active citizens are the only way that we can move forward with any kind of progressive agenda.