Is This the New Canadian Political Reality?

Fair Press by Mark Bourrie logo

This is from the introduction of my 2015 book Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, published by HarperCollins. I’m posting it for Press Freedom weekend. How much of it fits today’s political climate?

The Harper government has set out to kill many messengers. The media is obviously one of them. And, while Harper’s war with journalists has generated some coverage and interest – though perhaps more among journalists than other people – it’s just a small and relatively easy part of his re-creation of how Ottawa works. The Ottawa media had been withering for years, battered by the collapse of the news business. There are many other watchdogs in Ottawa, and Harper’s team set out to defang them, along with anyone who made much noise about it. They set out to make sure only a select few people knew how the country was being run, and to change the way Canadians think about Canada.

First, there was Parliament, an institution, like the media, that has seen better days and has needed serious reform for a long time. Somewhere between Preston Manning’s 1980s barn-burners on democracy made to audiences in rural Saskatchewan and the Harper government’s decision to slap time limits on debate of most important bills, someone at the top didn’t get the message that MPs are supposed to be more than voting puppets. (The reputations of legislators had already been undercut by neo-cons, who’ve pretty much erased the concept of “representative” from the public mind and replaced it with “politician.” This type of propaganda was expressed quite blatantly by the Conservative government of neo-con darling Mike Harris. His bill to scrap local democracy and replace small community councils with less responsive amalgamated city administrations was called The Fewer Municipal Politicians Act, 1999. People might have looked at it differently if it was called The Reduced Representation Act or The Kiss Local Democracy Goodbye Act. The Harper government has come up with the same triumphal names for laws, which are talked about later Chapter 10.)

There are federal watchdogs who make sure the government doesn’t waste money. They protect people’s civil rights. They advocate on behalf of veterans. They consult with environmental scientists and engineers to decide whether or not a pipeline can be built safely. They inspect our food so we don’t get poisoned. They make sure the government’s spies do not pry into the lives of law-abiding people. Some of them were never, before Harper’s regime went after them, seen as watchdogs at all. For example, very few people ten years ago would have added environmental scientists to any list of people who might be considered dangers to the state. Now, in Harper’s Ottawa, they’re kept isolated and gagged and, if possible, turfed from their jobs. Their labs are shut down and their research libraries shuttered. Everyone within the government’s grasp is barred from speaking publicly in case they say something that might inconvenience or embarrass the government. The national institutions paid for by Canadians are to speak with just one voice, and it is linked to the mind of Stephen Harper, an introverted former computer nerd with a master’s degree in economics and no real experience in the world of business or professions. He had never managed anything in his life, other than a small and secretive pressure group called the National Citizens Coalition, before winning the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, and, within a few years, the premiership of Canada.

A lot of this controlling, targeting, and, when need arises, attacking, is done to make life easier at “the centre” – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which is the political department run by Stephen Harper, and the Privy Council Office (PCO), the supposedly somewhat objective and brainy group that advises all ministers on policy and finds ways for the public service to carry out the decisions of the Cabinet. Both of these agencies are now the personal tools of Stephen Harper, and he uses them with great enthusiasm to enforce his will throughout the government. Years ago, ministers actually headed government departments. Now they are figureheads, and they can’t hire or fire their deputy minister, who are the real bosses of the bureaucracy, or get rid of the chiefs of staff that run the political side of ministerial offices. The deputies and the chiefs of staff owe their jobs to the prime minister. So government departments aren’t really answerable to elected MPs serving as cabinet ministers, and the ministers are no longer answerable to Parliament. The days when ministers would quit, and possibly end their political careers because of major blunders or corruption in their departments are now far in the past. And it makes some sense, in a strange way. Why, the ministers think, would you accept blame for something that really is out of your control, especially when the prime minister gets the credit when things go well?

So what’s the point of the Harper government? Like the men who were the previous two tenants of 24 Sussex, it’s difficult to see what great, driving impulse motivates this prime minister. Some prime ministers come into office with goals, like John A. Macdonald’s nation-building, Pierre Trudeau’s constitution and Brian Mulroney’s desire to defuse, or, at least, re-channel Quebec nationalism and forge stronger ties with the United States. Harper’s critics used to accuse him of having a hidden political agenda to remake the social fabric of Canada and get rid of abortion rights, non-white immigration and other things that didn’t sit well with rural Canada and many Christian fundamentalists. They were wrong. Harper has refused to go anywhere near the abortion issue. The racial make-up of immigrants to this country has not changed and the number of people coming to Canada has stayed impressively high, even during recession years when the Harper government could have easily argued that reducing immigration would protect Canadian workers from competition. The “hidden agenda,” for the most part, has stayed hidden, and, unless Harper radically changes his government priorities, he’ll be taking that phantom hidden agenda with him when he leaves.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been a Harper revolution. It exists, but, except for environmentalists, few people saw where it would break out. First, the prime minister has tried to muzzle and delegitimize all criticism to a frightening degree. That’s been done quietly and incrementally, with few people, especially outside Ottawa, noticing. Taken in the bits and pieces that you see in the news, it all seems like insider talk. In fact, it’s really the biggest assault on liberty and democracy since Pierre Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act, but, unlike Trudeau’s emergency law supposedly aimed at terrorists, these changes are meant to permanently change the way this country is governed and will keep Canadians very far removed from the government that they supposedly own.

Harper is also intent on changing the way Canadians see their own country. He once said Canadians would not recognize the country after he was finished with it, and he’s done a lot to make sure that they do see it in a different light: as an energy and resource superpower instead of a country of factories and businesses; as a warrior nation instead of a peacekeeper; as an Arctic nation instead of clusters of cities along the American border; as a country of self-reliant entrepreneurs instead of a nation that shares among its people and its regions.

To remake Canada into that kind of country, he had to change the way Canadians think about themselves, their country and the way they are governed. He had to lobotomize a large part of the country’s cultural memory by trashing archives and re-making museums. He had to end Canada’s “third way” diplomacy and pride in peacekeeping and replace it with stories of a “warrior nation.” He had to limit public debate by preventing the people from being able to argue knowledgeably about important issues like the safety of the oil sands and whether Canada should be a country that fights wars or tries to end them. He had to keep federal experts, who still command the public’s respect, from saying anything he doesn’t want to hear. He had to de-legitimize the political role of his critics by maligning the motives of journalists, opposition politicians, and activists of every stripe.

He had to run election campaigns that are just a series of staged events, with media allowed to film him but not ask questions, and ordinary Canadians kept far away. He had to hold cabinet meetings at secret times and hidden locations, and make sure reporters don’t get many chances to ask ministers questions. When ministers are cornered, he demanded they repeat talking points, no matter how incredibly stupid they may sound.

He had to deny that the scrutiny of journalists has any role or value to democracy and the governance of Canada. And he had to facilitate the creation of arm’s length sycophantic attack media, both “mainstream” and in the “blogosphere,” to handle low-road messaging, float trial balloons and appeal to the most prejudiced and nasty opinions of his “base,” without much regard for honesty, fairness or civility.

He had to get rid of objective data from the census and from scientists so no one can challenge his narrative on crime, the environmental damage caused by resource exploitation, climate change and anything else that’s complex.  He had to follow the Republican Party’s blueprint to create bogus think-tanks and pressure groups, some fronted by convicted criminals, to push for “ethical oil,” demand tax cuts that cripple governments, and trash his “enemies,” who, in his world, include Aboriginal people, students, journalists, opposition politicians, pacifists and scientists. When that didn’t work, he sent the federal tax department in to threaten the charitable status of the organizations that he doesn’t like.

He had to destroy Parliament’s ability to scrutinize new laws and the way the government taxes and spends. He had to cloak decision-making in secrecy. He had to spend billions to beef up intelligence agencies and get rid of meaningful oversight, to the point of hiring an alleged criminal and arms lobbyist to be the public’s watchdog of the domestic spy agency CSIS.

And he always stays on the attack. The election campaign must never stop. People must be diverted by the struggle for power and should not spend time and energy examining how they’re actually governed.

The people who create and enforce his will must be utterly loyal and, very often, ruthless. They have to be willing to kill the messengers so that there’s only one message – his – that will be heard. In the end, if all goes his way, the government and the country itself will belong to a clique of professional political insiders who serve at Stephen Harper’s pleasure, and to their friends in the business world.

If Harper does succeed, he’ll have created a new, undemocratic way of ruling Canada. It will be easy for him or his successors to rule, with sham elections maintaining the myth that democracy is the same thing as regular elections. And there won’t be much anyone can do about what has happened so far unless people inside and outside of parliament push back. We’re not about to start holding our rulers to the same kind of account that Charles I faced when he tried to trash the rights of Parliament so long ago. That is, unless people demand better from everyone in Ottawa who plays a role in our democracy.