Introduction: Democracy, Messengers, and the Harper Revolution
The King of England stood on a balcony in Westminster, just outside the city of London, and braced himself against the cold. It was a raw January day in 1649, the crowd was noisy, and only a few people could hear him.
But there was a guy near the king who was writing everything down. With a few hours, the king’s speech was on the streets in primitive newspapers.
It was not the sort of rant that Justin Trudeau or even Stephen Harper would come up with, and it certainly was not the work of a Barrack Obama. King Charles I wasn’t running for anything. In fact, his career was quickly winding down. The words he spoke were his own, not those of a speechwriter. They’re sort of dense and Shakespearean, but after you read them once or twice, you’ll get the drift.
“And truly I desire their (the people’s) liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government that is pertaining to them,” the diminutive, cat-like sovereign said.
“A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.”
He finished up, turned, knelt down, prayed for a moment, and a chap named Brandon took one swing of an axe and chopped off his head.
Few politicians are as up-front in their contempt of democracy, and fewer still have the opportunity to speak with the honesty that’s available to a sentient person who knows he won’t have to worry about that evening’s dinner because he’ll be shorter by a head. But Charles I was a man of his times, and of our times, too: trashing the press, proroguing parliament, getting very heavy with people who disagreed. Few modern politicians will come out and say the people really have no business being involved in government. A few more will echo the king’s assertion that governments exist to protect people’s property and keep taxes down. But not that many are willing to stick their necks that far out to make a point.
Two hundred years later, the Americans fought their own Civil War. This one was about crushing secessionist states that had broken up the country because they believed their slave economy was in jeopardy. But this war was about something else, the thing that lies in the heart of the Gettysburg Address. Everyone’s heard of that short speech – it wasn’t much longer than poor Charles’s last words – but few people have read it carefully. The address starts with a little history lesson and a very slight side-swipe of the slavery issue. Then it gets down to business: the blood of the Union troops at Gettysburg was spilled so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from this earth.
People reading the speech always put the emphasis on the “of, by, for” words. But the real meat of the phrase is in the last six words. In 1863, the United States was the most revolutionary country on Earth. It was the only major power that was anything resembling a real democracy. And it seemed likely to be the last one, an experiment that failed. France had twice tried to create a democracy between 1789 and 1863 and their revolutions went badly. One ended up bathed in blood. Both were undermined by public revulsion and ended with a return to monarchy. Britain was emerging as democratic state, but few men had the right to vote and power lay in the hands of aristocrats and industrialists. Canada was a little farther along, but most politicians gagged at the idea of true democracy. Anti-democratic feeling ran strong among members of Canada’s elites, many of them linear descendants of monarchist refugees from the American Revolution. They feared the political power of French-Canadians and the Irish who were streaming into the country, and many remembered the fun time they had crushing the Rebellions of 1837-1838.
The great empires and small countries of Europe were all monarchies. Revolutionaries in central and South America had overthrown their Spanish colonial masters and had tried to create democracies. All had failed. There were no democracies in Africa. Or Asia. Or, for that matter, in the Confederacy.
Democracy was an anomaly until the end of the First World War. Going into it, the Great Powers consisted of four Imperial monarchies (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Japan), two democracies (France and the United States), a new junta trying to secularize an Islamic state (Turkey) and a parliamentary monarchy that was well on its way to being a democracy (Britain). Most of the rest of the small industrialized powers were military dictatorships, ludicrous small monarchies (the Tsar of Bulgaria comes to mind), colonies or satellite nations of the larger powers. Canada was both a colony and an emerging democracy). By the end of the war, democracy or systems resembling it had been foisted on most of the new European countries created by the Treaty of Versailles and on Central Powers. The postwar settlement of 1919 was a rush forward for democracy in Europe, though many nations created in that settlement would not get much of a chance to act like one for another seventy years.
After the Second World War, democracy would get another boost, not just in Europe (outside the Soviet occupation zones) but also in the Third World, where Britain tried, with temporary and minimal success, to create Westminster systems in its old colonies.
So, in many ways, Lincoln, when he stood on the platform at Gettysburg, was very much alone as the leader of what he feared was the world’s last democracy. Democracy – real involvement by the people in their government, which they, as citizens own -- is not the default position of governments, even in the West. It’s something that takes great struggle to create and has to be nurtured, preserved, and, in dire times, fought for. As we’ve seen in the misfire of the “Arab Spring,” faith in democracy and in the civil society institutions that protect it needs to be deep and wide in society. Elections and political parties do not make democracy. It cannot survive with without the rule of law – honest courts, enforceable agreements, fair treatment of accused criminals – along with an inquisitive press and a solid, accessible system of public education. State religions undermine democracy because they enforce intellectual and social conformity. So does tribalism. Class warfare, which does exist, can undermine democracy, too. People need the freedom to be able to do business together in corporations, but they also need the liberty to work together to form trade unions. Any country that has a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor is so wracked with systemic inequality that the political voice of the impoverished is too weak to be heard.
The fear of being the last, failed steward of democracy drove Lincoln. Like Vladimir Lenin during the years when the Communists were losing the Russian Civil War, Lincoln became ruthless. Believing freedom could not, on its own, save democracy, he did not back away from censoring the press. At one point, he even considered jailing the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, who was a die-hard pro-slavery, states-rights man. In the end, once the rebellion had been crushed, Lincoln quickly moved to restore state legislatures in Dixie and to bring congressmen from the Confederate states to the newly-finished Capitol. Democracy of the people, by the people, had been, as much as was possible in 19th century America, saved from extinction.
Lincoln ended his life with a bullet in the brain, but the idea of democracy as a practical system of government survived both the war and Lincoln. Public support and the political will for real democracy has ebbed and flowed, but the target was always there. Democracy has many flaws, including the obvious fact that it’s very difficult for people to listen to each other and to prevent the strong from dominating the weak. Still, it is the system of government that offers people more freedom than any other. In fact, democracy simply can’t work unless people have a deeply ingrained sense of liberty, not only for their own thoughts, speech, and religion, but for those they disagree with. Liberty of conscience unleashes all kinds of creativity and inquiry, along with economic opportunity and social mobility. That’s one of the reasons why democracies tend to be so wealthy.
But ideology of democracy, so taken for granted in places that have benefitted from it, is in trouble, not just in Canada, but in most Western countries. Corporate communications strategy, retail politics, intrusive technology and the de-fanging of media and other governmental watchdogs have become normal. Courts and the justice system are being undermined, both from outside and from within. A new kind of controlling, arrogant and often vindictive government has emerged since the 1980s and is getting more emboldened and entrenched. It is not simply a neo-conservative creation. It’s loose in Barack Obama’s Washington, where “hope” and “change” did not involve the rolling back of the post-9/11 security state and the opening up of government to scrutiny and criticism.
Here in Canada, Stephen Harper, like Jean Chretien before him, relishes the idea of being a “G-8 world leader.” Because Canada was invited to join the annual summit of world economic powers – mainly because France got to bring Italy to the table, U.S. president Gerald Ford insisted his country should bring Canada – Ottawa strangely sees itself as a capital rivaling Paris, London and Tokyo. Really, although it’s a great place to live, it’s a rather backwater capital of a very decentralized state where power over important issues like education, health care, and social services lies with the provinces. The importance – or self-importance – that goes along with this pretence of Canada being a major world power was used as an excuse for Harper’s security detail to transport an armored Cadillac to India for one summit, as though there are no safe limos in the subcontinent, or that anyone would recognize him if he walked down the street.
In Ottawa, Harper has adopted a style that can only be termed lordly. He travels to work in a motorcade of black limos and SUVs with tinted windows. They circle Parliament Hill until a suitable, discrete entrance is found, far from the curious tourists, and the Prime Minister and his retinue are whisked into the Centre Block. John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau often walked to work. It’s not clear why Ottawa is considered by Harper’s security people believe Ottawa to be so dangerous. It could be that Harper has an intense fear of assassination. Or maybe the motorcade is just a rather ridiculous symbol of power. If Harper wants to use his business office, the same motorcade takes the Prime Minister across Wellington Street to the big, ugly Langevin Block. The nasty building was named after a newspaper editor who became a Public Works minister and had his career destroyed by a kickback scandal. The sandstone building is literally rotting along the street level because the stone is dissolved by road salt. Inside, the halls of the Langevin Block are covered with photographs of Stephen Harper.
Crash-proof barriers have been installed at the Prime Minister’s mansion at 24 Sussex Drive – which is also falling apart from neglect and shabby maintenance -- and the old chef’s quarters have been turned into an RCMP security detail command centre. (The Harpers and chefs have never really worked out. A previous chef quit and sued, saying it was not part of his job to bury the Harper family’s dead cat, which was flattened by a car.)
In 2013, when Prime Minister Harper took his teenage son Ben to the Centre Block’s very informal fifth floor cafeteria for a burger, the Harpers were accompanied by at least four skittish, bulky men with wires in their ears and a photographer who snapped almost every second of that magic moment. Much eye-rolling ensued. It must have been strange for the high schooler. It certainly was for those of us who sat, eating out lunches, and watched. The situation became comical as the security people filled the tiny cafeteria and eyeballed the journalists, MPs, office workers and political staffers who sat at the rows of cafeteria-style tables. There was no reason why the two Harpers could not have quietly walked into the room, without the goons and photographers, and sat down for lunch. But, in true Stephen Harper style, father and son sat in a secluded corner of the room, protected by Prime Ministerial staffers, heavies and photographers, and, rather than have a low-key family moment, enjoyed a photo-op instead.
Then there’s Halloween at the Harper house, called “24” in Tory code speak. Starting in 2012, kids who want candy from the Harpers are put through metal detectors first. As Gulliver found out, even the little people can make your life miserable. Our G-8 country world-leader was kept safe from witches, pirates, Darth Vaders and other sketchy small people, who arrived at his doorstep disarmed and thoroughly screened, made to walk through airport-style metal detectors.
If you think this kind of nonsense is the brainchild of the security staff, and that the PM has no say in how it works, think again. The Prime Minister is the boss, and if he really thought the head of his RCMP security team was pushing him around, that cop would, within a few weeks, be showing store clerks in Iqaluit how to spot fake toonies. He likes this. He likes this far too much.
Of course, in a city full of enemies, kids packing plastic light sabers and rubber pirate swords are the least of your worries if you’re the Prime Minister of Canada. Harper and his courtiers spend a lot of time worrying about enemies in the media, universities, bureaucracy, First Nations and even in churches and soup kitchens. And, of course, there are the enemies sitting on the other side of the House of Commons. Gone were the days of grudging professional respect and sometimes real friendship among Members of Parliament. The House of Commons stumbles toward irrelevance during the Harper regime and the ever more toxic atmosphere and vicious partisanship has worked its way down into the committees, where most of Parliament’s real work gets done. Whatever people say about former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, by the time his political career crashed he understood the danger of separating the people’s representatives into “us” and “them,” and then trashing the “thems” as unpatriotic, evil, stupid and corrupt. “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself,” Ignatieff said in a speech at Stanford University in October, 2012. “Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”
In the past, politicians could be adversaries in civil debates without being enemies. They could reject each other’s arguments without attacking them as people. They could debate facts and lines of logic with vigor and humor, without the vicious mockery and, more and more, outright profanity that’s heard in the House of Commons. They could quibble over their interests without attacking their opponents’ patriotism. But in places where politicians look on each other as enemies, “legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship. Party discipline rules supreme, fraternization is frowned upon, negotiation and compromise are rarely practiced, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless,” Ignatieff told his American audience.
And when political opponents – or any other group -- are cast as enemies of the popular interest, it’s not much of a leap to label them as enemies of the people and enemies of the state: Anne Coulter, the American right-wing controversialist, has made a good living doing precisely that, peddling books attacking liberals, giving the books titles like Treason, Demonic, Guilty, and High Crimes and Misdemeanors. “Fascism took the fatal step from a politics of adversaries into a politics of enemies,” Ignatieff, still hurting from his own electoral beating, warned. “We are not there yet, but it is worth remembering that the fatal declension occurred in a democracy not so dissimilar to our own, in a society plagued by economic crisis, among a battered population looking for someone to blame.”
Democratic politics requires compromise, often a dirty business that can shock and horrify those of us who rarely find the need to hold our noses and make deals with people we don’t particularly like, don’t agree with, and want to see fail. It’s one of the skills that lawyers need, which partly explains why lawyers move so easily into political life. But today’s “politics as war” conjures up ingrained concepts of unconditional surrender, scorched earth, take no prisoners, and divides outcomes into victory or defeat. The idea of compromise for the good of the public disappears pretty fast. High-functioning sociopaths flourish in this environment.
War talk, Ignatieff said, should be saved for real enemies. “We should focus martial energies where they are needed: [against] those adversaries who actively threaten the liberty of other peoples and our own. Towards those within our borders, however heatedly we may disagree, we should work from a simple persuasive, but saving, assumption: In the house of democracy there are no enemies.”
Ignatieff said democracy is threatened while money dominated politics. And parties have to loosen their grips on the nomination process so talented people who are unknown to the central leadership can come forward. Elected representatives have to be freed from party whips. Ignatieff had rarely worried about these problems when he held the knout as leader of the Liberal Party, but he was right.[i]
But Ignatieff’s visions aren’t shared in the Langevin Block. Even Harper supporters have not been immune to their leader’s thirst for control: Tom Flanagan, Harper’s political and academic mentor, was driven out when he wrote Harper’s Team without clearing the book with the boss. The prime minister had tried to talk Flanagan into killing the book, which has very little controversial material and puts Harper in a fairly good light. Flanagan later told author Lawrence Martin that Harper didn’t want Flanagan to write any book, no matter how supportive it might be.
Flanagan himself, in a 2007 interview, said the goal of Harper and the Tories was to change the very real perception among Canadians that Liberal governments are normal and Conservative administrations are just oddballs and flukes that last just long enough to maintain the pretence that Canada is a two-party democracy. “The Liberals had identified themselves as the party of government, people used to talk about the natural governing party and all this bullshit. He’s (Harper) got a definite communication strategy to associate the Conservative party with government and make it seem normal to have a Conservative government after so many years in which the Liberals made it seem that no other party than the Liberals could govern. Conservative parties around the world tend to be successful when they can align themselves with the values of patriotism. That’s the norm, that the conservative party is the patriotic party.”[ii]
And Flanagan had a point. Since the end of the First World War, Conservative federal governments in Canada have been rare and relatively short-lived. Almost to the day when Harper was sworn in, conventional wisdom, especially in the Parliament Hill media, was that the Liberals were mathematically certain to hold power for a very, very long time. Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail’s main Ottawa columnist and the authoritative voice of conventional wisdom for both the bureaucratic and media elites, even published a book, The Friendly Dictatorship, about the threat to democracy of the Liberals’ seemingly unbreakable lock on power. If he had learned anything in the first years of the century, Harper had discovered that every political party, even the Liberal Party of Canada -- which ranks as one of the world’s great political success stories -- can be humbled and even broken. There is no “forever” in politics.
The creation of the Conservative Party of Canada took more than a decade, and building it required the co-opting of the Reform Party, a 1980s populist reaction to the sleaze, deficit spending and regional compromises of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. The people in Western Canada and rural and small-town Ontario who supported Reform often had legitimate beefs. Starting in the 1970s, Canada has been through a series of recessions that have hit farm country and small towns particularly hard. Cities, riding real estate booms fuelled by immigration, missed much of the pain. In many small communities, the tough recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s never ended. Many factories that were shut never re-opened. Well-paying jobs in mills, mines, and on railways never came back. The split from the 1980s onwards between the prosperity of the cities -- especially white collar Toronto -- and the depopulation and poverty in the countryside and in resource communities –opened up enmities and political opportunities that were far more effectively exploited by neo-conservatives. Young people abandoned rural and small-town Canada, causing anguish and bitterness for the parents they left behind. The aging of rural Canada was another factor that helped Reform grow and pick up Parliamentary seats. At the same time, Christianity split between dying older denominations and more fundamentalist churches, and Manning, a conservative Christian, was able to pull fellow evangelicals into his political crusade.
The conversation in Canada was muted by the gutting of community journalism as independent small-town papers were absorbed into national newspaper chains and ruined. Big city journalism abandoned small-town Canada. The Globe and Mail had built itself on regional distribution. It became the dominant political newspaper in Ontario because its circulation department memorized railway timetables and made sure every farmer, main street business owner and small-town lawyer had the paper first thing in the morning. (The Globe’s creator, George Brown, made his fortune in the 1850s by getting the paper to the train on time. George McCullagh, founder of The Globe and Mail, started in the newspaper business in the 1920s as a kid wandering the back concessions of Ontario, betting farmers that he could plow a straighter furrow than they could, with a Globe subscription as the stakes.) The Globe and Mail threw away farm and small-town readers and stopped covering most local and provincial issues in a deliberate decision made in 1988. The ad industry lusted for the urban, wealthy demographic, even if it’s not large enough to support a great newspaper. People in the West and small-town Canada clued in quickly. No one likes to feel unwanted.
Manning’s greatest contribution to this country was actually a negative, He could have exploited western separatist sympathies, but he didn’t. Instead, Reform would storm Babylon, muck out the mess in Ottawa, make everyone from every part of Canada equally important in Ottawa, get rid of careerist politicians and those who lied to get elected, and have MPs who really represented their constituents. If they let the people down, voters would be able to “recall” them. It really was “reform” and much of it was, and still is, badly needed. Reform Party supporters – politically-aware people from small-town Canada who are not thrilled to see fundraising prowess and patronage take over the political system – should be just as horrified as anyone else with what’s happening in Ottawa.
Politics is run by professional strategists, pollsters and fundraisers who usually work for lobbying firms and sell their influence to the highest bidder between elections. The professionalization of politics, along with the Conservatives’ extreme message control, lack of accountability and the almost complete ignoring of the “grass roots” until the party needs some money or some votes runs completely opposite to what the Reform Party stood for in the early 1990s.
Now, former Reformers hold many of the levers of power. The West’s biggest economic worries have been taken care of. Alberta’s energy sector is safe from high taxation and tough regulations, and the government backs the pipelines that could take Alberta crude to world markets. Farmers don’t have to sell their grain to the Canadian Wheat Board. And, probably coincidentally, since not even Stephen Harper can dictate the price of oil, most of the West is booming. (Harper, though, should re-read the books of economist Harold Innis to see where this is going. In a nutshell, Innis, a brilliant University of Toronto economist, warned in 1956 that this country has, too often, relied on just one or two big resource industries and has paid heavily when the world stopped paying us the price we want.) But to win power, the party changed. Readers of George Orwell’s Animal Farm will be familiar with the story line. These days, the Conservative Party of Canada bears a striking resemblance to the Mulroney-led party that Preston Manning destroyed. It’s hard to believe old Reformers ever expected to see their party defending Mulroney in the House of Commons for taking $300,000 in large bills from German arms dealer-lobbyist Karl-Heinz Schreiber, with the utterly lame response that the Liberals had skimmed millions through the Sponsorship scandal. They never would have said, back when Manning was stumping prairie villages, that Senate expense account padding wasn’t worth much public condemnation because the Ontario Liberals were engaged in a succession of scandals, as though one negates the other in some sort of weird hierarchy of corruption.
So the message has to be controlled. 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 the remaking 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.
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 speeches in rural Saskatchewan about democracy and the Harper government’s decision to slap time limits on debate of most important bills, someone didn’t get the message that MPs are supposed to be more than voting puppets. (The status 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 in the book.)
Who are the people that Harper wants muzzled? There are federal watchdogs who make sure the government doesn’t waste money. They protect people’s civil rights. 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, no real experience in the world of business or professions, who 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 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 person tool 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 deputies or the chiefs of staff that run ministerial offices. The deputies and the chiefs of staff owe their jobs to the Prime Minister. So government departments really 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. Why accept blame for something that really is out of your control, especially when someone else will get 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 government. Some Prime Ministers come into office with goals, like John A. Macdonald’s nation-building, Pierre Trudeau’s constitution and Brian Mulroney’s trade deals and his attempts to defuse, or, at least, re-channel Quebec nationalism. 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. But Harper has refused to go anywhere near the abortion issue. Immigration patterns have 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 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 inside baseball. 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 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, you have to change the way Canadians think about themselves, their country and the way they are governed. You have to lobotomize a large part of the country’s cultural memory by trashing archives and re-making museums and replace it with stories of a “warrior nation.” You have 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. You have to keep federal experts, who still command the public’s respect, from saying anything you don’t want to hear. You stop people from listening to your critics by maligning the motives of journalists, opposition politicians, and activists of every stripe.
You run election campaigns that are just a series of staged events, with media allowed to film you but not ask questions, and keep ordinary Canadians far away. You 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, you demand that they repeat talking points, no matter how incredibly stupid they may sound.
You deny that the scrutiny of journalists has any role or value to democracy and the governance of Canada. You 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 your “base.”
You get rid of objective data from the census and from scientists so no one can challenge your narrative on crime, the environmental damage caused by resource exploitation, climate change and anything else that’s complex. You create bogus think-tanks and pressure groups to push for “ethical oil” and trash your “enemies,” who, in your world, include First Nations people, students, journalists, pacifists and scientists. When that doesn’t work, you send the federal tax department in to threaten the charitable status of the organizations that you don’t like.
You destroy Parliament’s ability to scrutinize new laws and the way the government taxes and spends. You cloak decision-making in secrecy. You spend billions to beef up intelligence agencies and get rid of meaningful oversight, to the point of hiring criminals and lobbyists to be the public’s watchdogs of the domestic spy agency CSIS.
And you always stay 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 your will have to be utterly loyal and, very often, ruthless. They have to be willing to kill the messengers so that there’s only one message – yours – that will be heard. In the end, if all goes your way, the government and the country itself will belong to people who we thought are elected to represent, not to dictate. And if anyone thinks a new regime, whether a different Conservative prime minister or an NDP or Liberal government, will roll back this revolution, they’re dreaming.
If Harper does succeed, he’ll have created a new way of ruling Canada, one that will make it much easier for the next leader of the country to ignore what’s left of democracy in this country and impose his or her version of Harper’s revolution on Canada. And there won’t be much anyone can do about it. 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.