Friday, 9 September 2011

A King In All But Name

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has of late embraced the ermine and purple of royalty.  Much more on this in a moment, but first...

A recent post in the Globe and Mail disclosed some internal emails that sheds more light on the nature of Harper's skewed (and largely self-serving) notion of what it means to be Prime Minister.  The chief of social media for Health Canada asked in a Nov. 30, 2010 email,
"Since when have we started making announcements as the 'Harper Government'?"
And in another,
"Why is @healthcanada creating partisan 'press releases' and marketing them as non-partisan ministry news?"
The reply came from a senior communications adviser at Health Canada,
"This was a directive I received from PCO."
The Privy Council Office serves the prime minister as his bureaucratic "nerve centre", and works in conjunction with the Prime Minister's Office.  The PMO houses Harper's top political advisers, while his top policy advisers work out of the PCO; under Stephen Harper the two groups have come to embody his iron grip on messaging and strategy, secretive and unaccountable.  The near-total control over routine government communications requires that virtually all public comment must be pre-cleared by this "cabal".  Civil servants say that the politicizing of all government communications has greatly reduced the amount of information disclosed to the public, and that what little that is released is thoroughly sanitized.  As one civil servant is quoted as saying,
"The existence of this draconian, Orwellian, unprecedented prerequisite to clear any and all public statements that might be picked by the media reflects, in my view, a level of micromanagement in the public service, a lack of confidence, trust and respect, and a commitment to total control of the message the like of which has never been seen before."
The purposeful re-branding of the government of Canada as the "Harper Government" has met with public outrage.  The general view seems to be that "an aggressively partisan Conservative administration is trampling the admittedly grey area between party and the non-partisan public service".  The Globe article goes on to say,
"Non-partisan departmental web sites switched to a Tory-blue motif soon after the Conservatives took power in 2006, and taxpayer funded Economic Action Plan website, signs and ads have blanketed the country since 2009 in a 'whole of government' exercise that is indistinguishable from the partisan Conservative pitch."
The PCO recently posted a public notice of "Proposed Procurement" soliciting new design concepts for Government of Canada advertising in order to "develop a 'whole of government' branding approach that increases the public resonance of government messaging and information."  This initiative has drawn strenuous criticism, and as one former civil servant and communications expert said,
"There's a serious issue here and it's a deeply corrupting one for the public service.  I would say that any public servant who's involved in communications activities of that type is in breach of both the Communications Policy and the Values and Ethics Code." 
The re-branding of the government of Canada in Stephen Harper's image should be deeply troubling to Canadians.  It is easy enough to see through the charade and understand the logic that Harper is employing here.  He is intent on creating his own facts on the ground, now that his Conservatives have fortuitously seized power.  Earlier this summer, he famously said that "Conservative values are Canadians' values."  This from a politician who has yet to win a simple majority in three attempts.  That he currently occupies the primary seat of power in this country is merely a happy circumstance of our first-past-the-post electoral system. 

In point of fact, the Conservatives have never been the natural ruling party of Canada.  As John Ibbotson of the Globe recently wrote, "A majority of Canadians did not, never do, vote Conservative."  And so, while he is positioned to do so, Stephen Harper is taking every opportunity to set the table to his future advantage.

Beyond the re-branding of Canada in his own image, consider other initiatives planned by the "Harper Government".  Recent news reports (here and here) indicate that he will re-introduce anti-terrorism laws that sunset in 2007 in order to further protect Canadians (this tactic sounds ominously familiar, if you follow even casually the American experiment in "democracy").  Harper said in an interview with the CBC that the major threat to Canada "is still Islamism".  His proposal will give police the power to arrest suspects without warrant, and to detain them for up to three days without charges.  In another, he would give judges the power to jail reluctant witnesses so as to encourage their cooperation.  Such controversial law-and-order bills were off the table when Harper was in a minority position, but he now intends to push the legislative agenda of guns, prisons and increased powers to police.  In response interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the "Harper Government" is intent on,
"taking us on a forced march to the mid-18th century with their approach to criminal justice."   
In recent months Harper has pushed at the criminal justice system in several ways.  He has, against all logic, signaled his intent to spend $billions on a massive new prison infrastructure, this at a time when crime rates are falling.  His justice minister has demanded of judges apply mandatory sentencing guidelines that even the Americans have called out-of-step.  And Harper has himself suggested that judges be more responsive to the government.

It is instructive that while Harper pushes get-tough-on-crime legislation, has demonstrated his own inclination to circumvent the rule of law.  An issue that deeply concerns Canadians is climate change; Harper has not accepted the reality of the problem, or the science behind it.  While the Harper Conservatives were still in minority, parliament passed the Climate Change Accountability Act, which called upon the government to establish regulations that would substantially reduce greenhouse emissions.

But the wily Stephen Harper chose to kill the bill in the Senate, where Conservatives are in the majority, by ensuring that the passage was debated when Liberal senators were away.  This action demonstrates our prime minister's true regard for the concept of democracy, and it shows why he is far better suited to the role of king.  Jack Layton called this action,
"One of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada.  To take power that doesn't rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is a wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country."
And in further ignoring the will of the majority of Canadians on the climate issue, Harper has
 - refused to cooperate with the Kyoto protocol signed by the previous Prime Minister Jean Chretien;
 - refused to pass new federal energy policy that would curb carbon emissions and develop new technologies;
 - subsidized and supported the production of oil from the environmentally devastating and energy intensive Alberta Oil Sands;
 - failed to support the goals of such environmental gatherings as the Copenhagen Climate Conference, resulting in Canada being labeled by some as the nation with the worst behavior.

Harper's actions to centralize absolute power and control in the PMO/PCO, his authoritarian legislative agenda, and his disdain for the democratic process all suggest that his temperament is far better suited to the royal prerogative.

Harper has returned Canada to a by-gone era with several actions to embrace the monarchy.  Most recently he restored the "Royal" name to the Canadian armed forces, an action in a former colony largely indifferent to the queen as head of state (indifferent except, of course, when Kate and William are touring).  This is part of a larger strategy to place greater emphasis on traditional symbols such as the military, ice hockey, arctic sovereignty, patriotism, and the monarchy -- see Jeffery Simpson's commentary in today's Globe and Mail.  Symbols are vital to the style of governance envisioned by Harper's Conservatives.  These symbols are necessary to advance his agenda to shift Canada's ideological centre from centre-left to centre-right.  He must do this because, despite all his bravado, Conservative values are not yet Canadian values.

Harper's long-term goal is to kill the notion of the Liberal Party as the natural governing party of government in Canada.  The liberals made Canadian independence and autonomy from Britain a key message, particularly the government of Pierre Trudeau which fostered pride in Canadian nationalism.  As a former aid to Harper said recently,
"He's trying to roll back the Trudeau revolution.  Trudeau did a lot of things to upset traditional minded [evangelical?] Canadians, introducing more socialism, making government bigger and going after traditions like the military and the monarchy."
Of course, you will know that the Liberals were displaced in the last election by Jack Layton's New Democratic Party which, by the very nature of the NDP, must give Harper uncontrolled gastric pain.

As you read the details of Harper's grand strategy, you cannot miss its parallels to the right-wing in America, with its focus on rolling back Roosevelt's New Deal, its emphasis on traditional values and its blind hatred for all things that smack (to them) of socialism.  And it should not surprise you that the neo-conservative movement is alive and well here in Canada.  To reinforce the point, Shadia Drury has an excellent and illuminating piece in the latest issue of Humanist Perspectives on this very subject.

What's really bothering me is this: Stephen Harper has put in place a plan to change the nature of my country -- a plan that is overtly partisan, slickly marketed, tightly managed, secretive, sophisticated, and devious.  It reeks of propaganda.  It is a plan well conceived, and already well established.

And, most egregious, it is a plan that has no mandate from the Canadian people.

With a four year stretch of uncontested power ahead of him, I fear Stephen Harper will do tremendous damage to Canada.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Dazed and Confused, Led Zeppelin; Led Zeppelin I.  Enjoy.

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