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Is Harper's enemies list the beginning of the end?

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Photo: photoswebpm/flickr

The political news of the summer was supposed to be the Cabinet shuffle. It had been hyped well in advance. Unexpectedly, it was the leak of the compilation of an "enemies list" that distracted us from the dazzling brilliance of the Cabinet makeover.

In advance, pundits were busy prognosticating, anticipating and inflating the significance of the Cabinet moves. In the event, despite speculation that some of the most senior portfolios and ministers would be re-arranged, the key portfolios of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Natural Resources, Agriculture, Aboriginal Affairs, Treasury Board and Government House Leader remained unchanged.

The Conservative message machine tried to pitch that the news was the promotion of the younger members of the caucus and more women. Overall, the average age of the Cabinet dropped from 55 to 52, and the women appointed largely went to junior positions. The real news was that it was a bloated Cabinet, departing from Stephen Harper's earlier rhetoric about smaller government. (Perhaps the removal of so many scientists has opened up room for more ministers?)

Some ministers represent issues for which there is no department to manage. New Cabinet member, Pierre Poilievre, well known as a reliable Conservative pit bull in Question Period, is Minister for Democratic Reform. With no department of Democratic Reform, he presides over a smallish group inside the Privy Council Office. Meanwhile, Christian Paradis became Minister for International Development, now a sub-set of the Department of Foreign Affairs, reporting to Minister John Baird. Two other Ministers also represent parts of DFAIT  -- Ed Fast in International Trade and Lynne Yellich in Consular Services.

Overall, I cannot get very excited about Cabinet shuffles. In an administration where total control over decisions (large and small), priorities and talking points is maintained by the prime minister, nothing changes unless he does.

Sadly (or happily if you belong to the school of thought that Stephen Harper is his own worst enemy), the prime minister seems more rooted than ever in a hostile, hyper-partisan approach to governance. Newly Independent MP, former Conservative, Brent Rathgeber pointed out to the media one of the most significant things about the shuffle -- it completely ignored the moves that might have soothed the increasingly unhappy back benches. Well-liked backbencher, who was widely rumoured to be about to go to Cabinet, James Rajotte of Alberta, was by-passed, while Peter Van Loan, who is nearly universally disliked by Conservative back-benchers (and more than a few front benchers too), gets to continue in the pivotal position of Government House Leader. Well-loved by the backbenches, Cabinet member Stephen Fletcher was turfed for no apparent reason. He did manage a tweet reflecting a brave and audacious sense of humour. The first and only quadriplegic in Parliament, he tweeted "I am a Conservative. I am a traditionalist. I wish I had left cabinet in the traditional way -- with a sex scandal."

Those backbenchers who have spoken out for democracy and the rights of free speech were all overlooked for promotions.

Further confirming that Stephen Harper is not about to change his iron-fisted style was the leaked email asking ministerial staff to compile an enemies list. I think at least one turfed minister will quickly find himself on the list. Former Environment Minister Peter Kent said the request to create a list of friends and enemies was not only "juvenile," he drew comparisons with a previous paranoid leader.

In an interview with Postmedia, Kent said, "That was the nomenclature used by Nixon. His political horizon was divided very starkly into friends and enemies. The use of the word 'enemies list,' for those of us of a certain generation, it evokes nothing less than thoughts of Nixon and Watergate."

I remember Nixon's Enemies List very clearly as my mother was one of those listed. We had already applied to immigrate to Canada when some 700 names from the list were made public.  All of her friends were jealous and wanted to know how she had made it onto the list when they had not. I remember one friend saying, "but I really hate him and I have never heard you say you hate him." My mother apologized and said it must just have been the result of poor White House research.

I see something of the same reaction brewing around this list. People want to be on it. The maintenance of an atmosphere of oppression and fear requires stealth and a level of invisibility. The leaking of an enemies list has generated unwelcome critiques from conservative commentators in the National Post.  It has also invited ridicule. The surest way for Stephen Harper to lose his ability to control all aspects of his administration, to lose the effectiveness of his coercive management style is if people start laughing. An enemies list is both, and, at the same time, sinister and silly.

Comparisons with Richard Nixon which Stephen Harper has now brought on himself will only continue to stir the pot of his own Watergate -- Nigel Wright's cheque to buy Mike Duffy's silence. It might even remind people of his bizarre rebuke to Michael Ignatieff, "With the tapes I have on you, I wouldn't want you to resign."

The fearfulness in Ottawa should recede. We need more air, light and truth telling, and fewer people living in shadows, heads down, hoping to get through the Harper era without losing their jobs. Maybe an enemies list is, against all odds, the beginning of the end.

Originally published in the Island Tides Regional Newspaper.

Photo: photoswebpm/flickr

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