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Stephen Harper and the Conservatives: A year in review

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It's been an interesting year for Harper and co. ever since he weaseled his way out of falling to a coalition government.

Lately, as end-of-year summations, reflections and contemplations fill the pages and airwaves of the MSM, a few op-ed pieces have mentioned Harper's disdain for democracy, tendency to trip up transparency, and appalling attempt to annihilate accountability. I am pleased that there are still a few writers who command substantial audiences willing to hold our Dear Leader to account.

In the spirit of Top 10 lists, so ubiquitous at this time of year, here are 10 things (in no particular order) we must not forget about Harper and the Conservatives in 2009.

1. Torture of Afghan Detainees

Fortunately, the MSM hasn't quite abandoned this story and, to their credit, many reporters have done a fine job digging and revealing.

After diplomat Richard Colvin testified that Canadian soldiers handed over Afghan detainees to be tortured, the Conservatives launched into personal attacks on Colvin.

The Harper government has effectively suspended parliamentary hearings into detainee abuse (worth mentioning: Colvin states that most detainees were innocent) and have ignored a special order of Parliament to release uncensored documents pertaining to the transfer of detainees.

So far, 132 former ambassadors have admonished the government for its treatment of Colvin. And we've recently learned that in 2006, Peter McKay, as Foreign Affairs Minister (along with Ministers Stockwell Day and Gordon O'Connor), was briefed by the International Red Cross on torture in Afghan prisons.

What did this government know and when did it know it? If it was aware that prisoners handed over to Afghan officials were being tortured then the federal government could be guilty of war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

Keeping true to itself, the Harper government has responded with Bushesque jingoistic hyperbole, declaring critics and those who ask questions as unpatriotic and not supportive of the troops.

Harper is hoping that the holidays and a long Parliamentary recess will wipe this mess from the front pages and from Canadians' memories.

2. Another Embarrassing Performance on the Environment File

Harper's loathing for all things environmental is well-chronicled. Whether he's calling the Kyoto Accord "job-killing, economy-destroying" or a "socialist scheme", he treats environmental policies with contempt.

The Harper government has no substantial plan to tackle climate change, while Harper's and Environment Minister Jim Prentice's petro patrons in the Alberta tar sands continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions.

In October, Harper skipped out on an international climate change discussion at the United Nations to preside over a carefully staged-managed "photo-op" at a Tim Horton's where he celebrated corporate tax cuts.

He wasn't going to bother attending COP15 until Obama decided to go.
While in Copenhagen, Canada's reputation was further sullied when it was awarded Fossil of the Year and was the target of a hoax.

In awarding Fossil of the Year, Avaaz said:

"Fossil of the Year goes to Canada, for bringing a totally unacceptable position into Copenhagen and refusing to strengthen it one bit. Canada's 2020 target is among the worst in the industrialized world, and leaked cabinet documents revealed that the government is contemplating a cap-and-trade plan so weak that it would put even that target out of reach."

3. Refusing to Stand up for Canadian Health Care

In the heat of debate on health care reform in the US, Canada was the subject of typical Republican shenanigans, where facts never get in the way of an argument.

For example, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (TX), asserts: "One in five people have to die because they went to socialized medicine! ... I would hate to think that among five women, one of ‘em is gonna die because we go to socialized care."

Never mind that Americans, compared to Canadians, have shorter life expectancies, higher child mortality rates, and worse health outcomes with a health care system significantly more expensive than Canada's.

During an interview with ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, Harper was given an opportunity to defend the Canadian health care system and correct misconceptions. Instead, he demurred and simply said that health care is a provincial issue and that he didn't "feel qualified to intervene in the [US] debate".

4. Treatment of Canadians Abroad

Suaad Hagi Mohamud's despicable treatment by the Canadian High Commission in Kenya was in the headlines for weeks. When asked what Canada was doing to secure Mohamud's return, Harper admitted that he had only recently learned about Mohamud's case.

Omar Khadr, now headed for an Illinois facility, is the only Western citizen still being held in Guantanamo Bay; a military prison rife with human rights abuses. Characteristic of their stubborn attitude when proven wrong, the federal government appealed the Federal Court of Appeal's ruling to repatriate Omar Khadr.

International law states that rather than prosecuting minors, child soldiers should be rehabilitated. Perhaps this is why the Harper government now uses "children in armed conflict" rather than "child soldiers" in official government documents (see point 10 below) - a change in phrases may protect the government from their unjust treatment of Khadr.

5. Patronage Appointments

For a man who has long expressed loathing toward patronage, Harper seems to actually delight in appointing Conservative Party apparatchiks.

In 2008, Harper made at least 148 party faithful appointments to federal boards and agencies. In 2009, he continued to reward friends and insiders and even upped the ante. In November 2009, the Liberals revealed that since Harper was re-elected, he appointed 233 "former Tory MPs, cabinet ministers, campaign workers, past candidates and top donors...to the Senate, courts and government boards and agencies..."

This year, Harper appointed another nine Conservative Senators (he appointed 18 Conservative Senators last December), including his former campaign chair (Doug Finley, husband of Conservative cabinet minister Diane Finley), a communications assistant (Carolyn Stewart-Olsen) and the president of the Conservative Party of Canada (Don Plett).

Since December 2008, Harper has appointed 27 Senators; the most appointments in one year by any Canadian Prime Minister.

Impressive for a man who once thundered: "They are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation." (Stephen Harper, Hansard, March 7, 1996).

6. Smears and Labels

Whether calling critics of the Afghan war "unpatriotic" or childishly referring to NDP leader Jack Layton as "Taliban Jack" when Layton recommended talks with the Taliban (a course of action now accepted by the international community), the Harper government labels and smears anyone and everyone who disagrees with them (also see Richard Colvin above).

A Christian aid group, KAIROS, was accused by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney of being anti-Semitic. Without presenting evidence, Kenney pulled federal funding for KAIROS for "taking a leadership role in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel" (KAIROS does not support a BDS campaign).

According to the Conservatives, criticizing Israel's domestic and foreign policies immediately brands you as anti-Semitic. Indeed, displaying a profound ignorance of Israel, the Middle East and democratic free-expression, Kenney's communications director equates "anti-Israel" with "anti-Semitism".

Recently, the Conservatives used taxpayer funds to send flyers to Jewish residents in Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Montreal riding. The political flyers state that Liberals "willingly participated in [the] overtly anti-Semitic" World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa ("Durban 1"); described by Cotler as a "festival of hate".

Durban 1 occurred in 2001. The only reason to raise this issue now is to smear Cotler's character and use accusations of anti-Semitism as a political weapon.

 

7. Access to Information is a Failure

Despite Harper's repeated promises to make government transparent and accountable, he has failed. Too strong a word? Not according to then-Information Commissioner Robert Marleau, who in February 2009 gave six of 10 federal agencies a failing grade on compliance with the Access to Information Act.

Marleau said: "There are major delays, particularly with extensions, with some institutions routinely taking months to respond to information requests."

And what became of Marleau? In June 2009, he abruptly resigned halfway through his tenure for "personal and private reasons".

8. The Stimulus Spending Debacle

This was the policy that was to breathe life into our ailing economy, employ Canadians and, well, build stuff (although not surprisingly, there isn't much by way of green projects).

Employing an interesting choice of words while aloft in a plane over China, Harper said that 97% of stimulus spending is "committed". But commitment is not the same as actually doing something.

Harper also told us that his government was hard at work creating jobs, although federal officials are not tracking jobs created by the stimulus program.

Don't pay any attention to that man behind the curtain, said Harper, and he spent $34 million of our money to advertise his Action Plan (which is neither about "action" nor is it a "plan". Discuss).

While the Conservative government made a pact with the Liberals to provide updates on how the stimulus funding is being spent, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said that the updates lacked detail and weren't useful.

And it just wouldn't be a Conservative boondoggle if they didn't find some way to enrich themselves. According to the Canadian Press, stimulus cash has not been targeted to regions with high unemployment; rather ridings with Tory MPs seem to be favoured.

9. Harper's Managed Image

Whether he's playing the piano and belting out the Beatles, standing on a submarine (a Yellow Submarine?) in the Arctic, drinking a cup of Tim's with the people, or eating seal meat, photo-ops are carefully staged.

To ensure each photo is print-worthy, so that there is never a repeat of the PM looking like Howdy-Goofy, Harper's handlers have restricted photojournalists from attending certain events.

Rather, the Prime Minister's Office photographers snap orchestrated shots; portraits where the content can be controlled and the PM looks the way the PM wants.

10. Newspeak

Since Harper controls the image, he also controls the message.

In Murray Dobbin's wonderfully lucid article, "Stephen Harper: Unfit to Govern", he finds that Harper manipulates official government language. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs must now use "children in armed conflict" instead of "child soldiers" (see point 4) and it's no longer "gender equality" but "equality of men and women".

And who can forget that for well over a year, the Harper government was "Canada's New Government".

If you want to alter the culture and ethos of a nation and its peoples, change the language.

 

I have an icepack on my head and I haven't even binged on the nog yet.

This list barely scratches the surface of Harper '09. Sorry to end on such a gloomy note, but I don't have much hope that 2010 will be better than 2009.

But whatever Harper and his gang get up to, they can be sure that we'll be watching and writing and recording.

See you in the New Year!

 

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