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Andrew Coyne on Harper: A response

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"The nastiness of Tory politics under Harper, the mindless partisanship, the throttling of backbench MPs, are not outgrowths of conservatism. They were born, rather, of its repudiation: of the decision to sterilize the new party of any ideological convictions, the better (it was supposed) to remove any obstacle to its electability." Andrew Coyne

No, Andrew, this will not do. Much of Canadian politics these days may indeed be only a matter of style without ideological underpinnings—the Trudeau-Mulcair pas de deux reinforces that notion—but the style of the Harper government was the logical outgrowth of a clear ideology, not just an unpleasant manner of doing business as usual. To claim that the Harper government was non-ideological is flat-out wrong.

The CPC based its political practice upon routine abuse of power, fraud and deceit, dirty trickery, and clandestine operations—but this sort of thing has not been unknown in Canada's past political culture. The Conservatives went somewhat further than other parties, however, ripping and tearing Parliamentary conventions to tatters. All of that could perhaps be regarded as thuggish ends-justify-the-means shortcuts to implement general policy that was not in itself extreme. Coyne appears to be making that case; but there was considerably more to the Harper regime than the cynical, and/or "pragmatic," move to the centre that other parties have tended to adopt.

Reasonable arguments are to be had in abundance for and against "keeping taxes low," "tough on crime," "national security," and other broad-stroke Conservative messages intended to appeal to the electorate; such debates are well within our Canadian political tradition. But what are we to make of the abolition of the long-form census? There was no popular groundswell against it that the Conservatives could point to: fewer than 100 Canadians, some of them conspiracy nuts, actually complained about it. And that was only a part of the war on data launched by the Conservatives shortly after taking office in 2006. In fact, the latter became almost a hallmark of the Harper regime.

"We don't govern by statistics in our government," averred Rob Nicholson as Minister of Justice, a statement he was happy to repeat almost word for word more than two years later. Scientists were forbidden to share information about everything from a hole in the ozone layer to rock snot. They were accompanied by government minders when they attended conferences; even librarians were muzzled and encouraged to inform on each other if they grew too bold.

The pattern here does not easily fit into the crowd-pleasing, opportunist centrism of which Coyne accuses the Harper government. One could see restraining over-eager caucus members, Harper's fiscal and social conservatives, as a calculated play for popular support—although he threw them more than a bone from time to time. But how does one explain how he so consistently managed to affront almost every constituency in Canada?

Some of them you would expect him to target: First Nations, for example, to whom he contemptuously refused an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, while his officials gangstalked First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock, and defamed band councils. Environmentalists were relentlessly spied uponred-baited and hobbled by politically-motivated Canada Revenue Agency audits. Status of Women Canada was forced to remove the word "equality" from its mandate; pay equity was effectively abolished for federal public employees. Unions, too, were in Harper's sights, as his government rammed anti-labour legislation through Parliament despite criticism from across the political spectrum.

No surprises there, perhaps. But it's less easy to understand his attacks on what might appear to be essential elements of his own base: older Canadians, for example, whose OAS pensions were put off by two years; veterans, who had the temerity to ask for decent treatment in return for their service; Western farmers who voted to keep the Canadian Wheat Board; even SUN-reading working stiffs, made unemployed by the massive importation of temporary foreign workers (the flow reduced by a faux-indignant Jason Kenney when it became news).

When a government ploughs ahead with bizarre policy initiatives seemingly out of the blue, we are not, pace Coyne, dealing with strategic centrist political engineering. On the contrary, this is ideology narrowly construed, a consistent pattern of values and practices, capital-T Truth fiercely adhered to by ideologues and imposed upon the people with power instead of argument. We've witnessed nothing less than a recrudescence of pre-Enlightenment thinking, where doctrine pre-empted—often painfully—scientific observation and "heretical" reflections. It's "don't confuse me with facts, my mind is made up" raised to the level of government policy.

Stephen Harper was likely the most ideologically-driven Prime Minister we have ever had. His project was to move a largely unwilling populace towards a reconstructed country where the "old stock" is in charge, and a thoroughly disciplined, docile precariat works long, ill-paid, benefitless hours, tugging its forelock on pain of dismissal. He wanted a nation with ranked castes of citizenship, as Christian as possible under the circumstances. A country ruled by uneducated true believers, where intellectuals and artists are tightly controlled by state apparatchiks. A country with ever-increasing state surveillance and neighbourhood informers. A country of almost comic-opera military posturing—the expensive 1812 nonsense, for example, or the Prime Minister shrilling like a pre-adolescent schoolboy at Vladimir Putin, bombing barbarous brown folks with the best of them, and dismissing peacekeeping with a barely-disguised sneer. A country that would have placed at the heart of its capital city a Soviet-style monument, ironically dedicated to the "victims of Communism," and another monstrous piece of kitsch, "Mother Canada," to despoil Cape Breton National Park.

Andrew Coyne and his colleagues in the Parliamentary Press Gallery continue to offer their assurances and soporifics, but there is something disingenuous and irresponsible in promoting the view that little under Harper, other than a no-holds-barred partisanship, was fundamentally amiss. By turfing the Harperium, Canadians just dodged a fusillade—and the corporate media pundits, fingers in their ears, are still claiming that no shot was fired.

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