Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Tom Flanagan is now persona non grata, but his ideology lives on

| February 28, 2013
Tom Flanagan is now persona non grata, but his ideology lives on

Tom Flanagan was one of Stephen Harper's key mentors, and remains perhaps the most influential ideologue of the current "Conservative movement" -- the movement that's in power in Ottawa right now.

You can get some sense of Flanagan's ideology in his many articles and speeches and in his books, especially Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and the Conservative Movement which was originally published in 1997, but re-issued in an updated version last year.

Flanagan, who is originally from the United States and is a leading member of the neo-conservative "Calgary School," has written most extensively on Aboriginal matters.

He has argued that most Aboriginal militancy is manufactured by the "Aboriginal industry," the army of consultants and advisors who egg on the Aboriginal leadership and profit from the ongoing conflict between Aboriginal and "mainstream" societies.

It is a fairly dark and conspiratorial theory, and takes little account of the concrete current and historic realities of Aboriginal Canada; but that's Flanagan for you.

He has also advocated for property rights on First Nations reserves, but has to be given credit, on that front, for a willingness to modify his initial hard line after being exposed to former Kamloops Chief Manny Jules' much more nuanced position.

Jules is the chief advocate in Canada for First Nations property rights. He favours a tailored system suited to Aboriginal history and culture, not a reproduction of the majority (colonial) society's "fee simple" system.

Flanagan has admitted publicly that he learned much from Jules that changed his view on this complex issue -- an issue he once believed was oh-so-simple.

He has not shown similar open-mindedness on much else.

Like children, Canadians need behaviour modification

The essence of Harper's mentor's political philosophy, if one could call it a philosophy, owes as much to Machiavelli as it does to any of the philosophic heroes the new right, going back to Adam Smith and his famous "invisible hand."

Flanagan's goal has been to get the Conservatives to understand that they must re-invent Canada, not merely govern it. And they have to do this in the face of the fact that even if Canadians might put the Conservatives in power (thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system) those same Canadians are still "soft, spoiled and socialistic."

Canadians, Flanagan believes, must -- like children who don't know what's good for them -- be gently but firmly led to the brisk and bracing Conservative promised land.

Indeed, Harper's mentor harbours an attitude toward his adopted country that is not dissimilar to that of colonizers on a "civilizing and Christianizing" mission toward the benighted and unschooled "natives."

It is no use trying to reason with the spoiled and recalcitrant welfare state clients that Canadians are, Flanagan has argued.

The way to re-make Canada, Flanagan teaches, is through behaviour modification. His central message: Change the rules of the game and change the incentives of the system and we will change the people and the country.

The tactic of resorting to stealth to get the Conservative Party’s main legislative agenda through Parliament (see omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45) comes, either directly or indirectly, from Flanagan.

As well, Flanagan's ideology is behind the end of the per capita subsidy to political parties, the raising of the minimum age for Old Age Security, the draconian tightening of Employment Insurance rules for seasonal workers, and the virtual elimination of environmental hearings for energy projects.

In the last case, the Flanagan ideology reasons that if First Nations, environmentalists and other do-gooder ne'er-do-wells are deprived of a platform, their voices -- like Bishop Berkeley’s tree in the forest -- will echo in futile silence.

Fund your friends, starve your critics

In fact, Flanagan has been most emphatic in advocating that the Conservatives should de-fund all those "Liberal friends" in civil society.

Stop giving taxpayer dollars, he has said, to the array of non-governmental organizations that work on the environment, social justice, international development, and women's and children's issues (some, likely, raising concerns over sexual exploitation of children).

Flanagan has argued that Liberal governments spent public funds to subsidize their political "allies" in civil society, even if some of those supposed allies used some of that money to quite harshly criticize the Liberals.

In the view of Flanagan and the Harper Conservatives, tolerating that sort of criticism is symptomatic of a sort of masochistic pathology among Liberals (and, provincially, where they have been in power, among NDPers).

The Conservatives have been blunt about not funding anyone who, in any way, openly disagrees with any aspect of their program.

And they have gone even further.  They have worked hard to steer funds to their ideological soul mates and friends among the Evangelicals, regardless of what those friends may have to say about homosexuality.

Flanagan's 'perch has been unique'

You can find the most thorough elaboration of the Flanagan philosophy in a book by two up and coming young Canadian neo-conservatives, Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah: Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution.

The two up-and-comers are big Flanagan fans.

This is what Daifallah had to say about Flanagan in a review of the updated version of Waiting for the Wave, in the Globe and Mail, last summer:

Other than Stephen Harper, no person is as qualified as Tom Flanagan to offer an insider's perspective on the Reform Party, its reincarnation as the Conservative Party and what has transpired since then. As a Reform activist and staffer (he worked closely with Preston Manning for two years) and as the occupant of several important roles in the Canadian Alliance and Conservatives (including election campaign manager in 2004), the University of Calgary professor's perch has been unique.

Flanagan's rather overly frank comments on child pornography may have pushed him off that "unique perch."

But Flanagan's ideology is very much alive and well, and living in the halls of power, in Ottawa.

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