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Murray Dobbin's blog

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Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca. Murray has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. A board member with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, he has written five studies for the centre including examinations of charter schools, and "Ten Tax Myths." Murray has been a columnist for the Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press and contributes guest editorials to the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and other Canadian dailies. He writes a regular "State of the Nation" column for the on-line journal TheTyee.ca which is published simultaneously on rabble.ca. His blog is murraydobbin.ca.

'Our benign dictatorship': Harper and coalition politics

| April 3, 2011

I have just come across an article written by Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan in 1997 -- the year that Harper left politics to join the National Citizens Coalition. The article, published in Next City, Winter 1996/97 was called "Our benign dictatorship" and sub-titled: "Canada's system of one-party-plus rule has stunted democracy."

The article is essentially a long treatise about the weakness of the first-past-the-post electoral system and is a strong argument for …wait for it …coalition governments. With the Liberals looking to win another majority under Jean Chretien, Harper and his American ex-patriot sidekick were attracted to the notion of Canada as a Liberal dictatorship:

Harper and Flanagan (later Harper's election campaign co-director) wrote:

"Although we like to think of ourselves as living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little better than a benign dictatorship, not under a strict one-party rule, but under a one-party-plus system beset by the factionalism, regionalism and cronyism that accompany any such system. Our parliamentary government creates a concentrated power structure out of step with other aspects of society. For Canadian democracy to mature, Canadian citizens must face these facts, as citizens in other countries have, and update our political structures to reflect the diverse political aspirations of our diverse communities."

Would the real Stephen Harper please stand up. It seems that once he has had a taste for power his complaints about dictatorship fade away. There is no doubt that Chretien could be ruthless in his exercise of power -- but Harper has rewritten the rules on how far executive dictatorship can go in this country.

The two men finish their essay with musings about coalition governments:

"We are conservatives, and it is not our place to speculate at length about what the left could or should do. Yet voters on the left are as much entitled as voters on the right to effective elected representation. Electoral reform might well revive the left. It could, for example, lead to cooperation between the NDP and the left-leaning wing of the Liberals, perhaps producing a national social democratic vehicle with a genuine chance of governing, or at least participating in a coalition cabinet.

Of course, none of this can be foretold in detail; political change always produces unexpected and surprising consequences. But we believe there is good reason to think seriously along these lines. In today's democratic societies, organizations share power. Corporations, churches, universities, hospitals, even public sector bureaucracies make decisions through consultation, committees and consensus-building techniques. Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers. Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline and expel subordinates.

Among major democracies, only Great Britain so ruthlessly concentrates power. In the United States, President Clinton cannot govern without making concessions to the Republicans in Congress. In Germany, Chancellor Kohl needs to keep the support not only of the CSU but of the Free Democrats. In France, the presidency and the national assembly are often controlled by different party coalitions. In most of the rest of Europe, proportional representation ensures that coalition governments routinely form cabinets. In Australia, the Liberal prime minister needs the National Party for a majority in the House of Representatives and, often, the support of additional parties to get legislation through the Senate. In New Zealand, which used to have a Canadian-style system of concentrated power, the voters rebelled against alternating Labour party and National party dictatorships: electoral reform now ensures coalition cabinets.

Many of Canada's problems stem from a winner-take-all style of politics that allows governments in Ottawa to impose measures abhorred by large areas of the country. The political system still reverberates from shock waves from Pierre Trudeau's imposition of the National Energy Program upon the West and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms upon Quebec. Modernizing Canadian politics would not only be good for conservatism, it might be the key to Canada's survival as a nation.”

It is hard to credit that Stephen Harper actually wrote this article give his extreme concentration of power in the PMO and his countless violations of democracy. The explanation? Mr Harper's severe personality disorder. His malignant narcissism was held in check so long as he didn't actually have power. But once he achieved it his will to dominate, his contempt for others, and his incapacity for remorse gradually came to dominate his government. It has gotten worse over the past five years and can only continue on that track the longer he is in charge.

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