The Senate scandal uncovers Harper's real downfall

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When caught up in some slippery scheme, your downfall is often the banana peel underfoot as you run for the getaway car, not the bank heist itself.

And let's understand this: the Senate uproar is a mere banana peel compared to the real Harper scandal -- the slyly evolving plan to turn Canada into an authoritarian petro-state, bulldozing democracy, due process, national institutions, the law itself and whatever other detritus stands in its way.

The Senate stuff is highly entertaining -- great hubristic flameouts, reputations in tatters, partners in the enterprise of fleecing the taxpayer clawing for small shreds of dignity -- but in the end, it's mostly about a few bucks and "who knew what when." Very perishable stuff as scandals go.

However, just as the banana peel unmakes the man, questions of "trust" and "character" emerge. These are airy things -- substitutes for deeper questions of policy that the public doesn't quite understand, or understands only in little bits, but feels increasingly queasy about.

The public doesn't get it because, to give the devil his due, Harper is a very slick manipulator, his crew well-trained in the propaganda techniques borrowed from the now discredited Bush/Cheney regime in the U.S.

The public has plenty to be queasy about. It would take a book to recite the entire litany -- the "big lie" technique works by overwhelming one outrage with another -- but consider the gagging of federal scientists (to the astonishment of other democracies), the trashing of environmental and fishery laws, being noxious pests on the international stage, the use of grab-all omnibus bills to avoid accountability, neutering parliamentary committees, proroguing Parliament at will, declaring environmental and foreign-aid groups "enemies," robo-calls ... you get the idea.

Contempt for the rule of law drips through all of this. Any enlightened Canadian can only shudder at the thought of these budding dictators being elected again to finish the job.

Let us pause to draw a conclusion. What we're seeing is not just a Senate muddle. It's Harper himself presumably coming down. If so, it's past time for some actors in the piece to speak up.

Take, for example, the government of Nova Scotia, among others. Harper holds these provinces in contempt because they're not resource-extracting behemoths.

He's just jigged health-care transfers to give a billion dollars more to Alberta, which doesn't need it, and to take from places like Nova Scotia in particular. Cuts to other things indicate his "solution" for us: drive as many people as possible to the tar sands. The real solution is to get rid of Harper. It's time to say so.

Or the federal opposition parties. It's fine to hone in on the wounded Harper. However, the time has come to start talking about how they'd repair the damage already done -- the census, the trashed laws, foreign policy, economic policy overly torqued to resources, etc.

The belief that Harper's low poll numbers are something he can recover from is based on the notion of balancing the budget and economic growth. There's deception in both arguments.

The budget seems on the way to being balanced by 2015 -- election year. Let us ask how. One thing about Harperism: if you're looking, you rarely have to go beyond the day's news to find out what's up.

Thus, in Wednesday's paper: "Gravely injured troops are being booted from the military before they qualify for a pension, despite assurances to the contrary from the Harper government." And the day after: The province will pay to remove the shipwreck off Cape Breton because Ottawa won't, although it's in its jurisdiction.

Multiply these little cuts by the thousands across the country and you have the shrinkage in public spending Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was crowing about this week. Indeed, he pointed out that some departments are actually underspending by hundreds of millions of dollars. Disingenuously, he said this was a concern and he'd look into it.

In other words, bureaucrats know what Harper really wants: don't spend even what's been budgeted. And so -- wink, wink -- we'll pay the injured troops their pensions, but, oops, too bad, the bureaucrats won't deliver.

As for "growth," this is predicated almost exclusively on tar sands and other resource-extraction projects, of which the federal government has some 600 in mind for the next few years, many on aboriginal territory. Keeping environmentalists and other "foreign agitators" down, and dismissing the environment itself, will be part of that.

As for the Senate, well, 18th-century British wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said it for me when he wrote: "Combinations of wickedness would overwhelm the world did not those who have long practised perfidy grow faithless to each other."

This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

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