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Stephen Harper, a master propagandist of the first order, is doing it again. He's blowing the dog whistle and he's got them running, no matter what gets trampled. This time, the overblown tune is war, terror, security, with civil liberties, prudence and rational thought underfoot.
The issue here is not just Harper. It's also the failure of the opposition to crystallize the argument against him over the long term, not just with regard to the terror legislation but with most of the agenda.
For the two-thirds of Canadians who want him out, unless something changes, it looks like the only real hope is that he'll beat himself.
For anyone who knows anything, the flaws in the terror bill's broad scope are obvious -- the Globe and Mail called the newly empowered CSIS "disturbingly like a secret police" created under a "cloud of fear" -- and, were Harper re-elected, would quickly enough be applied to notable enemies of the Conservative Party like environmentalists and progressive social groups.
Not that the bill doesn't have some good points -- but that's Harper's genius. He starts with a vaguely decent argument, then takes it to extremes -- but only to that precise extreme that can be muffled by the repetition of talking points.
But the bill itself is only the half of it. The deeper, ignored part is that the Harper government can't be trusted with laws of any kind. The omnibus bills delivered on short notice and passed in a whiz to avoid debate, the error-ridden bills passed with flagrant arrogance, the crippling of parliamentary committees and the abuse of parliamentary process at every level, the attack on the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and ultimately the two-faced hypocrisy of running a "law and order" government that abuses the law whenever it suits its ideology -- none of this gets into the talk. Harper is a repeat offender whose previous record is never taken into account.
Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair has made himself into an effective prosecutor-style interrogator in the Commons, but 90 per cent of his performance doesn't get past the Ottawa bubble. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau muddles as we await further policy. Neither focuses the big picture. (The Green Party's Elizabeth May, on the other hand, does -- but hers is a small voice). Mulcair and Trudeau are both trapped in the business of scoring points on the 24-hour news cycle. That's Harper's rink, where he stickhandles around them handily. As long as the focus is on the here and now, yesterday's dirty tricks are forgotten.
It has always baffled me, given the richness of the material, that the opposition leaders didn't do this: keep a crisp little mantra of the Harper record in their coat pocket and recite it every time they speak in order to keep the Harper agenda in view: the electoral fraud, the destruction of environmental and fishery laws, the crippling of the census (done to protect privacy, no less -- no sign of those concerns in the terror bill), the muzzling of scientists, the tax persecution of environmental groups and charities considered unfriendly to Harperism (even a bird-watching group in Ontario that called last summer for a pesticide to be banned had Revenue Canada sicced on them), the veterans, the hundreds of millions of tax dollars wasted to promote the party, the bung-ups in military procurement, the chopping up of the tax system for partisan reasons ...
Keeping it short, admittedly, would be a big job.
Mind you, the media -- TV mainly, but not exclusively -- helps with the amnesia. The fact that Harper thinks the media are against him is a measure of his dictatorial mindset. What he means is that they're not backing him the way Russia's media back Vladimir Putin.
He has actually succeeded in shutting down all but controlled information -- propaganda, essentially -- from the federal government with little sustained protest; the media still peddle the myth of the Conservatives as great economic managers, although their central economic pillar -- the tar sands -- has collapsed; resigning foreign affairs minister John Baird was given a hero's sendoff from both media and opposition although his main policy move -- supporting "freedom fighters" in Libya and Syria that turned out to be mostly terrorists many of which went on to form ISIS -- was catastrophic. And, of course, two of the media's biggest stars -- Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin -- compromised their entire journalistic dignity to hit the trail fundraising for him.
And Harper, who loves those sweet-talking one-on-ones with CBC's Peter Mansbridge, actually has superb TV presence -- probably the main reason for his success. A handsome guy who looks "prime ministerial" and who speaks softly, is articulate, smiles, and never raises his voice -- so that to someone who's only half-listening, uninformed or plain stupid, even if he's announcing the death of democracy as we know it, he still sounds reasonable. It's among that group that he's looking for the extra 10 per cent to put him over the top.
"How pathetic are we, divided political opposition included?" could be the real election question.
Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.
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