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Bullies in power: Rob Ford, Stephen Harper and the politics of smearing and intimidation

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Earlier this year, Toronto's medical officer of health, David McKeown, recommended that the city's speed limits be lowered to improve road safety. Here is the entire response from the Mayor of Toronto: "Nuts, nuts, nuts, nuts. No." The proposal, he declared without elaboration, was "absolutely ridiculous."

Verbal abuse -- a form of bullying, as every school kid is taught -- is what Rob Ford substitutes for debate. 

The mayor and his brother, Councilor Doug Ford, went on to badmouth Dr. McKeown on their radio talk show in what this paper called "a shameful performance." (Councillor Ford recently threatened two other councilors that "I'll whup your asses.") Toronto's Integrity Commissioner found that their attack constituted a violation of city council's Code of Conduct, leading the mayor to call for the position of Integrity Commissioner to be abolished. You might call this the Stephen Harper view of independent government watchdogs: They either sell out or get out. 

Bullying and abusing opponents is a way of life for Toronto's mayor, and hundreds of thousands of Torontonians -- the "Ford Nation" -- still seem to love it. He won close to half of all votes cast in a three-man mayoralty race, and even now, after two years of enough self-inflicted wounds to finish off a T-Rex, he still commands significant support. Only the rash would bet against his re-election. Olivia Chow, be warned! 

Maybe the traditional hype about us Canadians being such a caring, sharing bunch is all wrong. The evidence that we actually cherish bullies is pretty impressive. Our public broadcaster knows that. On the one hand, CBC Radio is awash in earnest little anti-bullying segments. On the other, you can barely turn on CBC TV without finding that menacing Dragon, Kevin O'Leary, glowering at you from one or another of his innumerable shows. "Business is war," proclaims Mr. O'Leary. "I go out there, I want to kill the competitors. I want to make their lives miserable. I want to steal their market share. I want them to fear me." 

This is the very same CBC that the Conservatives and their Sun media pals demonize for its flagrant left-wing anti-business bias. And whose Don Cherry will be back sooner or later, another fine role model and champion for kids of every age. 

You'd think Stephen Harper would embrace this new and nasty CBC as his government moves steadily to demolish the caring, sharing identity Canadians used to revel in. The Conservative technique for smearing their opponents is simply a form of political bullying. And it's been enormously successful. They've made chopped liver of Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff and have begun their assault on Thomas Mulcair. As columnist Lawrence Martin reminds us, the PM "is still running a campaign of lies" against Mr. Mulcair on the carbon-tax issue, and Martin confidently predicts that "Harper's attacks on [Justin] Trudeau will be vicious." 

Certain aspects of the Harper record are thoroughly documented in a recent must-read report prepared by Voices-Voix , the civil society coalition, for the UN Human Rights Council. In effect, it's a litany of bullying practices that characterize the government's treatment of civil society organizations it finds ideologically offensive. 

Many charities, faith-based organizations, human rights groups, trade unions, development organizations, women's equality groups and environmental organizations have already felt the government's sting. They have lost funding, had their leaders publicly vilified, their patriotism questioned, their charitable status revoked and their fundraising capacity crippled. Others yet unpunished for their views have been duly warned. Watch for the Canada Revenue Agency to suddenly pay a call. 

In the international arena, too, scolding, hectoring, and threatening has become the modus operandi of the PM and his foreign affairs minister. For Messrs. Harper and Baird, intimidation is a tool of statecraft, never before the Canadian way of conducting our international relations. 

As in all bullying relationships, rationality and commonsense are irrelevant. Radical Hamas, duly elected in Gaza, is ostracized for using violence and moderate Fatah, duly elected in the West Bank, is rebuked for using non-violence. At the same time, Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird were slow to criticize new illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, which make a peaceful resolution to an intractable conflict even more remote. 

Why the Palestinians weren't entitled to approach the UN without the approval of the country that illegally occupies them is a mystery to most of the world. Even former conservative Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert endorsed the move. But when it comes to the Palestinians, as to all those Canadian organizations that dare support their plight, the Harper government takes what Globe reporter Campbell Clark calls "a bare-knuckle approach." 

Before week's end, Mr. Baird was instructing the Palestinians what he would and wouldn't tolerate from them given their new status. That's the thing about bullies. They are never satisfied. 

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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