Harper vs. Canada: Five Ways of Looking at the Conservative Regime

By Karl Nerenberg
rabble.ca, November 30, 2013, $14.95

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It’s hard to believe that the Harper government has been in power since 2006. Then again, maybe it’s not.

Since Harper and his Conservatives came to Parliament, budgets have been slashed, civil liberties have been threatened and eroded, environments have been destroyed and public services have been gutted.

In 2011, Harper won a majority government. In 2011, rabble hired Karl Nerenberg as our first-ever parliamentary reporter.

Through Karl’s innovative reporting, rabble has been able to chronicle some of Harper’s most blatant attacks on Canadians.

He was there when Harper tried to push through undemocratic and egregious bills like the Fair Elections Act and the anti-terrorism bill. 

 He was there when Harper blatantly attacked the rights and freedoms of immigrants, refugees, workers, veterans, Indigenous people and women.

Now we’re calling out the Harper government and their record by celebrating the release of Karl’s new book Harper vs. Canada: Five Ways of Looking at the Conservative Regime.

And, on Tuesday February 18 in Ottawa you can celebrate the release of Harper vs. Canada with the panel discussion The Harper Record on Trial featuring Karl, Maude Barlow and Mark Bourrie.

Now, get a special sneak peek at Karl’s new book with this never-before-seen introduction. Enjoy!


Harper vs. Canada: Five Ways of Looking at the Conservative Regime 

In May of 2011, Stephen Harper finally won his majority government. Not long after that, I got an email from an old friend telling me that rabble.ca, which had been a leading voice among Canada’s alternative media for a decade, was planning to hire its first-ever parliamentary reporter. Might I be interested? It seemed like an intriguing idea. Making some effort to chronicle and analyze what Prime Minister Harper and his colleagues would do, now that they did not have to make the compromises necessary in a minority, would be a fascinating challenge — in, perhaps, a Grand Guignolesque sort of way. 

Harper had not exactly pulled his punches since taking power with only a minority in 2006. However, his near-death experience in 2008 — when he tried to act like he actually had a majority and as a result almost lost power to a Liberal-NDP coalition — did seem to give him some pause. Now, with the 2011 majority victory, we could expect to see the true face of the party that had started life as the populist, “bad boy,” self-styled redneck Reform Party. 

A new, radical right sweeps into Ottawa 

The Reformers stormed Ottawa in 1993, helping wipe out the Progressive Conservatives, who had governed Canada for nine years under Brian Mulroney and (for a few very brief months) Kim Campbell. The members of the Reform gang were truculently and quite proudly “politically incorrect.” They opposed what many had falsely assumed was a broad national consensus on immigration, First Nations, bilingualism, Quebec’s distinct place in the Canadian federation, and much more. Reformers wanted to lower the age at which young offenders are considered adults, hold a binding national referendum on the restoration of the death penalty, privatize the CBC, and radically cut public spending on everything except the military. They even toyed with the idea of a return to U.S.-style, private health care. However, Reform’s Leader, Preston Manning, had to ruefully admit that his party perceived very little appetite among Canadians for that draconian plan, so they dropped the idea. 

Reformers were also self-styled populists, in the distinctly Western Canadian tradition that has had both right and left forms. Manning and his team’s opposition to the constitutional change embodied in the Meech and Charlottetown Accords arose out of that Western populism. Their constitutional stance may have significantly been based on hostility to accommodating (or, the way they saw it, pandering to) the demands of Quebec and First Nations. But Reform’s anti-Meech, anti-Charlottetown battle cry also echoed the objections of some on the left who considered the two constitutional agreements to be the creations of an exclusive group of “white men in suits.” In fact, Preston Manning used to proudly claim that his party was in a direct line of descent from such Prairie populist movements as the pro-farmer, anti-banker Progressives and even the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), precursor to today’s NDP. Manning talked almost as much about such populist issues as Senate reform and the need for more free votes in the Commons as he did about getting tough on crime or reducing the size of the federal government. Indeed, Reform’s first leader often seemed more animated by his party’s democratic reform agenda than its right-of-centre economic and social program.

Once they achieved Official Opposition status in 1997, the Reformers rebranded themselves as the Canadian Alliance, trying to make tangible what was then only aspirational: that there was a single, united party of the right in Canada. That aspiration became a reality when the Canadian Alliance swallowed whole the once-proud Progressive Conservatives, a party that had been around since before Confederation. The Conservative Party of John A. Macdonald had added “Progressive” to its name in the early 1940s when it recruited Manitoba’s United Farmers’ Party Premier John Bracken as its leader. More than five decades later, the new-look Reformers adopted the older Party’s name, with one important change: they dropped the “Progressive” part. This new, merged entity did not look much different from the radical right party that stormed Ottawa in 1993. 

Harper was part of that original Reform gang. Once he took power, all of closest associates were either one-time Reformers, or folks such as Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty and John Baird, veterans of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ Reagan-Thatcher-style “Common Sense Revolution.” There was not a Red Tory among them. 

As for Preston Manning’s populist agenda — Harper jettisoned most of that. He put Senate reform on the most remote and inaccessible of back burners, and never, ever spoke about such Manning-esque ideas as the need for members of Parliament to independently represent their constituents, even at the risk of differing with party hierarchy. 

And so, to make a long story a little less long, in the late spring of 2011 it looked like Canadians were about to get Canada’s most conservative (with a small “c”) government ever. The Prime Minister called it a “strong, stable Conservative majority,” trying to sound reassuringly pragmatic and managerial. We would soon learn that his true agenda — no longer hidden — was, in fact, quite radical, and anything but reassuring. 

The third party becomes Official Opposition 

At the same time, there was a new party in the role of Official Opposition: the Jack Layton-led New Democratic Party, the NDP. That new Official Opposition had been around for a long time, since 1961 under its current name, but since 1932 as the predecessor party, the CCF. From its earliest days, the CCF and then the NDP had been Canada’s unofficial “third party,” representing the moderate, electoralist left in the federal Parliament. 

In Ottawa, journalists for the established media have tended to characterize the federal CCF-NDP as the “conscience of Parliament.” It was the party that pushed for pensions for the elderly at a time when, for many, old age meant poverty so grinding that it entailed choosing between food and medicine. During the 1930s, when anti-racism was not anywhere near a political fashion, CCFers were among the few Canadian voices speaking out against the frightening worldwide rise of anti-Semitism. Adopting that stance was not a vote-getter for the young CCF of that time. (On the other hand, the current Prime Minister’s seemingly similar expressions today — which demagogically and maliciously equate criticism of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism — appear to be entirely calculated for electoral benefit.) 

The federal CCF-NDP was the quintessential party of principle, not power. The party’s motivation was much like that of U.S. Socialist and perennial presidential candidate Norman Thomas, who famously said: “I would rather be right than President.” However, the CCF-NDPers were far more influential than their Socialist Party brethren south of the border. Canada’s Westminster-style Parliament gave the CCF-NDP significant opportunities to wield influence, especially when the party held the balance of power in minority government situations. 

As the third party, the NDP used its balance-of-power status to push for universal and comprehensive health insurance, enhanced unemployment insurance, a nuclear-weapons-free Canada, supply management for some agricultural sectors, public broadcasting, limits and controls on foreign investment, and increased aid to developing countries. The party was a successful partner to the Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau Liberal minority governments of the ’60s and ’70s, and its fingerprints are all over major Liberal legislative initiatives of that era, such as the Canada Pension Plan and the (now defunct) Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA). 

The NDP even exerted a measure of influence over majority governments. When, in the early 1980s, a number of provinces were allowing the erosion of the universal, public health-care system by tolerating practices such as physician extra billing, Pierre Trudeau, at the head of a Liberal majority, brought in the Canada Health Act. That legislation — which laid down conditions under which provinces would be entitled to receive federal health-care funding and enunciated the principles of comprehensive coverage — is now something of a Canadian sacred cow. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government did not touch it, nor did the debt- and deficit-obsessed Chrétien-Martin Liberals. Stephen Harper’s government has subtly undermined the principles of the Act, but even Harper has not dared take the axe to it. The question remains, however: Would Trudeau’s Liberals even have proposed the Canada Health Act, in the same principled and far-reaching way they did, were there not a significant group on the left sitting in the House of Commons? Trudeau had a comfortable majority and, in theory, a free hand to govern as he saw fit. And yet, the fact that there was a sizeable NDP caucus in the House had a subtle influence on the political culture. That influence could be felt in the sorts of policies even a majority government pursued. For the NDP, that’s what it meant to be the “conscience of Parliament.” 

A new story in federal politics 

Following the 2011 election there was a whole new federal political story — a new alignment of forces in Parliament. The former third party and “conscience of the House” was now the alternative government. Today, more than three years on, with the once humiliated Liberals, now led by Pierre Trudeau’s amiable first-born son, leading in most opinion polls, things might look quite different. As this Parliament was about to get under way in the spring of 2011, however, it seemed as though we had a reconfigured battlefield in federal politics — one which brought with it new and very fearsome dangers, yes, but also, quite novel and even hopeful opportunities. At any rate, that’s how it looked to a journalist who, on and off, had covered federal politics since Trudeau père’s time. 

And so, together, rabble.ca and this writer launched themselves on our shared adventure. This collection is something of a summary account of the more than three years of reporting on federal politics that resulted. We call it Harper vs. Canada because, despite a new party in the Official Opposition role, it is the Prime Minister who has been in command. Harper and his Conservatives have been on the offence, and it is their actions on which we have unavoidably focused. 

We describe the selected material in this book as “Five ways of looking at the Conservative regime.” Why “regime” and not “government” or “administration”? We chose that word, frankly, because Harper and his troops have tended to act more like folks who took power via a coup d’état than an election. They have not behaved like a party whose main purpose is to enact its legislative program and solve the country’s problems, relying on the best evidence available. Rather, they seem to be on a mission to permanently, irrevocably and fundamentally change Canada in ways with which a majority of Canadians would almost certainly disagree. 

There is no evidence that the majority of Canadians are in favour of eliminating control of long guns, increasing sentences for many minor crimes, undoing most environmental regulation, uncritically supporting one side in the Middle East conflict, or making it more difficult for young, poor and Aboriginal Canadians to vote. And those are only a few examples of major Conservative legislative initiatives. 

The Harperites have even targeted Canada’s self-image — its psychology, if you will. Witness their resuscitation of the adjective “Royal,” which had pretty much disappeared from Canadian public discourse years ago; and their near laughable efforts to glorify anything about Canada that is muscular, aggressive and militaristic. As I write these words, in August 2014, we are in the midst of yet another bout of such deliberate mythmaking, with the Harper government’s manufactured brouhaha over the 100th-anniversary of the War to End All Wars, the First World War. 

Five ways of looking at the Harper regime 

The five ways we have chosen of looking at the Harper insurgency cover: Democracy; Foreign Affairs; Environment; First Nations; and Refugees, Migrant Workers and Immigration. That list is not exhaustive. It does not come close to fully covering what Harper’s Conservatives have wrought since September 2011, and rabble.ca‘s reportage on all of it. But each of the “five ways of looking” does capture a central policy and political priority for the Harper team. 

On the democracy front, the Harper government has tried, and partly succeeded, in legislating U.S.-style voter suppression in the form of the Orwellian-titled “Fair Elections Act.” Prior to that initiative, the Conservatives merely practiced voter suppression (using robocalls, for instance) but did not legislate it. 

In foreign affairs, Harper has decided to become an unpaid mouthpiece for the intransigent and uncompromising right-wing forces in Israel. Canada’s pretensions to being an honest broker, in the past, may have been somewhat over-blown. But Harper’s extreme, rigid, faux-moralistic position is something we have not seen in Canadian foreign policy since the Boer War, when the battle cry of British Empire loyalists was: “Ready aye ready.” 

On First Nations, while some Euro-Canadians may see Harper as the Prime Minister who publicly apologized for the residential school system (at the urging of Jack Layton, one should note), to First Nations people he is the Prime Minister who ditched the Kelowna Accord (to which all provinces and Aboriginal groups had agreed) and took a machete to a whole series of legislative measures that protected First Nations’ rights. In the process, he acted as a catalyst to the Idle No More movement. 

Many of those legislative measures were related to the environment (the Navigable Waters Act, for instance), and Harper’s tough-on-First-Nations policy has also been, in Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s words, a “tough on nature” policy — hence our inclusion in this collection of a section on environment.

Finally, it is no coincidence that one of Harper’s most influential ministers, Jason Kenney, has for most of his tenure, occupied the position of Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism. This Conservative government proudly proclaims that it sees immigration policy as a key element of nation-building. It harkens back to Laurier’s powerful Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, who sought to populate the western Prairies with hardy folk from the cold and windy steppes of Eastern Europe. Kenney has sought to rid Canadian immigration and refugee policy of its humanitarian elements. He has severely curtailed the (on a global scale relatively small) influx of refugees to Canada, vastly expanded the guest worker program (until it became a political liability), and placed emphasis almost solely on the economic value of migrants, to the exclusion of basic human and social factors such as family reunification. Harper’s government even petulantly cancelled a modest and low-cost refugee health program, on the pretext that undeserving foreigners should not get “gold-plated” coverage unavailable to average hard-working Canadians.

Before we get to those “five ways,” we set the scene with two prefatory stories. One looks at the first day of the new Parliament in September 2011, a day that featured a brief moment of unanimity with tributes to the late Jack Layton. The other relates the very beginnings of what was to become one of Harper’s signature legislative tactics: the omnibus bill crammed with multiple, disparate and often unrelated measures. 

From the outset of his new regime, Prime Minister Harper clearly signalled that the usual practices of democratic governance were mere inconvenient annoyances to him.


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...