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“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” — Katherine Graham, American journalist.
It would appear to the casual observer that there’s a lot of advertising emanating from Ottawa these days. Reading between the lines of Les Whittington’s thorough and scorching analysis of Stephen Harper’s time in office in Spinning History: A witness to Harper’s Canada and 21st century choices, you’d realize that it’s not just due to election season.
Whittington, a no-nonsense journalist from what often feels like the golden era of journalism, says what countless of academics, policy experts, historians and other journalists, have said over the years in analyzing Harper’s firm grip on power and steady remaking of the country: Canada has moved from a country celebrated for its multiculturalism, social programs, and peacemaking to one which emphasizes military conquests, adopts megaphone diplomacy, and touts lower taxes as the ticket to prosperity for all.
However, one senses that Whittington’s detailed book is his own desperate attempt to wave frantically at us from his perch to warn us of all he sees. His addition to the growing collection of books exploring Harper’s impacts on Canada is particularly worthwhile because he is a non-partisan observer, making his warnings that Canadian democracy has seriously been undermined all the more alarming.
Whittington has covered every prime minister since Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1970s and has watched administrations of all stripes rise and fall — he knows the ins and outs of federal politics as well as anyone. Yet, even he points to current political trends as deeply troubling.
His critiques of the Harper government include finding much fault with the increasingly centralized nature of the Prime Minister’s Office, or as he quotes CTV journalist Don Martin, “PMO Control Freak Central.” He notes that Green Party Elizabeth May pointed out the rising costs of maintaining such a tightly controlled ship: “About $10 million a year disappears into the PMO with zero accountability. The guys in short pants who run around bullying MPs, muzzling scientists and harassing civil servants report to one boss. Is it not time to have accountability out of the PMO?”
On that subject, Whittington points out that based on the level of control that’s now been well-documented in the PMO, and the fact that it later emerged that several staffers knew about that infamous $90,000 cheque, it’s highly unlikely that Harper was oblivious of the plan to pay off Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses (now the subject of a criminal case).
Beyond the corruption scandals, the proroguing of government (not once but twice), the election fraud, the silencing of critics, Whittington points out that even fellow travellers in Conservative circles have been highly critical of Harper’s approach and policies. Preston Manning, Reform Party founder, “lambasted the Conservatives’ environmental policies as ‘defensive and weak’. He also critiqued Harper’s move to weaken the Elections Commissioner.” Manning was also highly critical of the Senate scandal as an embarrassment to Parliament and to the prime minister.
With a tightening grip on bureaucracy while concurrently “starving the beast,” the well-documented muzzling of scientists, the elimination of the long-form census, and a host of other efforts to control democracy, Whittington notes the emergence of the judiciary as “a kind of default opposition and perhaps the most effective limitation on the Conservatives’ legislative ambitions.”
He notes several “judicial setbacks” including the Supreme Court’s rejection to shut down Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection drug clinic; a request to revamp the Senate; the appointment of Marc Nadon to the top court; a refusal to allow Internet providers to supply information to the police without a warrant; rejection of mandatory gun sentencing rules; rejection of a move to block judges’ ability to when setting a sentence to take into account the accused’s times spent in custody; tossing out of prostitution laws; and the Tsilhqot’in land rights decision (adding more hurdles to build new oil pipelines in western Canada).
This all gave rise to the Conservative effort to discredit the Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. In 2014, Harper suggested she had overstepped her role by suggesting that a particular appointment to the bench might not meet the rules. The Canadian Bar Association, and others, pushed back against what was seen as an unprecedented and unjustified attack on the judiciary.
One would think that given all this, Canadians would be weary of providing another mandate to the Conservative Party. To a certain extent, the party’s popularity has waned over the years. Whittington points to analysis which found that in 2014, only 40 per cent of Canadians were confident in Canada’s future. That is far below the 70 per cent which typically polled otherwise.
And while these “daunting numbers” would give most leaders pause, the reality is that a committed base has repeatedly been able to galvanize the vote, while many other segment of voters remain apathetic (though things appear to be changing this time around).
That being said, the weakness of the other parties on certain files that particularly energized the conservative base, as well as a potential fragmentation of the progressive vote, meant that the Conservative brand could continue to count on a large segment of the voting population — despite real setbacks to the overall quality of life enjoyed by most Canadians. We’ve also seen the party’s willingness to magnify essentially non-issues like the niqab controversy to galvanize voters.
“It had become widely accepted that the product of the neo-conservative economic era fostered by the likes of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan- and in Canada, Harper — was a staggering accumulation of wealth at the very top of the income pyramid at the expense of a loss of wealth for everyone else,” writes Whittington. He also points out that many Canadians found fault with Harper’s choices — including axing funding for many groups who advocate on behalf of various part of society.
Whether it’s chopping the so-called “KKKs” — Kelowna Accord that guaranteed $5 billion dollars to the nation’s aboriginals, or Kids programs (the Liberals national daycare and early learning plan), or Kyoto, the international protocol on global warming — or using taxpayer dollars for questionable practices including funding projects in ministerial ridings or private helicopter rides for personal trips, it’s hard to believe how anyone but the staunchest Conservatives could stomach all that’s been done with their money.
But then again, the advertising has been incessant and the opposition has been effectively sidelined.
Whittington points out several tactics used to perfection — the kneecapping of Commons committees through the deliberate attempts at controlling the process, and the 24/7 advertising machine paid for by the unsuspecting public. He also points to the omnibus bills which he argues have been damaging to democratic processes that beg for critical discussion and debate over major public decisions.
Not surprising, Whittington holds out hope that if Canadians pay more attention to what’s being done with their tax dollars, and to “who wins and who loses in government policy, and what’s being done in Canada’s name in international relations,” then things could change in ensuring that the bureaucracy functions independently from politics.
“In the meantime, it falls to everyone with a stake in Canada’s democracy — including teachers, community leaders, candidates for office, social activists, writers and broadcasters — to confront the ascendancy of propaganda on the national scene,” he writes, stepping outside of the role of detached observer, and into the role of democracy advocate. A role Whittington seems to hope his book will lead more of us to step into.
Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor at rabble. Follow her on twitter @AmiraElghawaby