The Republic of Harper

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Members of Parliament arriving after the holiday recess were greeted Monday by hundreds of Idle No More demonstrators rallying on Parliament Hill. The Canada-wide protests give encouragement to the numerous adversaries of the Harper government, which studiously ignores opposition to its agenda.

At the halfway point in its majority mandate, the Harper government treats the House of Commons with disdain, refusing to answer opposition questions, undermining committee work, and using members' statements to lie about its opponents. The government wants to foster cynicism about Ottawa, Parliament and the political process in general.

The Conservative Party of Canada provides Harper with a secure base. As Pundits' Guide shows, its funding capacity sets it apart. In 2011, an election year, they raised $23 million -- about twice as much money as the Liberals -- from 110,700 people, about twice as many individual donors as the Grits. 

In 2010, a non-election year, the CPC raised three times as much money as the Liberals, from more than three times as many donors. In both years the NDP trailed the Liberals.

Following the election expected in October 2015, the current public funding of parties (through a yearly per vote subsidy) will end. At that point, the CPC donor base, built through the political tax credit, also a public subsidy (where a  generous percentage of individual political donations can be deducted against taxes payable) will be an even more valuable asset.

Unless the opposition parties figure out how to mobilize citizens to support their efforts, the CPC looks to dominate election spending, and the political process, for the foreseeable future.

Harper celebrated the return of parliament by tweeting his activities for the day, starting with his breakfast, taken next to Stanley, the cat. This stunt is the latest in a series that has been going on for while. Call it an image makeover, designed to take the harsh edges off the PM. Having him wear glasses was an early example.

A softer Stephen Harper, out for a sandwich or a doughnut with folks is what gets highlighted, and then contrasted with the leader shaking hands with other leaders, or sitting at a desk. How he appears in public must be important to Harper. Internationally, the prime minister travels with a hair stylist.

Making the prime minister look presidential is a big part of the Harper government strategy. So what if he is only the Member for Calgary Southwest, serving as head of his parliamentary caucus, and party, until he is ousted by an in-house coup, or resigns because of public disapproval.

Conservatives pretend the prime ministerial mandate comes directly from the people, even though Canadians do not vote for him, the way Americans vote for their president. Anointing himself head of state, as well as head of government, encourages the media to centre their news coverage on him, with the Official Opposition, and other parties as afterthoughts.

The Harper government has some policy cards to play before the next election. Expect another reduction in the GST; it will go over well with families feeling a financial pinch. An infrastructure program will be rolled out, so some cranes can be part of the pre-election backdrop, for the federal government ads paid by the public, extolling virtues of the Harper government.

The Harper government wants to announce a European trade deal. Selling the corporate propaganda is going to prove difficult as Canadians discover how "free" trade implants monopoly rights for Big Pharma, and costs for health care increase accordingly, by as much as $2.8 billion.  

CPC policies are provoking negative reactions, and organized opposition outside parliament. Denying unemployment benefits to seasonal workers is rallying support and sympathy in Atlantic Canada. No government likes to make even a vote poor region into a permanent enemy.

The Conservatives lost half their Quebec caucus of 10 members in the 2011 election. By abandoning the asbestos industry, finally, after it lost provincial support, the CPC put itself at risk in the asbestos-rich ridings that account for all but one of its five remaining seats.

Idle No More, the full-fledged First Nations protest movement that emerged in 2012 has captured the public imagination with a determined defence of Mother Earth. How the Harper government handles widening opposition to its resource-exploitation-without-consultation agenda may well determine its longevity.

Trying to force through the Northern Gateway pipeline will provoke resistance seldom seen to government policy in this country. The cross-border Keystone pipeline project will live or die depending on how it plays out in the U.S. The Alberta tar sands projects only work if the U.S. decides to import bitumen. Canada as an energy super-power turns out to exist only in the mind of the prime minister. The Canadian constitution and the U.S. president have more to say about tar sands development than he does.

Civil society has thrown up three new initiatives to rally opposition to the Harper government agenda. The Peoples' Social Forum, Common Causes, and the Port Elgin Coalition are all going to be using social media and street actions to criticize and attack the government.

Widespread complaints about how Conservatives used voter suppressions tactics in the last election have the Harper government under attack in the courts in cases backed by the Council of Canadians. The remedy for the courts is to overturn 2011 election results in affected ridings. Contempt for basic voting rules could turn even Conservative voters against the party.

The first day back Conservatives got the news a bond-rating agency had just downgraded the credit ratings of the big Canadian banks because of Canadian economic weakness. For a party and a government that claims to have all the economic answers, it was not a welcome beginning to 2013.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr

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