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January 2014 marks eight full years of power for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, years filled with sweeping attacks on a host of things that Canadians value dearly. He and his Conservative government have damaged or weakened Canada's health-care system, social welfare programs, women's equality and human rights initiatives, First Nations rights, environmental protection, science and evidence-based policies, our international reputation as peacekeepers, and our very democracy.
Although much has been written about these injuries and losses, most of it has been from left-leaning news sources and commentators, such as rabble, labour unions, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a handful of more progressive mainstream media. Even Harper's 2006 boast: "You won't recognize Canada when I'm through with it," which I had assumed was infamous and well-known, appears almost exclusively on progressive blogs, or website comments and letters to the editor. The average Canadian probably has no idea Harper even said that!
Why isn't there more widespread awareness and opposition to how Harper is transforming Canada to conform to his narrow ideological agenda? That agenda seems to largely consist of promoting war, maximizing oil profits, creating a corporate oligarchy, and muzzling any real or potential critics, among other sins.
Opposition parties do a pretty good job in Parliament trying to hold the government's feet to the fire, in spite of being hamstrung by the current majority government. However, most people don't watch CPAC. We can point some fingers at the failures of the mainstream media of course, because of the concentration of media in a few corporate hands, the decline of traditional investigative journalism, and a media culture that fawns over power and has lost sight of its true masters -- the common people (the rabble!).
But the media has also been hamstrung. We've been living under the most secretive government in Canada's history, according to a 2012 vote by members of the Canadian Association of Journalists. They chided the federal government for keeping information out of public hands, avoiding questions at media events, and restricting media access to contentious information. At the time, the group's president Hugo Rodrigues said: "The death grip on information has long frustrated journalists in this country, but it may now be reaching a point where the public at large is not only empathetic, but shares it."
Although one would hope that's the case, we are still confronted with the conundrum of pretty solid support for Harper from his Conservative base. A November 2013 poll found that Conservative party support has only slipped slightly, despite the Senate scandal that had already implicated Harper by then.
What is really going on here? We'd like to think that only a minority of Canadians truly support Harper's ideological slash-and-burn mentality, as illustrated by his government's obstinacy on climate change despite 59 per cent of the public wanting the Conservatives to make the issue a top priority. But that does leave 41 per cent for whom it's not a top priority. In fact, the same poll revealed that half of respondents gave the government poor marks for its performance on climate change, implying that the other half were satisfied. But the United Nations had just slammed Canada for its abysmal record on climate change, so on what exactly are those respondents basing their positive opinion?
Could it be that Harper has been successfully duping his supporters over the past eight years? In addition to silencing his critics, which means that the public doesn't get to hear their voices much, the Conservative government has consistently engaged in a pattern of lies, broken promises and obfuscations since day one. Unfortunately, the mainstream media seems to have only just discovered Harper's complex "web of deceit," in relation to the Senate scandal.
Of course, all governments end up guilty of obfuscation and broken promises to some extent, but the Harper government seems to have successfully divorced its rhetoric from any semblance of good intentions or truth. Despite their message being little more than smoke and mirrors, Conservative Party leaders claim that it "resonates" with voters. Perhaps many people really are fooled by it, at least at election time. Or maybe his supporters just don't give a damn what Harper does or doesn't do.
However, going back to the climate change issue, perhaps that 50 per cent public support for the government's poor record on climate change reflects the fact that conservatives are less likely to value environmental protection in the first place, with many of them likely denying outright that climate change is human-caused, especially in Harper's home province of Alberta.
Some of Harper's most grievous misdeeds have actually been widely publicized in the mainstream press, most notably his proroguing of Parliament four times simply to shut down debate and criticism. But such transgressions still had negligible effects on his popularity. This might lend weight to the "don't give a damn" theory, but I think it's more likely that Conservative voters tend to harbour an authoritarian mindset that leads them to heartily approve of heavy-handed tactics by their government, especially when used to silence the Opposition and piss off progressives.
The Senate scandal may yet bring down Harper before the 2015 election, especially in light of an October poll that found 68 per cent of respondents think Harper should step down immediately, if it's proven that he lied. So perhaps even some diehard Conservatives are finally becoming disenamoured with Harper. Still, it's hard to know what to make of the 30 per cent of respondents who gave a thumbs up to keeping a potential liar in the Prime Minister's office until the next election.
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Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.
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