Beyond dirty politics: Harperism threatens democracy itself

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It's getting worse.

Stephen Harper is now serving notice that he's willing to tear the social fabric of the country apart if that's what it takes to get his party re-elected. That is, if torquing democratic process, the rule of law, election rules, the tax system etc., etc., to make them conform to Harperism isn't enough, he'll throw stink bombs in the public place in the expectation that, amid the chaos, he'll be seen as the strong hand who can straighten things out.

There were several of these this past week. Speaking to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, Harper let fall that rural people should be armed if they're "a ways away from immediate police assistance." He was accused of promoting vigilantism by, among others, the national assembly of Quebec, which passed a unanimous resolution denouncing him.

He dismissed the accusation as ridiculous, insisting that his was a "moderate" position. This is the Harper technique. Stake out an extreme position, then dress it up in moderation and wait for it to be accepted as such, by the Harperist "base" first, and then beyond.

Cruising for views on this in the Harper heartland, I found an editorial in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (granted, a potted one from the Postmedia chain) that, surprisingly nevertheless, accused Harper of importing American culture wars. The gun debate in Canada has been about "balancing public safety and the rights of gun owners without undue expense and red tape," not about whether the citizen should be armed (or about whether the society is at war with itself and we should fear that our neighbour is a criminal or a terrorist).

Besides, the editorial affirmed, citing American studies, it is "utterly false" that gun ownership increases security.

There were a couple more episodes. One Tory MP mused about "brownies" taking jobs away from "whities" and another invited niqab-wearers to go back where they came from. Both are experienced political operators. Both apologized with a wink to the base, but the substance stayed. Message sent. This has the mark of well-calibrated Harperism.

In response to my last column on the Harper record, I've had a number of correspondences, mostly in the snotty tone of neo-con etiquette, telling me to get my lily-livered head examined: dirty politics, big deal -- Harper is just doing what they've all done. "Have you never heard of Jean Chrétien and the sponsorship scandal?" one asked.

Here's the picture. No prime minister before -- not Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker and beyond -- have ever assaulted the very principle of Parliament itself, ever attacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court, ever muzzled the scientists, neutered the parliamentary committee system, and so on. Dirty politics, corruption -- yes indeed. But Harperism is worse than all that. It is an ideological assault on the elements of the constitutional order. It hangs pictures of the Queen all over, but owes its loyalties to the same dark, anti-democratic, corporate and imperialist forces that drive the American right wing.

And talking of parliamentary committees, the hearings on the secret police bill -- Bill C-51-- are on. Legal experts, civil libertarians and others have been, almost as one, trooping to Ottawa with carefully crafted arguments warning about the dangers of a bill that conflates peaceful protest with terrorism and works mostly outside the law.

They're being met with Tory members on the committee not only imperiously uninterested in their arguments, but insinuating that if they're against the bill, they must be in favour of terrorism -- a class of people that would include four former prime ministers, five former Supreme Court judges, Amnesty International and essentially anyone who knows anything.

In the spirit of Harperist manipulation, the hearings are short and potentially embarrassing witnesses have been carefully excluded -- the federal Privacy Commissioner, for example -- as the government has no intention of changing anything, and as Canada's international reputation for human rights and democracy goes down the drain.

Since Parliament is unfortunately no longer responsive, we can expect opposition to become extra-parliamentary. And, sure enough, there were demonstrations against the bill in 70 communities across Canada last weekend. These things don't sprout up for nothing. Harper has triggered a politics of defiance, on the streets. Expect more of that, much more.

Meanwhile, Harper will be emboldened by the victory of his fellow traveller, Benjamin Netanyahu, who played the fear and race card at the last minute and won. Who knows what a desperate Harper might do?

All this, and the election campaign isn't even on yet. Nor have we talked about the wobbling economy, Harper's besmirched environmental record, or the Mike Duffy trial. Or will talking about those, too, be signs of sympathies for terrorism? We're in deep waters. Keep your eyes peeled for just about anything.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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