In observing Stephen Harper for the past 20 years I have often been reminded of the line from Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Replace lawyers with scientists and you capture the role that the irrational plays in the politics of the prime minister.
It shows up everywhere: over a dozen new crime bills and billions on prisons when the science tells him crime is on a steady downward trend; a determination to close Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection site despite several studies that show it saves lives and gets people into treatment (and off heroin); an obsession with ending the long-gun registry despite its constant use by (and support from) every police force in the country; massive cuts to science funding agencies which promoted scores of critical studies and helped keep Canada in the forefront of several disciplines; a foreign policy driven not by a rational determination of Canada’s interests but by a kind of visceral and absolute dedication to the interests of another country, Israel; determined support for Quebec’s asbestos mining when literally every health agency and every credible study tells him it kills 100,000 people a year; and the killing off of the long-form census, which every expert on governance said was critical to the delivery of government services.
It may be only a slight exaggeration to suggest that if science supports something, there is a good chance Harper will oppose it.
Many commentators have compared Harper to George W. Bush, regarding both his political ideology and his born-again Christian religion. Journalist Ron Suskind writing in the New York Times magazine described a remarkable encounter with one of Bush’s senior aides. Suskind related how he was criticized by the aide for being a member of “what we call the reality-based community” as contrasted with Bush’s “faith-based community.” This reality-based community, said the aide, was made up of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
Suskind nodded in agreement and started to reply when the aide intervened: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality …we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”
This pretty much describes Harper’s anti-rational arrogance in all these policy areas. Dismissive to the point of contempt, Harper gives the impression that the facts are little more than an irrelevant annoyance — just another opposition tactic aimed at interfering with the “Harper government’s” agenda. Harper sees himself as one of history’s actors — creating a new reality vis-a-vis crime by passing a raft of new laws that will result in a huge increase in incarceration rates regardless of the fact that incarceration does not reduce crime, that crime rates are falling, that with a $50 billion deficit we cannot afford to build new prisons, the fact that crime experts from police to academics decry the policy direction. Harper will create the new law and order reality and we — that is, everybody else — will study it.
Creating the new irrational reality is Stephen Harper’s great re-engineering project. Social engineering was the right’s favourite epithet for all the years it was in the political wilderness. Libertarians like Harper really believe that the so-called welfare state was the result of a virtual conspiracy of Liberal (and liberal) politicians and humanist bureaucrats. As such, turning back the clock on the activist state is legitimate even if the vast majority now support it.
The article by Suskind went on from the aide’s comments to suggest that the attitude he expressed was rooted in Bush’s apparent belief that he was directed by God in most of his decisions.
Is Harper just a northern George Bush? In many ways he does not appear anything like Bush. His penchant for obsessing over strategy suggests a hyper-rationality in the pursuit of power. His absolute rejection during the election of any return to anti-abortion laws while he was PM was highly rational. Here, at least, it seems Harper is not interested in creating a new abortion “reality” because it would damage his long-term electoral strategy.
As arrogant and narcissistic as he is, it is highly unlikely that Stephen Harper believes he is following God’s orders in his decision making. Harper’s irrationality is much more calculated and is aimed for the most part at securing his base and maintaining his incredibly effective fundraising machine. This in turn is part of his strategy to drive a stake through the heart of the Liberal Party.
But other aspects of his apparent irrationality are motivated by his ideology. The termination of the long-form census, the $20-$30 billion on useless jet fighters, his disdain for the professional civil service, all fit with the National Citizens Coalition slogan, “More freedom through less government” — less that is, except when building up the security state.
So if we can expect even more irrationality in the next four years, where might Harper be vulnerable to a rejuvenated civil society and a resurgent NDP opposition? One area is the economy where Harper will continue to try to maintain his edge on other parties. He is very vulnerable here as the dollar continues to rise, the U.S. economy declines and the housing bubble eventually bursts. The appeal to the irrational will not work if the economy begins to tank. This is one area where opposition forces need to focus and not get distracted by Harper’s efforts to keep his base happy.
The same applies to the jet fighter issue. If the economy begins to decline (and with it revenues), as many expect, this outrageous expenditure will be more and more vulnerable and it must be a focus of opposition both the NDP and civil society. The government is right now looking at billions of dollars in spending cuts. Asking Canadians whether it should come from Medicare or jet fighters will be a potent political question.
The same is true of the tar sands issue. The hell-bent-for-leather development of this dirty oil has even attracted the criticism of former Alberta Conservative premier Peter Lougheed who has called for carefully phased-in expansion. This issue relates to the economy — tar sands expansion drives up the dollar, hurting manufacturing — as well as the environment. Harper has yet to make a decision on the Enbridge tar sands pipeline which would lead to hundreds of tankers plying the dangerous waters off the B.C. coast. It may be the most important single issue on the political agenda — the thought of a giant oil spill off the West coast appalls every Canadian but in the West would generate massive civil disobedience.
The last two major issues for which even Harper’s Christian base demands rational policy are Medicare and economic security for seniors. Harper knows that seniors vote in much higher percentages than the general population and the NDP put the issue squarely on the agenda before the election. It needs to stay there — both because it is good policy and because it will make Harper’s budget slashing more difficult.
Medicare will be Harper’s biggest test. He hates it and would dearly love to get rid of it altogether but if does not tread carefully and slowly it could be his downfall.
These are the issues that need the energy, resources and imagination of those who fear the worst from a Harper majority. The other issues — like the Senate appointments, government funding for political parties and the rest — as important as they are will be distractions from the goal of taking back our country.
Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble’s bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at thetyee.ca. His new series for rabble.ca Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada began on May 20.
Thank you for choosing rabble.ca as an independent media source. We’re a reader-supported site — visited by over 315,000 unique visitors during the election campaign! But we need money to grow. Support us as a paying member (click here) or in making a one-off donation (click here).