John Kenneth Galbraith identified “the conventional wisdom.” Gore Vidal talked about “received opinion (henceforth RO).” Noam Chomsky wrote about how the media “manufactured consent.” George Lakoff showed how “framing” is used to structure debate.
None of these commendable efforts to open our eyes to what high-placed people want us to believe (for their benefit, not ours) captures adequately the current attempts by the Harper government to mislead and fool Canadians about issues that matter to their well-being: resource exploitation and environmental protection.
The Harper government game plan has been to claim wisdom and knowledge about the economy, take credit for managing it, and demonize environmental concerns. But what if the economy has become overdependent on bitumen sands investment? And subsequently export markets close down because of environmental concerns?
Indeed, Conservative efforts to promote energy exports, and downplay environmental destruction are starting to raise questions the government does not like to see asked, and has no intention of answering.
Even some government supporters now want to see for themselves what lies ahead for the bitumen sands if the Keystone XL pipeline and the Northern Gateway pipeline fail to get approved, as seems likely. Pipelines or no pipelines, a report from the CCPA last week documented how energy over-investment is pushing the country towards a “bitumen cliff.”
To deal with doubts about the benefits to Canadians from bitumen exports, and the damage to the environment from expanded bitumen production and pipeline construction, the Harper government has taken steps familiar to students of tyrannical regimes.
The Canadian government has mounted an outright attack on scientific research. Public science capacity is being suppressed, research budgets diverted to commercial purposes, scientists muzzled, and the scientific ideal thwarted.
Suspiciously, just as environmental legislation protecting the Canadian habitat has been revoked, the capacity to do environmental studies of lakes, wetlands, wildlife, and human health is being undermined, and the ability of scientists to share knowledge curtailed.
Normal politics allows for paying public relations professionals to put the best face possible on policies announced or practices underway. It may appear distasteful to outsiders, but in the world of party politics, it is a given that public opinion needs to be shaped, and the media managed.
To avoid debate, and forestall media questions, the Harper government has long sent its messages directly to the public. Buying hours of television advertising with public dollars to imprint a message on the public consciousness about the government “economic action plan” may amount to partisan corruption of public airwaves, but it has been standard practice for years in Harperland.
Constantly replaying false advertising is reminiscent of government information in a one-party state. Viewers are not supposed to notice that, economic action plan or not, the government does not believe in planning, or government action on the economy, preferring to leave decision-making to corporations.
For the Harper government, facing credibility problems means normal public relations practices do not suffice. The attack on the scientific community has been met by government ministers extolling the virtues of government scientists at the same time as they throttle government science. Call this the ‘assassin praises the victim’ PR strategy. Rather than deny what they are doing — the cover-up gambit — the Harper government wants to chime in with its critics and extol the benefits of the programs they are abolishing.
The media have grown so accustomed to watching the Harper government bulldoze opposition that its crude tactics no longer resonate. Government ministers routinely accuse the NDP of wanting to impose a “$20 billion job killing carbon tax.” Maclean’s journalist Aaron Wherry has reported in detail how the NDP and the Conservatives have both been committed to a similar cap-and-trade approach to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The Conservatives continue to repeat false accusations (old news) counting on the known effectiveness of repeating lies often enough on public opinion.
All Canadians have been exposed to past Conservative efforts directed at diminishing political opponents, notably Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff. What the Harper government is now doing goes well beyond discrediting its adversaries. By attacking science, the Harper government is subverting Canada’s knowledge-building capacity.
Want to know what is happening in Canada? Don’t expect the Harper government to provide an answer you can believe.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
Photo: Mike Gifford/Flickr