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When Stephen Harper announced he’d institute a ban on travel by Canadians to areas of terrorist activity — a desperate idea quickly trashed as highly problematic by the experts — I expected the NDP to lunge at this low-hanging fruit.

After all, the arguments over the anti-terror law, Bill C-51, were still fresh — a law denounced by four former prime ministers (including a Tory one, Joe Clark), five retired chief justices of the Supreme Court, former ministers of justice and pretty well every legal expert in the country, that triggered alarm at the United Nations, that was described by both the RCMP and CSIS as “unnecessary” and that was denounced by the otherwise small-c conservative Globe and Mail as a “quasi-police state bill.” And here was Harper jerking our chains again on the same issue, proposing another broad dragnet largely outside the rule of law. What a political opportunity!

Instead, from the NDP — hardly anything. Just mumbling (ditto from the Liberals, who are compromised on this issue, having supported C-51).

Meanwhile, the case of Kings-Hants NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon erupted. Wheeldon had discussed the Israel-Palestine issue on Facebook last year, criticizing Israel more or less in the general terms of the international debate on the issue.

The Tory sleaze machine got hold of this, picked a few lines out of context, and attacked. Wheeldon was forced to resign by his party. As one letter to the editor put it: “So, are the Tories vetting NDP candidates now?” Indeed.

The problem here is not that the Tory machine does this. Taking stuff out of context, after all, is just politics. The problem is its bewitching power, now installed in the Canadian psyche, capable of leaving even the opposition parties afraid of its power over public opinion, and functioning beyond the grasp of the mass media that have, to date, been incapable of telling the real story about Harper. For those who go on, sometimes in awed tones, about how Harper has “changed Canada,” this is mainly how he’s changed it — by snuffing open debate.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times entitled “The closing of the Canadian mind” that has lit up the Internet.

It’s an account of Harper’s successful dumbing down of Canadian public awareness about political affairs through information control, including killing the long-form census, muzzling and firing scientists and other public servants, keeping the media at bay, waging war against environmental science, suppressing the anti-Conservative vote and so on.

It’s had a huge response, with Canadians adding to the narrative and Americans and other foreigners astonished and dismayed that this is happening in a country that they suppose to be open, tolerant and given to civilized debates. It reminds me of the reaction of an acquaintance of mine, a publisher and editor from New England, when I recited the Harper litany to him last year. His eyes popped and his jaw dropped. “What! In good old Canada?” he exclaimed.

The Harper propaganda machine is a thing of manipulative genius.

It functions over the heads of both the opposition and the media, which have failed to bring him to book on the big issues and have, to date, served his purposes — especially the big TV networks — despite the snarling of the Tory base about the “liberal media.”

Consider: Wheeldon takes a hit from his own party for discussing Israel in more or less standard terms. But Harper’s right-wing radicalism — especially the rich store of extreme statements from when he was head of the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition — gets a pass. Another instance of this emerged recently in the dispute with Ontario, in which Harper refuses to dovetail the Canada Pension Plan with Ontario’s proposed plan. It turns out that Harper once declared both the CPP and Old Age Security to be “tax grabs” that should be done away with.

As the wheels appear to come off the Harper campaign, it’s intriguing to note the defences of Harper by various commentators. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, who’s written the main book on Harper, sees Harperism and its problems as the result mainly of a controlling personality. Others see the fraying as the normal result of a 10-year-old government. And, in an expression that’s popped up in a few business-connected commentaries, Harper’s problems are a matter of “style, not substance.”

It may be a bit of all those things, but the assault on democratic process, the contempt for Parliament, the undermining of the rule of law, the culture of electoral fraud, and on and on, go far beyond personality, style or old age. A sinister culture of fear and control has been created that runs through the vital organs of Canadian public life.

What’s needed is not just the defeat of a government, but a cleansing of the broader scourge of a corrosive ideology.

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

Photo: Tony Webster/flickr

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Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.