The following are notes for a short talk rabble’s Parliamentary Correspondent gave at an event in Ottawa, early in March 2015, sponsored by the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy, which is headed by Andrew Cardozo. 

When I think of Stephen Harper I am not sure he is really a Conservative, or at least not a Conservative in the proud Canadian tradition. 

Where Robert Borden and John Diefenbaker extended the franchise — the former to women, the latter to First Nations people — Harper is trying to limit it, with legislation he insultingly calls the ‘Fair’ Elections Act.

That legislation is so bad the Conservatives could get virtually nobody to appear before two parliamentary committees to speak in its favour. 

In what may be a first for parliamentary democracy, over 90 per cent of the witnesses who spoke at committee opposed the Fair Elections Act.

That included the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand. The Harper government did not, of course, consult Mayrand. 

Instead it insulted him.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre accused Mayrand of “wearing a team jersey” and brought in measures to stifle the Chief Electoral Officer’s basic freedom of expression. Worse, Poilievre introduced other measures to stymie the capacity for any serious investigation of electoral fraud. 

Contempt for officers of Parliament seems to be a pattern with this government.

The Conservatives refused to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with information he needed to do his job, and now they are not even inviting the Privacy Commissioner to share his serious concerns about the anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, at Committee.

Turning his back on a Conservative tradition of environmentalism

Brian Mulroney made the environment a central preoccupation of his government.

He got Ronald Reagan’s U.S. government to agree to the acid rain treaty and championed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Harper walked away from the Kyoto Accord and has made every effort to sabotage international efforts to achieve progress on climate change.  

He also abandoned a federal role — built up over decades, going back to the Berger Inquiry of the 1970s — in environmental regulation of mega projects.

Plus, he scrapped the Navigable Waters Act and radically reduced protection of fish species in such a way that all living former fisheries ministers (including former Conservative ministers) raised their voices in protest.

As with so much of his agenda, the Prime Minister did not even bother to bring in those anti-environmental measures as stand-alone legislation and allow proper consideration and debate by Parliament, which normally includes hearing witnesses at committee.

He slipped these radical changes into the fine print of what used to be boring and routine budget implementation bills — now become massive, stealth, omnibus legislation.

This sort of tactic is not only outside of the great pro-Parliament tradition of such Conservatives as John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark; it is contrary to what Harper himself advocated as opposition leader.

On top of contempt for Parliament, the Harper government has utter disrespect for science, especially environmental science.

In this regard, this government’s behaviour starts to uncomfortably resemble that of Soviet style dictatorships, where politics trumps truth.

A number of federal government scientists who are themselves refugees from Communist countries have told this writer that these days they feel like they’re back behind the iron curtain.

Everything they do or say is controlled and monitored by the Harper equivalent of political commissars — communications specialists.

The workplace atmosphere, they report, is one of scared despondency.

The irony of this government now building a monument to the victims of communism, right next to the Supreme Court, cannot be lost on these scientists.

Using refugees as scapegoats and fundraising bait

Since the 1960s the current Prime Minister’s Conservative (and Liberal) predecessors have generally made Canada a place of refuge for people from all over the world who suffer from persecution and severe discrimination. 

In 1986, when Mulroney was Prime Minister, the United Nations awarded the Canadian people the Nansen Prize in recognition of our generosity toward refugees.

Now there’s a new story, a new Canadian paradigm. Harper and his Ministers of Immigration have tried to stir up resentment against refugees for political gain.

The Harper government cut a small-change federal refugee health program — illegally according to the courts — and then Conservative fundraisers got on the phone to boast about the cuts, which amount to less than $20 million a year. Party telemarketers asked for donations on the basis that Harper had cut “gold plated” benefits unavailable to average Canadians.

That “gold-plated” part is not true, as we have explained in this space more than once. But truth has scant place in the Harper brand of partisan gamesmanship. 

Previous Conservative governments have seen it as their role to work for peace and human rights around the world. 

Diefenbaker, and especially his foreign minister, Howard Green, pursued nuclear disarmament.

Green fought against allowing nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, which split Diefenbaker’s cabinet; but in the end the anti-nuke side won.

Mulroney earned Margaret Thatcher’s enduring hatred when he pushed to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Pursuing a one-sided policy on Israel and Palestine

Harper thinks his main role is to be a cheerleader for the extreme right in Israel.

Canada may have limited influence worldwide, as a middle power, but has, in the past, sought to use that influence to seek balance and fairness. 

To speak personally, as a Jew I consider myself a strong supporter of Israel and its right not only to exist, but to prosper.

That may come as surprise to many rabble.ca readers, but it is true.

I am perhaps overly conscious of our people’s long history in the Diaspora of rejection, exclusion, forced conversion and genocide. I grew up, in the 1940s and 1950s, in the shadow of the Holocaust, before that word even existed, and cannot imagine a world in which the Jews do not, finally, have a homeland.

But, as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently wrote, the greatest threat, today, to Israel’s security is not external.

The greatest threat comes from the fact that Israel has constructed a quasi-apartheid regime for the millions of Palestinians who live in territories it seized in 1967.

In large measure, Israel has created this unjust state of affairs by constructing illegal settlements in that occupied territory. Settlers benefit from all the rights of Israeli citizenship. Palestinians, of course, do not.

It is a recipe for unending conflict, and makes Israel not only less democratic and just, but far less safe and secure.

The official Canadian government position is, amazingly, that the settlements are illegal. You can still find that position on the Foreign Affairs web site.

But don’t ever expect the Prime Minister to utter that fact.

In the Harper government’s Orwellian world the official position on Israeli settlements is the policy that dare not speak its name in public.

At one point, during his visit to Israel, Prime Minister Harper got testy with reporters who kept reminding him of this official Canadian policy.

You didn’t ask me to criticize the Palestinians when I visited the West Bank, Harper complained, trying to seem even-handed

The Conservative government is not at all reluctant to criticize the Palestinian Authority, however, as it did when the Palestinians sought membership in the International Criminal Court.

In fact, the Harper government claims its foreign policy, especially with regard to the Middle East, is based on a rejection of what it calls “ethical relativism.”

In Harper’s worldview there are good guys and bad guys. And we’re always with the good guys, they say.

The net result of that policy is not, in truth, a rejection of the rhetorical straw man of “ethical relativism.” It is not ethical in any sense.  

It is a policy of realpolitik, of pure opportunism, with an eye mostly on domestic politics. 

A bit of Stalin and even more of Nixon

And so Harper is not really a Canadian Conservative.

In his hyper-partisan style, putting the Party above the government, and above the country, he shares some disquieting features with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

For more that a decade after he assumed power, Stalin did not even hold a government position in the USSR. He ruled as General Secretary of the Communist Party, full stop. He had no need of some useless government job, such as being President, until the Soviet Union was at war.

In the Harper version, we have Senators appointed to become publicly funded fundraisers for the Party, and political operatives in the Prime Minister’s office pushing aside government business to focus obsessively on scandal management when those Senators become an embarrassment.

And in his tendency to divide the political world into ‘us and them,’ into those on our side and our ‘enemies,’ Harper does not resemble his Canadian Conservative predecessors so much as he does the late U.S. President Richard Nixon.

But you’ve probably heard that before. 


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...