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Stephen Harper – A Minister Past his Prime

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BY: James Di Fiore

History will probably be kind to Stephen Harper.  If one were to be honest about his political career, it would be difficult not to place him in the upper echelon of Canadian prime ministers. By the time he leaves office he will be in the top 6 of the longest serving prime ministers in history. You may not have agreed with him, you may even hate him, or you could consider yourself one of his loyal supporters. But no matter how you perceive him, the man knows how the game is played.

As Machiavellian as Harper is, one must wonder how much time he has left at the top of the political class in Canada. Ironically, most of the cracks in his power formed after he finally won his long sought majority government. Backbench MPs with a libertarian or religious bent began to publicly criticize party muzzling. Defense spending on the F-35 file was a staple in the news cycle for months. The Robocalls investigation is far from over, and the latest Auditor General’s report can’t account for over 3 billion dollars meant for counter terrorism measures.  The temporary foreign workers issue might be the worst of all, especially now that we know it accounts for almost one third of the government’s “900, 000 net new jobs”, a centerpiece of their answers during Question Period.

All of these issues are symptoms of a government increasingly vulnerable to the temptations of majority status. Indeed, as a prime minister of a minority parliament Harper was predictably more measured in how he governed. When he prorogued Parliament to avoid a coalition challenge from the opposition it came off as cynical and calculating. But it worked. A majority government gave him new opportunities, and the temptation to lead through ideological aspirations manifested through omnibus legislation and a transformational mindset. Harper, who had begun his political career stoking the flames of anti-Trudeauism, began to fit nicely into the oppositional label of being a leader with a hidden agenda. Unlike Pierre Trudeau, who served three consecutive terms in majority governments, Harper would be forced to adjust his public image from ideologue to centrist to a modern conservative. He had hoped Canadians would follow him, tilted towards conservatism by both his influence and a natural societal progression. But his majority was enabled by just 39% of the people, the smallest majority government by percentage in Canadian history and not the ideal starting point for a wanna-be transformational prime minister.

Cue the perennial, predictable cracks. The omnibus legislation was out of date, pillared by legislative caricatures such as super jails, lax environmental policies and new rules meant to silence intergovernmental workers like researchers and scientists. Harper’s loyal yes-men began to regularly praise Israel, condemn the United Nations and subtly float climate change denials. Not to say you can’t have nice things to say about Israel, but Canadians are not used to platitudes being expressed about a nation so unimportant to our economic or social well being at such a repetitive pace. To many, this over-the-top collection of platitudes was either confusing or cheap, meant to impress or placate rather than genuinely serve the Canadian people. The slams against the UN have been a neocon staple in the United States, but Canada was not used to that kind of rhetorical sloganeering. As for climate change denial, this has been more incremental and far more subliminal. The conservative base is a westernized, oil soaked clan of evangelicals and libertarians, but the rest of the country rightly believes climate change is real and, more importantly, worth fighting against. Conventional wisdom indicates Harper knows his ideology is not shared by at least 75% of the nation; so omnibus legislation is less about a hidden agenda, and more about leapfrogging consensus.

This inability to influence Canadians of a new conservatism means Harper will likely ride into the sunset in 2016, the year following the next federal election. Until then, his calculations will lead him to one of two places. Either he will smartly revert back to a more pragmatic role near the center, or he will continue the experiment of attempting to forcibly indoctrinate Canadians to the right. Reverting back will mean betraying his principles, and the task of indoctrinating a nation whose pulse is demonstrably moderate will ultimately hand power back to the opposition. In other words, he has already piqued politically, and the process of plucking a new leader from his ranks has likely been stirring in his mind for at least 6 months.

Harper is a polarizing politician. And while history may be kind to him, one must wonder if ideological ambitions will play a role in just how kind history will be in the end.

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Canadian Politics: Mind the Middle

The decimation of the federal Liberals provides new hope for Canadian moderates

By: James Di Fiore

Canada is becoming a very strange place. Historically, our political landscape was shaped by the apathetic, sprinkled with some conservatives, liberals and socialists. Policies were drafted and negotiated based on the reality that ideologues did not yield power in this nation. Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien – all of the most significant leaders this country has seen over the past 40 years have governed from the center, their base providing a lift and moderates providing their political survival. The apathetic played their role too – they stayed out of it. Canada had a brilliant international reputation as being fiscally prudent peacekeepers who brokered free trade agreements, hosted Olympic Games, milked internet bandwidth for all it was worth and extremely potent marijuana. It is cynical, but today we have a growing portion of our electorate who know how to say words like ‘socialist’ or ‘fascist’ but clearly have trouble defining either term. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is running rampant in the great white north.

How did we get here? When did we go from affable to laughable, and who is to blame for our new trot towards the mindless recitation of talking points from talking heads? The Reform Party may have been the first domino – a stringent, ideological crew from western Canada made from a mix of Libertarian and Evangelical roots. They successfully dismantled the federal Progressive Conservatives, turning a reasonable right-leaning party into an ideological posse ripe with partisan beliefs and an unwavering philosophy. Former prime minister Joe Clark, once seen by his political rivals as a conservative stalwart, seemed not only tame but reasonable by his former opponents on the Hill. Alberta, disgruntled by Trudeau’s energy policies which cemented an air of resentment within the province, yearned for a voice better suited to the narrative being recited for decades. That narrative was stark, a sort of provincialism reminiscent of Quebec separatists only without tales of an unfair confederacy nestled inside the rhetoric. Of course, Albertan conservatives would disagree, claiming decades of injustice had passionate reactions among regular folks, but in Canada this was brand new: a dismantling of a Canadian political institution and the beginning of the new conservative indoctrination project.

The new Canadian conservative movement has been fueled by two incontrovertible facts. The first is an easy pick: Liberal Party incompetence. While Liberals tend to blame member infighting for their woes, the Chretien vs Paul Martin beef is propped up by residue from the sponsorship scandal and most recently exacerbated by two leadership conferences that produced two lackluster leaders. Meanwhile, the NDP has collected the scraps from the Liberal table and now sits at the head, creating a polarized Canada and the perfect storm for the Conservative Party.

But the most troubling recruiting tool currently being sharpened by the conservative right is the encouragement of demonizing political rivals by right wing strategists, pundits and politicians. Regular right-leaning Canadians are answering the call with American-inspired attacks on all who lean left. Evidence of this deliberate tactic is everywhere. The caricature is hockey grump Don Cherry who mused at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration about ‘left wing pinkos’ and ‘bike riding communists’. Message boards and comment sections on newspaper sites contain a treasure trove of vitriolic statements and ideological rants that not just disagree with non-conservative views but vilify and marginalize those who think differently.

Hardcore leftists are equally repugnant in their brief and rather unlettered manifestos, often describing Stephen Harper as a fascist while creating conspiracy theories about his ties to corporations and the state of Israel. Talk of Canada’s national identity being reshaped by fundamental Christians is complimented by maniacal claims of hidden political agendas and treasonous takeovers by oil companies.

And the Liberals, a party who had tried to brand itself as Canada’s only band of moderates, suddenly find themselves pushed aside. They deserve their political demotion, but the need for political moderation has never been more dire. Canadians are being driven towards polarization through the politics of fear, a dangerous yet potent ingredient in mobilizing party support in any country. But this task of extracting reason from panic is an uphill battle for the Liberals who have spent the bulk of the last 7 years focusing on their rivals rather than their constituents. Pundits who muse about a possible merger between the Liberals and NDP are dreaming out loud. Jack Layton is finally reaching his potential and would never relinquish his new found role as leader of the opposition. Nor should he. Nor could he. Ideologically, the NDP and Liberals are worlds apart, mostly because the Liberals do not have a well defined ideology.

Perhaps the old adage of finding opportunity nestled inside crisis is too idealistic for Canadian moderates, but the prospect of throwing in the towel would spell disaster for the nation. The Liberals are a blank slate – bruised, beaten and bloodied – but they have wiggle room. Without any real influence over their conservative and socialist counterparts they have no choice but to redirect their gaze towards the very people who voted them out, while simultaneously engaging the only constituency who continue to be unrepresented – the youth. Incorrigible as they seem, not since the 60s have we seen a climate where young people are finding their voice. Their sloth-like pace is a frustrating testament to the outdated method of engagement undertaken by politicians stuck in an ancient ritual of long expired recruitment methods. It may be a colossal challenge, but without young people there can be no base, and without that youthful base there can be no party.

It has been the better part of a decade since Liberals engaged honestly with Canadians, and the better part of two decades since they last showed an alliance with them. Canada is not the United States…yet. But the symptoms of drifting towards a two party system are ripe, and without the emergence of a new centrist manifesto we could be in for a dark age in federal politics.