Opinion

With Elections Act, Canada Slides into Ventriloquism Democracy

Led by puppet-master Harper, either a smart tactician or graceless narcissist.

By Michael Harris, 31 Mar 2014, iPolitics

Harper election reform cartoon

Cartoon by Greg Perry.

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Someone described Stephen Harper as a Sphinx without a riddle.

Sphinx or not, as he moves government in Canada towards something that is plainly tyrannical, there is no mystery about his increasingly dictatorial nature.

"You have to appreciate Orwell to get a feel for Harper," former Liberal interim leader Bob Rae told me. "His government doesn’t like alternate sources of information. It likes to be the sole source of information."

Bad news, Stephen. Democracy is always a choir, never a soloist.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair met Harper in 2007, and was struck by the "strange" character of the man who has made his party "smug, smart-ass, and full of half-lies." His utter dismissiveness of opponents was striking to Mulcair: "He never looks at his adversaries. There is no eye contact. It’s robotic. He pivots when he rises and looks at the Speaker. He never looks at his interlocutors. Questions don’t interest him. He is less and less connected with the question. What you get to see of him in the House is his right shoulder."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has repeatedly tried to break through with Harper, which should have been easy for the most convivial MP in Ottawa. In his Opposition days, she wanted to convince Harper that there were ways to meet Kyoto’s targets. She told him that his caucus could do good work on the environment. Sadly, their meetings were always "hostile." But May didn’t quit. She resorted to an intermediary -- Hugh Segal.

"Oh God," she recalled Segal telling her. "I’ll never get him to say anything good about Kyoto, he sees it as one of those UN things."

May explained to the affable Segal that she couldn’t make the case to Harper herself because "he hates me with a bristling personal hatred."

"He’s like that with everyone," Segal replied.

In Calgary, I ran into Bill Phipps, the former moderator of the United Church. Phipps, a lawyer, churchman and social activist, ran against Harper in 2002 as the NDP's candidate in the riding of Calgary Southwest. Harper refused to debate Phipps and won in a landslide.

"I went over to congratulate him at his headquarters and he wouldn’t shake my hand. He told me he despised me! I couldn’t figure out how he could despise me, since he didn’t know me.”

Harper's hate list

The list of people Harper hates, not counting the ones on the official enemies list the PMO keeps, is long: judges, journalists, environmentalists, professors, union leaders, scientists, federal bureaucrats, First Nations peoples, Palestinians, all opposition parties, and anyone or anything named Trudeau.

Remember, this is a PM who won’t talk to the premiers, wouldn't talk to Chief Theresa Spence, doesn’t hold press conferences and won’t speak at the UN -- except through his finger puppet, John Baird.

Some people see this as a part of a wise communications strategy. It could also be viewed as graceless narcissism tinged with megalomaniacal leanings. Take your pick.

Fortunately, this is a PM who loves to have his picture taken -- especially in world trouble spots with a large expatriate community in Canada that might go his way at election time. Despite all the warm and fuzzy money shots this man will leave to posterity, the differences between your garden variety dictator and Stephen Harper are getting harder to find.

A classic example of how Canadian government now works is how Harper shoved through the omnibus legislation in Bill C-38, last year’s budget omnibus bill -- which had more to do with environmental pillage than the nation’s finances. May, who made a heroic last stand against this despotic act, told the prime minister she was open to negotiation if he would just talk about it. Harper said "Okay" and proceeded to ram the huge bill through, largely unscrutinized.

"I was astounded," May told me. "If we couldn't stop this, or at least get a debate going, how else would anyone ever know in the public about the content of C-38? I mean, a whole new department of government was being created in a budget implementation bill."

Omnibus legislation, though it drew public opprobrium, is the new normal.

Armed with the most ill-deserved majority in Canadian history, Harper has become the Edgar Bergen of the current federal government, complete with a collection of Charlie McCarthys as lap ornaments.

These wooden puppets appear to be saying things, but never really do; it’s just the PM. We have degenerated into ventriloquism democracy -- lots of talk but only one voice.

Puppet Pierre

Luckily for Harper, puppets have no self-respect. That's why his current Pinocchio, Pierre Poilievre, can perform the way he does. He squeezes drops of ink into the pure water of language every time he opens his mouth. Words have zero meaning. There is only one goal: the desired perception, the mantra of the puppet-master.

Our farcical "Minister for Democratic Demise" jerks his limbs and moves his lips only when master manipulates. Poilievre is so witless he continues to spout the party line with facts from reports he has misread -- deliberately, it would seem -- even after their author has corrected him. And speaking of Poilievre, this Pierre appears sure to do a better job of voter suppression than Poutine did, if Bill C-23 passes.

The Fair Elections Act is almost like one of the dark novels of Evelyn Waugh. How absurd is it that the party that cheated in the In-and-Out scandal is now redesigning the voting process? What are they trying to fix -- the system or the next election?

How absurd is it that the agency that found fraud in the 2011 election -- cheating with information taken from the CPC’s own closely-guarded database -- is now being carved up like Thanksgiving turkey? No powers of subpoena, a muzzled Chief Electoral Officer and the investigative arm of EC now reporting to the Director of Public Prosecution? Investigations no longer public unless there are charges? What do you call that, reform or revenge?

Greeting soldiers returning from Afghanistan while having your lawyers in court arguing you don’t have a social contract to look after them. Closing veterans offices. Unilaterally cancelling the rights of public service unions and their members. Stealthy, retroactive measures hidden in an omnibus bill to legitimize the improper appointment of a Supreme Court justice. More of the new normal.

Have you noticed how everything to do with government in Canada these days is either secret, under investigation, or in court?

As Bob Rae put it, “Harper can be nasty, cynical, and has a deep authoritarian streak. If there is something these guys don’t like, they must pass a law to stop it. He destroys the freedom people should have to express themselves.”

Be advised. That will soon include elections.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics,

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