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Tyee Books

'Harperland'

We're likely to live there from now on no matter who is in power.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Oct 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Prime Minister Harper (in ballcap) in Resolute Bay this August.

We political-news junkies face a hazard: Every event delivers a rush, followed by a blackout. We have a vague recollection the next morning, but by the end of the week the event is lost to us. We just need another fix.

So one value of Lawrence Martin's new book is that it packs a decade's worth of fixes into one compact package. We are back in the thrilling days of yesteryear, mainlining on Peter McKay's sellout of David Orchard and Jim Flaherty's "budget update" that ended in the first prorogation.

Martin's book is chiefly a concise political history of Canada since the Alliance Party's hostile takeover of the Progressive Conservatives, and especially since Harper became prime minister. As such, it gives us a very useful perspective on the last four or five years.

Harper's defenders will consider the book a hatchet job, but Lawrence Martin is a clear-cutting axeman who's done the same to the Liberals. And it's telling that Harper's former colleagues and mentors, like Tom Flanagan, provide the most damning evidence against him.

How to steal a country

The title, of course, is a direct allusion to Nixonland, Rick Pearlstein's brilliant 2008 book on how Richard Nixon used wedge politics to cripple America and its institutions.

And the parallels are easy to draw. When Nixon fell, we naive types thought Watergate showed you couldn't steal a democratic country. The real lesson was that you just had to be more careful than Nixon.

Martin shows that in one sense Harper has indeed been more careful. He clearly lives by Napoleon's maxim: "Never interfere when your enemy is making a mistake." He pulled out of Preston Manning's Reform Party, sulked in his tent as a minor right-winger at the National Citizens' Coalition, and then came back to revitalize the right after Stockwell Day imploded. Meanwhile the Liberals collapsed, Quebec went to the Bloc, and Harper was in.

Thankfully, we get very little psychoanalysis of the young Stephen Harper. But he does seem to have been a kind of political wallflower, watching the cool Liberal and Red Tory kids boogie across the gymnasium floor. That kind of outsider status served him well. He had nothing invested in the values of 20th-century central Canada. Trudeau's politics, to him, were just "hippie b.s."

Learning from Trudeau

Pierre Trudeau, of course, would have regarded Harper, the overweight Calgary nerd addicted to junk food and Hayek's economics, with well-bred contempt. But it was Trudeau himself who paved the highway to Harperland, by starting the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office.

This is not a shattering revelation, but forty years of Liberal and PC governments did nothing to reverse Trudeau's first move toward autocracy. Harper the wallflower watched Trudeau and his grinning successors dance across the gym floor, and took their measure.

He seems not, however, to have taken his own measure. Lawrence Martin quotes many sources who praise Harper's brains and political astuteness. Trudeau's political views were out in public for years before he took power. If you read Federalism and the French Canadians, as I did in 1968, you knew what you were getting: a guy who was clearly brighter than you.

Harper's 1991 master's thesis, a long, dull attack on the Keynesian economics that would save his government in 2008-2009, is fairly well written. But it breaks no new ground. Trudeau broke out of his parochial Quebec education; Harper, intellectually, never left Calgary.

He would eventually emerge from the backwoods to demolish Trudeau's heirs. But Stephen Harper could never resist going one or two steps too far.

Harper as autosaboteur

Canada has not denied him a majority; he himself has, time and again. He keeps proroguing Parliament, smearing and intimidating diplomats and mandarins, making promises and breaking them, shutting down the long-form census. Harper has a bad habit of breaking with supporters he finds inconveniently independent. (That's presumably why his old allies were so willing to talk to Martin.) If he could only relax, he might enjoy two or three majority governments in a row.

Instead he's given us a litany of deliberate and needless damage to peace, order, and good government. But the really depressing aspect of Martin's book is this: After all these years of watching him in action, a third of us still support him.

Think about that. Anyone can see how he's attacked the values and institutions of 20th-century Canada. He promised "transparency" and delivered an information clampdown Stalin would have admired. He sent Canadians into harm's way in Afghanistan, and then smeared Richard Colvin for saying our troops were handing prisoners over to torturers. He sacked, or drove from office, the brilliant people who ran AECL and StatsCan, because they told inconvenient truths.

This is the kind of culture-war wedge politics that Nixon exploited in the 1960s and 70s. It has become routine in the U.S. since then because some American cultures intensely dislike other American cultures.

Similarly Harper has attracted plenty of Canadians who despise other Canadians. Many are willing to run as Conservatives for a seat in his emasculated Parliament. His senior public servants have decided their careers are more important than their country, and go along with him. Canadian reporters let him frame the issues. So do the opposition parties.

With a little help from his friends

Most discouraging of all, Stephen Harper did this with the help of just a minority of Canadian voters. Having watched him in opposition and in government, 33 per cent of us still support him. The majority, divided, have been helpless against him.

Even if Harper were to be defeated in the next election, could we regain something like the civil parliamentary democracy we knew under, say, Mike Pearson?

Perhaps not. Barack Obama has kept the Bush-era presidential powers and failed to shut down Guantanamo. He even thinks he has the right to assassinate American citizens in Afghanistan and Pakistan without due process.

Harper's successors, of whatever party or coalition, will be sorely tempted to keep all that power in the Prime Minister's Office, and we will be citizens of Harperland for the rest of our lives.  [Tyee]

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