- Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover
- Viking (2014)
If the news cycle is 24 hours, the public's attention span is that of a gerbil on crystal meth. Today's outrage is next week's shrug and next month's blank stare.
Conservative politicians not only understand this phenomenon, they revel in it. They've even turned it into a talking point. Asked by reporters about the current scandal, they don't even bother to defend themselves. They just smirk and say, "Most Canadians don't care."
Public apathy only deepens as the scandals increase, creating a kind of learned helplessness. The citizens who should be the eagle-eyed guardians of their own interests become mere bystanders, unwilling or unable to use their own power. And the next outrage -- better yet, the next foreign threat or celebrity scandal or royal pregnancy -- will distract them from their basic democratic job of minding the store and looking out for shoplifters.
Having been in power since 2006, Stephen Harper has presided over this deliberate erosion of democracy. He has also been an active and corrosive agent of that erosion. He has never come close to an outright majority, meaning that most Canadians still don't buy his social vision. But he has held on to his core while keeping his opponents either divided or apathetic.
Harper has been aided by the Canadian media itself, which he clearly despises, and perhaps with good reason. Drilled into every journo is the commandment to get the other side of the story as if both sides have equal value, and to present them that way.
What if there is no other side? In that case you rustle up the cranks or lobbyists who will give you one, like the vast stable of corporate flunkies and think tank racketeers who are paid to chant "The science isn't in on global warming."
Michael Harris is an author and journalist, but his new book is not a "he-said-she-said-make-up-your-own-mind" story like so many journalists' efforts at book-length reports. It is an indictment, a detailed case for the prosecution of Stephen Harper. If you're looking for "fair and balanced," look elsewhere.
But if you're looking for a documented record of eight years of deliberate misrule, this is your book.
Portrait of an unbeliever
Early in the book, Harris describes the 2006 election:
"The Conservative victory was in every way a remarkable turn of events, not the least of which was the NDP's joining with Harper to bring down the Martin government on a budget with much social spending in it. Until that moment, Canada had been a secular and progressive nation that believed in transfer payments to better distribute the country's wealth, the Westminster model of governance, a national medicare program, a peacekeeping role for the armed forces, an arm's-length public service, the separation of church and state, and solid support for the United Nations. Stephen Harper believed in none of those things."
The rest of Party of One documents that paragraph in 500 pages of devastating detail. Conservatives won't read it except to dismiss it as "partisan" and "biased." Liberals and New Democrats should read it and cringe at their eight years of failure to stop an act of national sabotage.
Most Canadians, of course, won't even hear about this book, let alone read it. But those who do will find a Canadian family photo album of a disastrous decade.
Harris wisely doesn't organize his long book chronologically, except very loosely. Nor is he analytical; he's not trying to find Harper's origins in the right-wing think tanks, like Donald Gutstein's Harperism, or in Harper's personality, like Paul Wells' The Longer I'm Prime Minister. He's less interested in motives than in actions and consequences. Harris looks at the Harper record, as organized by issues and scandals.
That may be why the book is so exhaustive, and exhausting. Any one of his issues deserves a book of its own, and some -- like the muzzling of Canadian scientists -- have inspired books like The War on Canadian Science. Yet Harris manages to produce new details in concise chapters about each of them.
Never steal anything small
In the robocalls chapters, Harris brings back the whole bizarre mess that seeped out of the 2011 election. He talked at length with Michael Sona, the young Conservative zealot who's now the only person to have been convicted in what was obviously a conspiracy to steal the country. The next stage in the investigation of this affair will have to await a non-Conservative government. For now, we can only admire the technical skill that allowed the Conservatives to hack a Canadian election.
The Conservatives have also hacked our foreign service, reducing our influence over international decision-making; questioned the integrity of the Supreme Court of Canada; set back relations with our First Nations; and dismissed the findings of the auditor general they'd appointed. They have glorified our forces while in Afghanistan and heaped contempt on them as veterans.
In many of his chapters, Harris explicitly or implicitly questions both Harper's judgment and our own. In eight years Harper has appointed a string of world-class bozos to his cabinet, his PMO, and his civil service. He may enjoy a reputation as a micro-managing control freak, yet when the bozo eruptions occur, they are always someone else's fault.
So Harper appointed Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin to the Senate, and Nigel Wright to the PMO. When Duffy got in trouble, Wright (as a member of the One Per cent) wrote him a personal cheque for $90,000 to save the taxpayers the sorrow of paying Duffy's bills. What kind of business wizard was Wright if he thought Duffy shouldn't pay his own bills?
And what kind of eagle-eyed citizens were we to accept such a patently bogus story, frosted with the assurances that Harper was shocked and appalled at this behaviour?
Refuting the Peter Principle
Harper has appointed and protected people of spectacular incompetence, from Peter Mackay (remember the F-35?) on down to Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright -- until they became liabilities. In the process, he has refuted the Peter Principle, which says that people rise in the hierarchy of an organization until they hit their level of incompetence.
Under the Harper Principle, you can soar far beyond that level, rising as high as the parliamentary secretaries like Paul Calandra who eagerly take humiliating flak for their equally incompetent cabinet ministers. What Calandra expects his post-Parliament reward to be is hard to imagine.
Equally hard to imagine is the mentality of Harper's base. His supporters include not only his flunkies in Parliament and the media, but the time-servers in the civil service (like the Fisheries and Oceans people who have shrugged off the fate of B.C.'s wild salmon).
They also include something like one in three Canadians who either grew up here between 1950 and 2000, or immigrated here, and who still voted for Harper rather than for the "secular and progressive" Canada that created or welcomed them. Our captains of industry, who gained the most from that old Canada, donate to his party come what may. Ideologues, opportunists and pundits alike make excuses for him, confident that "most Canadians don't care" about the sabotaging of their nation.
Do they really think their future prosperity depends on ignoring climate change? Do they really think that ramming a pipeline through to Kitimat will guarantee their children an affluent future? Do they pin their hopes for protection against future terrorist attacks on ever-greater police and CSIS powers?
The old Canada, for all its warts, gave my generation a secure and prosperous life and the prospect of improvement for our children. Harper's Canada has in eight years given us anxiety, a B.A. requirement for a barista career, and a reputation as the world's most backward "advanced" nation.
Harper's supporters, failing to realize how deeply he despises them, would say, "Most Canadians don't care." Maybe they don't, and they will return Harper to office -- a verdict of "not guilty" to Michael Harris's indictment.
If so, they will deserve the judgment of Matthew Baillie Begbie, who dismissed the accused in a Cariboo Gold Rush murder case by saying:
"The jury in their infinite wisdom have declared that you are not guilty of sandbagging the deceased. In return for this, I would simply state that you would do me an inestimable favour if, after leaving the court house, you sandbag each and every one of that jury, and see that not one escapes. You can go."