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Federal Politics

Meet the People Who Made Possible Stephen Harper's Reign

An excerpt from Donald Gutstein's new book 'Harperism.'

Donald Gutstein 6 Oct

This is excerpted with permission from Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada by Donald Gutstein, James Lorimer and Company, Ltd., Toronto 2014. The public is invited to the book's launch event in Vancouver on Wednesday, Oct. 8. Details here.

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Donald Gutstein's new book traces the network of right-wing think-tanks that built 'Harperism.' The public is invited to a book launch event this Wednesday in Vancouver; details here.

[Editor’s note: Where does Stephen Harper get his polarizing notions of what is wrong with Canada and how to "fix" it? Rather than write a psychological history of the man, Donald Gutstein, in his new book Harperism, examines the network that paved the way for his rise -- Canada's right-wing think-tanks. This excerpt picks up after Gutstein notes that some moves by Harper, such as cutting the GST to starve the budget and lay off 30,000 federal workers, are straight from the Thatcher, Reagan and even Mulroney playbooks. But in Harper's attempt to convert Canada's First Nation reserves to zones of private ownership, and in his sweeping dismantling of environmental regulations and independent scientific research, Gutstein sees ambitions for a more radical transformation of Canada in play.]

Many depictions centre on Stephen Harper as the lone wolf, the rogue conservative who marches to his own drummer. This way of looking at him, though, won't help you to understand the context in which he has operated.

Harper is one side of an ideological coin; missing from the discussion is the other side of the coin -- the network of conservative think-tanks such as the Fraser Institute working over many decades to change the climate of ideas that make sense to many of us. By climate of ideas, I mean our commonly accepted notions about how government and the private sector should operate, and our understandings of ourselves as self-centred individualists or as compassionate members of society.

Imagine that Stephen Harper was a candidate for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1983, when the Fraser Institute was not even 10 years old, in a contest that was won by Brian Mulroney. In all likelihood Harper would have been knocked off after the first ballot because his views were too radical for most delegates. Twenty years after that, espousing the same policies, he was able to win the leadership of the Conservative party handily on the first ballot and was soon prime minister.

Why this dramatic change? I believe it was thanks to the persistent efforts of think-tanks like the Fraser Institute that radical Reform ideas became "common sense."

Once in office, Harper was able to put into practice the principles the think-tanks could only talk and write about, tempered of course by the necessities of governing, which frequently frustrates his supporters. Harper's unique approach to changing Canadian society works together with the think-tanks' persistent and disciplined messaging.

Combining Harper's efforts to bring private property rights to First Nation reserves with a think-tank discourse that claims prosperity and economic development are possible only with such rights, constitutes a classic example of Harperism. Like the heads and tails of the coin, the two sides never have to meet, although on occasion they do.

Harper, the newly elected Conservative leader, was a guest speaker at the Fraser Institute's 30th anniversary celebration in Calgary in 2004. He didn't attend in person, but conveyed his remarks by videotape. He pointed to the Fraser Institute silk Adam Smith tie he was wearing and confirmed he was a disciple of the institute.

What is 'neoliberalism' and why would a Conservative love it?

The ideology the think-tanks promote is properly called neoliberalism because, in contrast to libertarians who want a small, powerless state that leaves people alone, neoliberals require a strong state that uses its power to create and enforce markets, and prop them up when they fail, as happened after the 2007–08 financial meltdown. Their utopian dream is a state governed by market transactions and not democratic practices. It's based on the principle that economic freedom must come before political freedom. Political freedom may not even be necessary. It's fair to say they believe in government, but not in democracy.

The post-war period was a time of great social progress throughout the developed western world. Social democracy and the welfare state were the order of the day, driven by values of social justice and collective well-being. A small group of neoliberals, led by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, set out to undo these progressive developments by forming the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) in 1947. They knew they couldn't change government without changing the climate of ideas within which politics must operate. So they disseminated their free-market ideas to political, economic and social elites through a burgeoning network of neoliberal think-tanks. It worked better than they could have imagined. Sixty years later social democracy is a fading memory.

How they accomplished this fundamental reordering of society and the economy is becoming clear through recent historical studies of neoliberalism. These studies identify the direct link between the MPS and Margaret Thatcher's decisive 1979 election victory and the rise of Thatcherism in Britain. The link was activated by the creation of the first neoliberal think-tank, the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in the mid-1950s. This institute worked for 20 years to disseminate pro-market, anti-government ideas that eventually took hold in British political and media elites during the turbulent '70s.

When Thatcher came to power she wrote to Ralph Harris, the IEA's director: "It was primarily your foundation work which enabled us to rebuild the philosophy upon which our party succeeded in the past. The debt we owe you is immense and I am very grateful. With best wishes, Margaret."

The studies also identify links between the MPS and Ronald Reagan through the IEA and the Heritage Foundation. This think-tank was set up in the early '70s by Ed Feulner, who brought the IEA's formula for changing elite and public opinion to Washington. Heritage produced Mandate for Leadership, a detailed prescription for a government guided by neoliberal principles.

Newly-elected president Reagan gave out copies of the bestselling 1,000-page paperback edition at his first cabinet meeting and it became his administration's blueprint. There's also a direct link from Mont Pelerin to Harper via the IEA, the Fraser Institute, and its allied think-tanks that today spend upwards of $26 million a year to promote neoliberal ideas in Canada alone. Harper was introduced to Hayek as a graduate student at the University of Calgary in the 1980s; Hayek seems to have guided Harper's thinking since then. The debt Harper owes the neoliberals, their ideology and their network of affiliated think-tanks is just as enormous as that owed by Thatcher and Reagan.

Harper's means to an end: 'incrementalism'

Neoliberalism came later to Canada than to Britain and the United States because of the re-election of Pierre Trudeau in 1980. But after the 1984 federal election, the Progressive Conservative Mulroney government adopted neoliberalism as its guiding light, throwing open the country to foreign investment, eliminating the National Energy Program, transforming the Foreign Investment Review Agency into Investment Canada, bringing in the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement and signing the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Neoliberalism became entrenched under the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who accepted the ideology as their own policy orientation, as Chrétien signed NAFTA and Chrétien–Martin brought in an era of privatization and fiscal restraint.

By the time Harper took over the reins of government, neoliberalism was normalized as the accepted way of running the country. That was Harper's starting point. Harperism, then, is label for Harper's unique way of furthering neoliberalism. Thatcher and Reagan's initiatives -- and Mulroney's -- were mostly high profile, garnering heated support and provoking fierce opposition. Harper's moves, in contrast, are subtle, low-key, incremental, hidden from view. No wonder most commentators have difficulty seeing them. Incrementalism is both practice and theory for Harper. He was forced to move slowly during his years of minority government to stay in office. He continues to deploy this strategy with a majority because it works.

"Any other approach will certainly fail," he told the 2003 conference of the Civitas Society, the secretive association -- secretive because it allows no public access to its website -- of 300 conservative academics, politicians, journalists and think-tank functionaries who meet annually, free from media oversight, to debate issues important to conservatives. (Harper was ruling out another method of policy change, the "blitzkrieg" or lightning strike. This strategy also involves "a policy goal radically different from the existing configuration," but is "attained in a short period following a surprise announcement and a very rapid implementation.")

Reaganism and Thatcherism are not just about economic policy. Underlying the success of each political leader is a unique blend of neoliberalism and socially conservative family and cultural values. Harper, who was then head of the Canadian Alliance, laid out his version of the program in his 2003 Civitas address. He claimed that the ideas of the economic conservatives had already been adopted by government. As a result of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, Harper argued, both "[s]ocialists and liberals began to stand for balanced budgeting, the superiority of markets, welfare reversal, free trade and some privatization."

Of course, much more needs to be done, he reassured them. "We do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate subsidies and industrial-development schemes" that distort the market. But the arguments for this program "have already been won," he declared. The task was now to bring social conservatives of various stripes into the Conservative tent.

Harper's program will outlast his years as prime minister. The combined firepower of neoliberal think-tanks over 40 years has reshaped the Canadian climate of ideas to such an extent that it will take years -- perhaps decades -- for those views to change again.

On top of these ideological underpinnings, Harper has fundamentally modified the relationship between state and society. The theme is simple: we must remove obstacles to the attainment of a state governed not by duly elected officials but by market transactions, because economic freedom is more fundamental than political freedom. This will not be easily undone no matter who follows. Future Canadian prime ministers, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton before them, cannot ignore the dominant influences of Harperism and neoliberalism. They must find their space to operate within these frames.

Harper's $26-million-a-year ideological support network

As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neoliberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neoliberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn't include Calgary's School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university's accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

The system hinges on the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and other members of the MPS that provide neoliberal doctrine. Think-tanks transform the doctrine into research; sympathetic academics provide research studies compatible with the think-tank's goals; corporate executives and the foundations of wealthy businessmen finance the research; and sympathetic media owners and commentators disseminate the research to target audiences.

It's a package deal. Canada's neoliberal think-tanks rarely discuss the connection, but they operate comfortably within the MPS orbit. Most Canadian policy entrepreneurs -- Crowley at AIMS–MLI, Michel Kelly-Gagnon at the Montreal Economic Institute, Peter Holle at the Frontier Centre and Michael Walker at the Fraser Institute -- are MPS members. Two generations of Canadians -- the Fraser Institute celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014 -- have been exposed to neoliberal ideas. The repetition of these ideas, especially through the vehicle of annual indexes, has been effective in incorporating them into the common-sense understanding of the world held by Canadians of all political stripes.

Of course people are not automatons who blindly internalize neoliberal messages. But gradually, and especially as a result of constant repetition, some ideas rise to prominence, while others fade away. People are presented with a changing set of ideas from which they must make selections to make sense of their world.

If there's going to be a social and economic future besides neoliberalism for Canada, a new role for government must be imagined, one that doesn't treat everything as an offshoot of the economy, but reincorporates social and political rights into its mandate, while addressing the dominance of the market in social and political life. It must then be developed into a serious policy contender. Such imaginings and discussions must take place on an international scale because of neoliberal globalization. And they must be utopian in outlook -- not typical political-party reactions to day-to-day policy issues -- and take a long-term perspective, as the neoliberals have done so well.  [Tyee]

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