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Federal Politics
Election 2015

The Delusions of David Frum's Mind

Stephen Harper make you worried and angry? Chill, says Canada's prodigal Republican son.

David Beers 20 Aug

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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'So what did Stephen Harper actually do?' asks Google-challenged ex-pat David Frum.

David Frum is not here anymore. That's apparent from the defence of Stephen Harper he published in The Atlantic yesterday. It's full of spin and falsehoods evident to those who actually live in Canada and are paying attention.

Born to a famous Canadian family, Frum left long ago to toil in the fertile vineyards of right-wing America, landing a White House job selling George W. Bush's war, and then permanent pundit status.

Now, like an ex-pat come home on vacation but oblivious to all the torn-down landmarks, he argues Canadians have no right to be angry at what Harper has done to their democracy.

Our PM, he writes, is just a misunderstood "cerebral" who runs "a tight ship."

This in supposed rebuttal to Stephen Marche's barnburner of a Harper indictment, "The Closing of the Canadian Mind," last week in the New York Times. Nothing to see here, Frum tells his largely American readers, move along. But his tries at puncturing Marche's arguments fail either through willful or lazy ignorance.

First he banks on his readers not having read Marche's piece, nor lived through nine years of Harper rule.

"So what did Stephen Harper actually do?" asks the supposedly flummoxed Frum. "How precisely did the Canadian prime minister silence debate, suppress information, and squelch democracy?"

He implies Marche lacks facts, when in fact Marche musters many facts, including the muzzling of scientists, killing of the long-form census, defunding of Arctic research, the robocalls scandal, and more. Frum makes believe none of this is in the piece, nor, one presumes, retrievable via Google. "You're just supposed to know," whines the policy wonk. (Okay, let's help him then, with this Tyee list of 70 Harper abuses.)


Where Frum does wade in on three selected Marche "items," he's so quickly out of his depth that his ignorance again seems willed.

Item one is Marche accurately writing that Harper "has chosen not to participate in the traditional series of debates on national television, confronting his opponents in quieter, less public venues." Naah, Frum says, it's all more than enough public, thanks to the Maclean's magazine-sponsored debate, "one of the most-viewed political events in years." He must mean exactly the years since the last federal election, because in 2011 more than 10.65 million Canadians watched at least some of a leaders debate carried by major television networks. Maclean's says its debate found a third of that audience.

Next item: When Marche writes that "campaign events were subject to gag orders until a public outcry forced [Harper] to rescind the forced silence of his supporters," Frum tries to explain that away, saying, "The request was ridiculed, ignored, and abandoned within 72 hours." Well, yes, Harper's team embarrassedly stopped trying to subvert democracy after the media caught them at it and people got very upset. That's a rebuttal?

By the way, Frum doesn’t mention that anyone attending a Conservative campaign event must be vetted and hold a ticket. Probably wouldn’t wear too well with freedom-loving American readers.

Item trois. Marche accurately writes that "At [Harper's] notoriously brief news conferences, his handlers vet every journalist, picking and choosing who can ask questions. In the usual give-and-take between press and politicians, the hurly-burly of any healthy democracy, he has simply removed the give."

Frum again cherry picks and misleads, saying, "This refers to Harper's practice of calling upon journalists by name rather than responding to whoever shoves an audio recorder closest to the prime ministerial nose."

Actually, no, it refers to Harper's practice of holding very, very few Ottawa press conferences to begin with, usually with a visiting foreign figure, roping reporters off in the back of the hall, and commonly allowing just two questions from handpicked members of Canada's national press corps. Canadians know Harper employs many other strategies to avoid the risk of a tough question from an informed journalist. Frum decided his readers needn't know that.

'Mistakes and misdeeds'

When Frum shifts from defending to outright praising Harper's governance, he goes completely off any map a sentient Canadian would recognize.

Why is Harper such a control freak? Because: "As a young political staffer in the 1980s, he witnessed the destruction of the 1984-1993 Conservative government resulting from then-prime minister Brian Mulroney's indulgent attitude toward the mistakes and misdeeds of his caucus and cabinet. Some observers believe Harper has over-corrected -- that his discipline is too severe and unforgiving. That's a reasonable point of view."

Not a word from Frum about the "mistakes and misdeeds" of numerous Harper appointees and MPs, nor the Duffy trial rocking Ottawa at this very moment. Don't alarm the Yanks, eh?

Even in saying "there are things -- many things -- to criticize in Harper's record," Frum is just preparing to soft-pedal. "The collapse of the price of oil this spring has brought an abrupt end to Canada's superior economic performance during the global economic crisis, and that news may well cost Harper re-election."

As if Harper got caught in a sudden squall no one could have seen coming. When in fact, the oil collapse nailed Canada's economy so badly because Harper for years relentlessly deepened Canada's dependence on exporting bitumen, betting big on pipelines and fossil fuel subsidies while ignoring the rise of clean tech and other manufacturing sectors.

Rather than go on arguing with Frum's lame apologia for Stephen Harper, perhaps it is more interesting to ask why he bothered in the first place.

It could be loyalty, or a bit of retirement planning. As Frum explains, "[M]y sister is a member of the Canadian Senate, appointed by Prime Minister Harper. I've donated money to Canada's Conservative Party, and from time to time I have volunteered advice to members of the Harper government about politics, policy and communications."

Or maybe it's "Laurentian" media envy. Citing the ideas of the Globe and Mail's* John Ibbitson, Frum theorizes that Canada's "media giants" are wounded and easily upset. They used to be part of the "Laurentian consensus" that decided who got to run Canada, but western populism and immigrant conservatism, plus the rise of the Internet means their views are no longer heeded. It's all a bit complicated but a few things in particular confuse. Frum says the CBC's audience is naturally shrinking due to such forces. Actually, despite massive Harper cuts, its radio listeners keep growing. And those Laurentian media giants who can't block Harper like they want? Didn't the Globe and National Post endorse the guy the last three times?

Domestic consumption

The more you scratch your head over why David Frum went out of his way to tell American readers not to pay attention to that Canadian writing in the New York Times, the more it seems his message was meant for domestic (for Frum that would be U.S.) consumption.

One reason he might feel inclined to polish up Harper's image is the resurgent militarism evident in the run-up to a Republican presidential nomination.

Frum is a reliable warmonger. Having helped coin the "Axis of Evil" phrase to promote Bush's lie-driven case for invading Iraq, he remains, years later, happy to pop up on any TV news talk show to push U.S. military expansion and hawkish policies in hot zones like Iran and the Middle East.

From the beginning, he and Stephen Harper have marched together. Before he became prime minister, Harper co-wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, fully supporting George W. Bush's doomed war in Iraq, and making it clear he yearned to send Canadian soldiers. Now, amidst a bad economy, he's built his election on fears about foreign terrorism and the need to ramp up spying here, shooting and bombing over there.

Pity David Frum, the Canadian who went to Washington to make it big among America's conservative elite. But American conservatism, turned populist nasty, is no longer taking direction from its elite. Certainly not genteel eggheads from Canada.

For a while now, Frum could be counted on to call down red-meat crazies like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, betting there would always be a place for the neo-con "cerebral" in the well-heeled Washington circles where power resides.

Used to reside, that is, now that Donald Trump is the most popular Republican going.

Oh well. Canada, refuge to Conrad Black, is a forgiving country. Besides, as Frum cheerleads in his Atlantic piece, we are among the world's biggest users of the Internet! So here's the deal. All is forgiven, David, as long as you promise, upon your return, to learn how to Google facts. Yes, you are just supposed to know.  [Tyee]

*Corrected Aug. 20 at 11:45 a.m.

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