John Baglow

Stephen Harper: an "extreme centrist?"

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Harper kitten.jpg

So the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner proposes. But he pronounces himself perplexed by the notion, even as he argues for it.

Gardner’s main point is that Stephen Harper hasn’t actually done anything very right-wing—if you set aside the environment file. EI? Modest reforms. OAS? 67 is the standard age for a retirement pension in Europe. Universal health care? Harper’s still well in the game. And he’s also on-side (or at least not visibly offside) with official bilingualism, free trade, multiculturalism (unless you’re an Arab, of course), and even a woman’s right to choose. Gosh, the Liberals would go along with all this, and they actually initiated some of the policies themselves.

So he’s really a centrist, says Gardner, but he governs like an extremist. (Gardner gives plenty of examples of the latter, and I needn’t add more here. We’re all familiar with them.) Hence, even moderate moves are seen through a glass darkly by what he insists on calling Harper’s “tremulous critics.”

To the contrary, Harper is demonstrably a radical right-winger who always takes the long view. Former Privy Council clerk Alec Himelfarb has it right: the ultimate aim of the current regime is nothing less than to tear down the Canada we know and replace it with a considerably less humane and less democratic one.

When one tries to imagine an extreme middle, the examples of Jean Chr├ętien and his predecessor Pierre Trudeau do spring to mind. Both were personally autocratic; both found democratic processes an impediment. The present concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office began with Trudeau and was amplified considerably by Chr├ętien, who effectively reduced Cabinet to a mere focus group and established more or less one-man rule in the PMO, aided by a group of powerful, unelected advisors.

But, if showing signs of wear, the conventions of Parliament persisted. Errant ministers resigned. Committees operated for the most part in the open. The executive power was held more or less accountable to Parliament as a whole. MPs were not routinely shut down with time allocation motions, nor sent packing when they threatened a non-confidence vote. And free and fair elections continued to take place.

Are these only differences of degree? To a point. But there is no indication that the Liberals had a grand plan to remake the country. In fact they had no vision to speak of, other than national unity, much less a strategy to achieve it. They did whatever was necessary to retain power and reward their friends: they unerringly found the centre of public opinion and embraced it as policy.

Harper’s alleged “centrism” is quite a different matter. It consists of slow, incremental moves to implement his right-wing vision. To reduce the myriad of undemocratic actions perpetrated by the Harper administration and his party to a mere matter of style, as Gardner appears to do, is simply not credible. They’re part and parcel of his plans for Canada.

Harper is currently building the infrastructure of his Conservative revolution. He has three years to pull it off. Under him we have already seen the virtual abolition of responsible government. In 2011, widespread voter suppression took place, unprecedented in Canada, which may well have delivered Harper’s majority. “Centrism” today easily becomes extremism tomorrow, as checks and balances are eroded and the system itself is steadily corrupted.

On the cultural side, the Harper government has been attempting—with indifferent success, it must be admitted—to create a right-wing sensibility in the population. Hence the phoney glamour of a new militarism, with frankly cultish overtones; flag fetishism; continual appeals to fear to justify aggressive anti-crime measures when crime rates are dropping; and well-worn invocations of xenophobia (“foreign radicals” behind the environmental movement, “fake” refugees, etc.).

But Gardner challenges us to find concrete instances of right-wing policy implementation, giving us examples of relatively moderate moves as noted above.

All right. Take the Harper government’s approach to crime: build big new prisons; establish minimum sentences for a whole slew of crimes, even for growing a few marijuana plants; abolish pardons; attempt to establish massive on-line surveillance of ordinary citizens.

Then there’s Harper’s antagonistic approach to evidence and observation, an undeclared but obvious policy. Shut down data-collection; muzzle scientists; abolish valuable scientific advisory bodies; stop essential research in its tracks. Our Prime Minister, along with the right wing in general, prefers ideology and pre-Enlightenment thinking: he appointed a creationist, Gary Goodyear, as Minister of Science and Technology, and he’s currently establishing an Office of Religious Freedom. Anyone paying attention to the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party (and I’m not so sure it’s a fringe) can see the obvious parallels here.

There’s foreign policy, too, as an obvious example. It’s unabashedly hawkish, blindly supportive of the right-wing Likud government in Israel, anti-United Nations, opposed to international human rights NGOs like Kairos, and has imposed anti-abortion restrictions on foreign aid. It’s hard to see much daylight between the Harper administration and US Republican policies in any of these respects.

On the social conservative front, Gardner has a point—sort of. In barely a year after obtaining his first majority, Harper has not moved to abolish gay marriage, outlaw abortion or re-introduce the death penalty. His people have sent up plenty of trial balloons on all three subjects, mind you. But the inevitable backlashes have occurred, a large enough one in each case that Harper is unwilling to stake his party’s future on pressing the point. The NDP is currently neck and neck with the Conservatives, even ahead in some polls. For now, this sober congregant of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church (which does not ordain women) is hanging fire.

Gardner can see no strategy in Harper’s moves, and so he infers moderation. But Harper is a master strategist, quite probably the most disciplined and gifted of all of our Prime Ministers in that respect. He is not about to scare Canadians silly by trying to implement his Maximum Program in a year, especially when he’s down in the polls. Gardner, in my opinion, mistakes his refined political calculus and his precisely measured incrementalism for the shallow Liberal pragmatism of years past. It is anything but.

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This page contains a single entry by John Baglow published on June 1, 2012 8:56 PM.

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