Compulsive Control: Stephen Harper and the “Harper Government”
The “Government of Canada” ceased to exist sometime in the autumn of 2010 when a directive from the Prime Minister’s Privy Council Office went out to all civil servants announcing that the elected body now ruling the country would henceforth be known as the “Harper Government”. Canadians should have known that this was the beginning of trouble. In an event reminiscent of Louis XIV’s famous dictate, “L’état, c’est moi” (“The state is me.”), it was a clue that Stephen Harper’s compulsive control would be the hallmark of his term in office.
Indeed, much of Canadian politics during his leadership can be explained by this compulsion. It’s responsible for the dysfunctional hyper-partisanship, secretive style and toxic rancour that dominates the operation of the House of Commons. As for the Senate, his efforts to extend control to it have transformed this semblance of an independent institution for “sober second thoughts” into a “sober thoughtless stamp” of his policies — his disastrous appointments of Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin were blundered attempts to purchase power by converting the Senate into a fund-raising shill for the Conservative Party.
In his efforts to procure, perpetuate and project control, Stephen Harper has made the seat of government in Canada into a mockery of democracy. Two strategic prorogations were blatant violations of the Westminster parliamentary tradition. Omnibus bills and imposed time limits have subverted the ability of the Commons to adequately differentiate and debate legislation, leaving a trail of flawed laws that are often expensive, unnecessary or impractical. When coupled with his dissolution of the legal committee ensuring the compatibility of legislation with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the result has been numerous Supreme Court challenges, most of which his government loses.
In other examples, crucial statistics for governing the country are no longer available because of the unjustified abolition of the mandatory Long Form Census — the consequent paucity of relevant information is then used to advance purely ideological legislation, a de facto usurpation of power through “policy-based evidence’” rather than “evidence-based policy”. The Fair Elections Act, an Orwellian concoction that is exactly the opposite of “fair” by favouring Conservative voters while obstructing others, was rammed through parliament with the help of dubious testimony and faulty statistics. The “Harper Government” has even passed legislation to apply retroactively to avoid divulging uncomfortable information, a tactic that the Federal Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, has called a “perilous precedent”.
As Mel Hurtig, a former Canadian publisher, recently noted, “Not only does Stephen Harper demonstrate a lack of respect for the democratic foundations of our nation, all indications are that he is determined to undermine or destroy them. Information is withheld, dissent is stifled, and the checks and balances on government power are eroded or eliminated” (Globe and Mail, June 13/15).
But the process of shaping Canada into the image of Stephen Harper takes time. Michael Walker, founder of the right-wing Fraser Institute, expressed the operative strategy succinctly. “If you want to change society,” he said, “you have to change the ideological fabric of society.” This can only be done slowly, methodically, incrementally and patiently. The careful and persistent management of every political gesture and every iota of information is a crucial part of this deliberate and purposeful shaping process.
But shaping the “fabric” of a country is detailed and laborious work, an ambitious project that consumes vast amounts of attention and resources. The perpetual vigilance requires constant alertness, scheming and effort. This, perhaps, explains the failure of the “Harper Government” to accomplish much of significance during its years in office. Its preoccupation with supervising information, managing the message and propagating an image suggests that it has been too busy keeping power and control to do much else.
The priority of power and control became obvious soon after Stephen Harper was elected with a majority government. A critical instrument for this purpose is the Prime Minister’s Office, an inner circle of hired help with so much concentrated influence that both ministers and MPs have become extensions of its engineering. Veteran CTV reporter, Craig Oliver, expressed concern about the PMO’s relationship with the media in 2012. “(They have) highly paid people… hundreds of people. Their only job every day is try to manipulate a message,” said Oliver. “They want to influence what we’re saying, the approach we take to a story… . They want to have the story cast in a way they want.” In other words, the government they display to Canadians is not the real government of Canada.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has overseen a party that has violated election laws, has repeatedly subverted and disregarded parliamentary oversight, has routinely thwarted legitimate requests for information, and has habitually used taxpayer’s money to fund conspicuously partisan ad campaigns. He has created a party that labels legitimate dissenters as “terrorists”, that garners support by deliberately cultivating a national climate of fear, and seems to be harassing public societies that are not directly supportive of the Conservative agenda. The brazen use of partisan policies to limit the National Energy Board’s parameters of inquiry — and therefore to predetermine its findings — has made environmental review processes so conspicuously biased as to lose all credibility.
Scientists employed by the government — doing research for Canada, not for the Prime Minister — have been so muzzled by insurmountable bureaucracy that they have been prevented from communicating directly and meaningfully with Canadians. Apolitical by character, these scientists have been forced to use surrogates to protest with their slogan, “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.” In a milieu of frustration, threats, intimidation and concocted obstructions, their ability to collaborate with international colleagues has been impaired and their morale has plunged to dismal lows. Indeed, this toxic mood is infecting almost all federal employees.
Such a top-down structure of control even slows government business. Those with the authority to make decisions are implicitly or explicitly discouraged from making them. So responsibility is routinely passed upwards, where each successive level is infected with a similar reluctance. When the many deferred decisions finally reach the PMO, the emphasis is on cultivating image and the illusion of competence. The result is an administrative bottleneck in which the flow of information is stalled, contracts aren’t signed, ships aren’t built, the Canadian Forces aren’t supplied with required equipment, monies aren’t transferred, and allocated budgets aren’t spent. This atrophied bureaucracy is then described as budgetary restraint. A contagion of indecision and suspicion infects and stiffens the dynamic potential of the entire country. As its inner vitality slows and falters, anxiety and paranoia replace optimism and confidence.
This disquieting mood is exacerbated by a virtual absence of the Prime Minister at press conferences. He refuses to meet the media in open dialogue because this invites unwanted questions, risks wayward messages, jeopardizes control and imperils his cultivated image of infallible competence.
The same reluctance explains Stephen Harper’s failure to gather with provincial premiers. When differences of opinion engender disagreement, then his judgment is questioned, his authority challenged and his control threatened. The secure option is to stay distant and aloof. Although his absence casts the provinces adrift, handicaps the creation of national programs and loosens the cohesion of federation, it leaves his Conservative policies undiluted and safe, free from being subordinated to the demands of the premiers. Besides, Stephen Harper was elected as the prime minister of Canada, not the provinces — they are politically unnecessary for his defence of control.
But the most ominous problems occur when Stephen Harper’s compulsive control confronts the intractable laws of nature. The Prime Minister cannot arrest the flooding tide by altering the pull of gravity. If he dismantles environmental regulations, ecosystems are inevitably degraded. If he refuses to curtail the burning of fossil fuels, then the climate warms, ecologies change, weather intensifies, sea levels rise and people become refugees in their own country. These are not negotiable consequences. Neglecting nature’s wellbeing is an exercise in folly, a tragedy created when the illusion of control collides with the finality of fact. A river cannot be pushed. Nature moves in its inexorable way and a compulsive control eventually begets ruin.
An obstinate and obsessive attachment to control will never realize that the art of governing is an enticing rather than a forcing, a kind of leading from behind. Compulsive control, numb to this awareness and oblivious to the auspicious signs of opportunity and timing, perceives only its own objectives. In the foolish struggle of managing and contriving, it fails to comprehend the deep and dangerous complexity of our unfolding circumstances.
By mistaking compulsive control for wisdom, Stephen Harper nurtures discord, distrust, frustration, anger, fear and a spreading enmity that disturbs the inherently peaceful order of things. Hardness begets hardness and contention begets contention. Differences are magnified, disagreements proliferate and a mounting tension shadows our tomorrows with a desperate hope.
Ray Grigg: Ray writes Shades of Green, a long running weekly column on environmental issues. He is the author of internationally published books on the history and essence of Tao and Zen traditions (The Tao of Relationships, Zen Brushpoems, and The Tao of Zen). An archive of his thoughtful and articulate comments on the most pressing issues of our times can be found at http://www.thegumboot.ca/show3995a/Democracy_and_Rational_Self-Interest