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Does the Harper Government Have the Credibility to be Re-Elected?

This is a guest post by author and filmmaker Michael Harris. The article originally appeared on iPolitics and is republished here with permission.

From the cold porches of January, 2015 stretches out like a thousand miles of gravel road.

The country is facing an election that will be nasty, brutish and long — from now until the vote occurs, whenever that may be. The writ period is essentially meaningless. Under the Conservatives, it’s always game on.

True to his word, Stephen Harper has transformed the country, largely by stealth. Canada is now a nation that spies on its friends, guests and citizens. It accepts foreign intelligence even when there is a likelihood that it was obtained by torture. The government lies to the electorate on policy matters. It accuses veterans of exaggerating their injuries in order to take the taxpayer for a ride. It washes its hands of any stake in the fate of 1,200 missing or murdered Aboriginal women. It does not practise unite-and-lead politics, but divide-and-conquer stratagems. A government, by any democratic measure, in disgrace.

Yet have you noticed that almost all of the mainstream media look-aheads do not include the baggage of the Harper record as any kind of liability going into an election? Running for re-election used to be like going to school. You put in your year, did your work, and at the end of a testing process, others decided if you had earned promotion to the next grade.

Not anymore. Instead, the government issues its own report cards and the MSM passes judgment on the efficacy of its spin. They act like bookies before a big race, establishing the odds on who’s ahead, who has momentum, who will win. They do little to inform their audiences in advance of choosing the next government. With notable exceptions, a broad swath of the media is also in disgrace. After all, if the media stops resolving matters of fact, the work falls to the potentates of public relations. Everyone knows who and what they work for.

Confusion rules. The whirling dervish of the polling world drives the nightly news, along with those episodes that give a push or shove upward or downward to somebody’s chances. There is no attempt to ask the most fundamental question of all: on the record, does the Harper government have the character or credibility to be re-elected?

Lying, cheating at the polls, suppressing free speech, cooking statistics at StatsCan with a bogus voluntary census, crushing individuals with the full, institutional powers of government, pretending dirty oil is the answer while the planet gasps — all this would suggest that this group has failed. Few seem prepared to say it.

And now we have an even bigger problem, according to an astonishing story in the Ottawa Citizen by Kathryn May. Nearly one in five Canadians believes that the prime minister could be justified in closing down Parliament in difficult times. A further 17 per cent believe that dissolving the Supreme Court would be okeydoke in the right circumstances. The question was asked and answered without providing any details about what sorts of crises would justify imposing a dictatorship.

These alarming statistics are contained in a study by the Americas Society headed up by David Rockefeller in association with Vanderbilt University. The group surveyed attitudes towards democracy and governance in interviews with 50,000 people in 28 countries. It found that Canada was among those nations most likely to support shuttering its legislatures. In fact, the study found that only the citizens of Paraguay, Peru, and Haiti were more likely to put their democracies in mothballs than Canadians.

Although 77 per cent of Canadians questioned in this study did not support abandoning democratic governance or the rule of law at the discretion of the prime minister, there is another worrisome feature about the minority who did. Their ranks are growing.

In 2010, the same study group found that just one in 10 Canadians thought that there could be grounds for the prime minister governing without Parliament or the Supreme Court. Two years later in 2012, 15 per cent held that view.

Are we sliding towards the political equivalent of Pierre Berton’s “comfortable pew,” bearing in mind that a lazy democracy is a dying democracy? Could these strange numbers explain why Canadians yawned when Stephen Harper was found in contempt of Parliament — and immediately handed him a majority government?

Could they also explain the pathetic decline in voter turnout at a juncture in history when it is hard to imagine more being at stake? A second-rate hockey team or an aging rock star can fill the Air Canada Centre night after night in Toronto. But if the last Canadian election had been an arena with 100 seats, only 60 of them would have had bums in them for the May 2, 2011 vote. What happened?

Stephen Harper has a lot to do with it. He is the prime minister who refused to produce documents requested by a parliamentary committee. He is the leader who denounced omnibus legislation in Opposition and vastly extended its use when he formed the government. He is the prime minister who muzzled MPs, misled Parliament on the F-35 acquisition, and told more stories than Hans Christian Andersen on the Wright/Duffy Affair.

Most people play by the rules; this prime minister plays with them.

As long-time Clerk of the House of Commons and former Information Commissioner Robert Marleau told me:

“We operate under Westminster rules — an honourable understanding that you will play within the rules and by the rules. Mr. Harper has not played within the rules. Having attained absolute power, he has absolutely abused that power to the maximum.”

The clearest sign that Marleau is right is Harper’s constant refrain that he is the only person qualified to run the country — not the best person, but the only one. He has said on more than one occasion that his job is to persuade Canadians not to choose the wrong person — i.e. anyone other than him. His long-term goal is to do to Canada what the Progressive Conservative Party has done to Alberta for the last 40-plus years: turn it into a one-party petro-state where voting is the last priority on the to-do list.

That said, Harper has aided and abetted the erosion of democracy — but he didn’t invent it. Since 9/11, the greatest democracy in the world has been steadily devalued — and dragged everyone else down with it. The War on Terror, like all wars on nouns (poverty, drugs, etc.), has been an abject failure.

After 13 years, the villains have merely changed costume — from al Qaida and the Taliban to the beheading fanatics of the Islamic State. The war in Afghanistan was a trillion-dollar fiasco; where Canadian soldiers fought and died, drug lords and corrupt politicians now carry on as they did before the war. As for the United States, it spies on its own citizens, tortures its captives like the people it demonizes, and can’t even raise the moral energy to bring justice to crimes under both international and American law documented by the U.S. Senate.

The fear dividend is what has been offered to ordinary people — the exchange of rights and freedoms, privacy and liberty, for the promise of protection from endless threats. When citizens in a democracy begin to defer to such authority as that, voting is hardly any more important than the Supreme Court or Parliament.

Fear will be big in 2015, an insight no one has to pass along to Steve. The critical question is whether democracy will be even bigger.

Image Credit: Prime Minister's Photo Gallery

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