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How Stephen Harper Used God and Neoliberalism to Construct the Radical Environmentalist Frame

Stephen Harper’s efforts to frame environmentalists as radicals who deserve to be investigated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service took three years to come to fruition.

It’s often claimed that Harper’s vendetta against environmental groups springs from his unconditional support for the oil industry. While that is more or less evident, it’s also necessary to consider the dominant influences — from his evangelical Christianity and his neoliberal ideology — on his tactics.

It was in early January 2012 that the Harper government first attacked opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released an open letter accusing “radical” environmentalists and “jet-setting celebrities” of blocking efforts to open access to Asian markets for Canadian oil.

“These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” Oliver, a former investment banker who raised money for oil companies, wrote. “They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”

What’s God Got to Do With It?

A week earlier, to welcome in the 2012 American election year, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave a New Year’s Eve speech in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. By rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, Santorum warned, President Obama was “pandering to radical environmentalists who don’t want energy production, who don’t want us to burn more carbon.”

It may have been coincidental that the Harper government and the Santorum candidacy raised the spectre of radical environmentalism at the same time, but there are interesting connections.

Santorum’s remarks went viral later in February when, at a campaign stop in Ohio, he accused Obama of believing in “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible.”

A theology based on the Bible, Santorum explained at his Ohio stop, would be “about the belief that man is — should be — in charge of the Earth and have dominion over it and be good stewards of it.” But the “radical environmentalist” believes that “man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.”

For evangelical Christians like Santorum, it’s a simple proposition: Resisting bitumen extraction and transport is a denial of God’s law. Santorum is up front with his conservative religious beliefs; Harper keeps his views to himself, although the influence of evangelicals and social conservatives in his government was detailed in Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor.

Since 2003, Harper has been a member of Ottawa’s East Gate Alliance Church, which is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The statement of faith of this church declares that “The Old and New Testaments, inerrant as originally given, were verbally inspired by God and are a complete revelation of His will for the salvation of people. They constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice.”

That puts bitumen extraction and transport under the direct authority of God, even in Canada. It should be noted that several other Christian denominations believe their faith mandates them to care for the earth. Pope Francis is even holding his own climate change summit.

In the U.S., God is tacked on to just about every political speech; in Canada, politicians rarely conjure the divine. But in Canada Harper has remained notably taciturn about his beliefs.

As McDonald observed, Harper was aware of “the risks of mixing faith and politics: he had watched creationist sentiments sink the leadership career of his Canadian Alliance rival Stockwell Day.”

But there are also the numbers to consider.

In the U.S., more than 30 per cent of the population is evangelical; in Canada the figure is 10 to 12 per cent. Santorum has a lot to gain, but Harper risks alienating a large majority of Canadians if he uses Santorum’s messaging techniques.

Nonetheless, McDonald notes, Harper covertly courted the religious right to his political advantage, using social-conservative policies to broaden the appeal of his party.

Faith in the Free Market

Attacking environmentalists who defy God’s law is one useful approach. Attacking environmentalists who interfere with the market is another.

Here Harper follows the lead, not of the Bible, but of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who founded neoliberalism after the Second World War.

The neoliberal view of environmentalism is typified by former Czech Republic president Vaclav Klaus. In a 2008 speech Klaus said he considered “environmentalism and its current strongest version — climate alarmism — to be … the most effective and … dangerous vehicle for advocating, drafting and implementing large-scale government intervention and for an unprecedented suppression of human freedom.”

The dispute was “not about temperature or CO2,” he insisted, but instead was “another variant of the old, well-known debate: freedom and free markets versus dirigisme [state control], political control and regulation…”

It was the same old logically twisted story: self- “anointed” alarmists are here to “restrict freedom and stop human prosperity” under the guise of protecting the planet.

Efforts to control global warming go to the heart of Hayek’s critique of central planning. In The Road to Serfdom, he wrote planning “would make the very men who are most anxious to plan society the most dangerous if they were allowed to do so … From the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a step.” The planner and coordinator, Hayek opined, was little more than an “omniscient dictator.”

Stephen Harper, the Hayek-influenced economist, was certainly on board with this analysis. He was leader of the Canadian Alliance in October 2002, when the Chrétien government was preparing to ask Parliament to ratify the Kyoto Accord. Harper wrote a letter to Alliance members requesting funds to stop ratification.

“Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” Harper wrote. “I’m talking about the ‘battle of Kyoto’ — our campaign to block the job-killing, economy-destroying Kyoto Accord.”

The current use of the term “radical environmentalist,” with its appeal to both evangelicals and neoliberals, comes from a decade-old Frank Luntz briefing memo for the Republican Party, The environment: A cleaner, safer, healthier America.”

“’Environmentalist’ can have the connotation of extremist to many Americans,” he wrote.

Luntz, a long-time Republican pollster and strategist, specializes is using language to evoke feeling. In a 2003 interview on PBS’s Frontline, he said: “My job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. Words alone can be found in a dictionary or a telephone book, but words with emotion can change destiny, can change life as we know it.”

Luntz travelled to Ottawa in the spring of 2006 to help Preston Manning promote his new project, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which was intended to advance conservative ideas and politicians. His connection to Manning went back to the 1993 federal election, when Luntz was the Reform Party’s official election pollster and strategic adviser.

With Luntz’s help, the Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell were annihilated — Luntz watched the election results from Manning’s suite — and Reform emerged as the party of the right. Thirteen years later, along with helping Manning, Luntz met with Harper for a photo-op session and to provide advice for Harper’s new minority government.

Luntz was impressed with Harper, who he called “a genuine intellectual, brilliant in his understanding of issues.”

In 2006 at a conference of conservative politicians, academics, journalists and think tank functionaries, Luntz advised the audience to tap into national symbols like hockey. “If there is some way to link hockey to what you all do, I would try to do it.” Before long, Harper was writing a book about hockey.

And he was making good use of Luntz’s radical environmentalist frame.

As in his other framing exercises, Harper’s message came from multiple sources inside and outside government. In Parliament, Fort McMurray-Athabasca Conservative MP Brian Jean called for legislation that would block foreign funding of the “radical” Canadian environmental movement. In Washington, D.C., Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told an interviewer “there’s a great deal of frustration … that the future prosperity of our country could lie in the hands of some radical environmentalists and special interests.”

Outside government, Marco Navarro-Genie, research director at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a regional neoliberal think tank, claimed that the “real aim [of] … radical environmentalists is eventually to stop production of all hydrocarbons.”

Did it work?

Later in the year, the Montreal Economic Institute, another regional neoliberal think tank, released a survey suggesting that a majority of Canadians — 52 per cent — think “several environmental lobbies are too radical,” compared with 27 per cent who disagree with this statement. The survey also found that 72 per cent of Canadians are in favour of developing the bitumen deposits, “while maintaining a continuous effort to limit the environmental impact.”

Send in the Auditors and the Spies

Harper must have been emboldened by the success of this campaign for him to take the next step. In 2012, Harper allocated $13.4 million to the CRA to undertake audits of the political activities and foreign funding of charities. At least 52 audits were done, almost all on organizations critical of Harper’s policies

Read DeSmog Canada’s in-depth series on Canada’s charitable sector: Charities and Non-Profits: A Force for a Better World

And that wasn’t the end of it, as surveillance moved up the food chain from CRA to CSIS and the RCMP. Even before the Harper government tabled Bill C-51, The Anti-Terrorism Act, in the House of Commons in January 2015, CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, was making recommendations to federal officials about how to deal with protests expected after the Harper government gave conditional approval to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in June 2014.

CSIS provided senior government officials with a federal risk forecast for the 2014 “spring/summer protest and demonstration season” compiled by the government operations centre, which tracks and analyzes such activity.

An RCMP intelligence assessment obtained by Greenpeace Canada and first published on DeSmog Canada highlighted a disturbing narrative about what the police force viewed as “violent anti-petroleum extremists.”

Vivian Krause, the North Vancouver researcher who created the conspiracy theory that U.S. foundations were funding Canadian environmental groups to prevent the expansion of oilsands production, was the single most important source for the RCMP report. Her work was given ten pages in the 44-page report, while global warming denier Patrick Moore was one of the most cited sources.

Some intelligence assessment.

But that didn’t seem to matter. What started out as a Frank Luntz talking point had become reality.

The radical environmentalist frame could count on a strong base of support from evangelicals and neoliberals. Constant repetition and government action by the CRA and then CSIS and the RCMP made it newsworthy. And what the media report must be real.

That’s how Stephen Harper makes his world.

We hear it time and time again:
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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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