In his recent book Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues have Transformed Canada, author and adjunct SFU professor Donald Gutstein outlines a battle being waged in Canada for the “climate of ideas.”
The Prime Minister is often thought of as a lone wolf, “the rogue conservative who marches to his own drummer.” But it’s not so, argues Gutstein. Harper is merely “one side of an ideological coin.”
The flipside is the network of key influencers — politicians, industry titans, think tanks, journalists — who work to advance not just Harper’s agenda, but the agenda of neoliberalism that serves powerful private interests, Gutstein says.
According to Gutstein, public sentiment in Canada — around things like environmental policy, free-market orthodoxy and the collection of taxes — is strongly influenced by a cadre of like-minded individuals and organizations who work in conjunction to, for example, sway public opinion on implementing a carbon tax or funding the arts.
The overall effect of this strategy has been the emergence of Harperism, a political style ruled by market logic and economic freedom. What has been lost along the way is robust democratic participation in Canadian decision-making, checks and balances, scientific integrity and the influence of civil society groups, Gutstein argues.
I recently spoke with Gutstein about attacks on environmental groups in Canada and asked him to explain how he sees this factoring into the broader political landscape.
Q: How do you see oil and gas interests, free-market think tanks and the Conservative government banding together to “neutralize,” as you say in your book, environmental opposition?
A: Harper and the think tanks rarely get together but they do work together in a very well understood way. The think tanks are working over a long period of time to change the climate of ideas. They can’t force us to think differently but they cast doubt on the motivation of environmental groups — ‘where do you get your funding?” — these questions are up in the air.
That makes it easier for Harper to do something: attack them, cut off their funding or ignore them. It makes it easier to happen today than it was 10 years ago. I do think environmental groups’ reputations have been sullied or tarnished by this constant work on them.
The articles, the op-ed pieces, the news stories with quotes from the think tanks — all this eventually changes the climate of ideas about environmentalism.
Q: I really like this idea in your book of transforming the “climate of ideas.” It sheds a light on how democracy works, or the way that opinions or perspectives are formed within a democratic setting. Things like the credibility of environmental organizations are really up for grabs in the media. You see grand claims being made, often without substantiation, that could damage the reputation of an environmental organization. I think it was Mark Twain who said ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.’ How do you see this strategy of casting doubt and changing the climate of ideas at work in our democracy?
A: I’d probably need to think more about this question, but one example springs to mind: when Ezra Levant was doing his Ethical Oil campaign he would write op-eds in the Toronto Sun attacking Greenpeace, but the Toronto Sun would never give any space to Greenpeace to say what they are really about or to respond to Levant’s wild charges.
So all the readers knew about Greenpeace was what they read from Ezra Levant.
The way the media frame stories, who they give voices to — that has a lot to do with what ideas gain in credibility and get a more positive or more negative tarnish to it.
That’s just one example, but it’s a bigger picture.
I appreciate that things have changed quite a bit because of Twitter, Facebook and the internet, but I think that the corporate media still play a defining role in determining which ideas get promoted, and which ideas are ignored.
I love that quote…“If the media don’t report on an issue, it might as well not exist.” I think that’s so profound. It’s the other side of asking: which ideas do they promote, and how do they spin them, which things are credible and which are not?
I think the media still play an important role…even on the Internet. So much of what is on Facebook and Twitter are responses or commentaries to what’s in the media.
Q: Do you see certain individuals being deployed as ‘ambassadors’ of anti-environmental or free-market ideas?
A: Oh sure. That’s a long-standing strategy. Just this morning someone contacted me about an article I wrote on Rabble about John Luik, who was a frontman for the tobacco industry. He wrote all these books and papers and was secretly funded by the tobacco industry for years and years.
He’s the model. There are lots of people like this that operate as individuals. [Luik] even did work — wrote a book — for the Fraser Institute criticizing the need to regulate second-hand smoke. Individuals exist as individual personalities and in a way they can seem more credible.
Q: Do you see individuals like blogger Vivian Krause in this kind of light? She appeared on the scene as this independent researcher just asking questions on the Internet and in no time she was thrust into the national spotlight and given some of our most prominent media platforms. On her resume she even credits herself with initiating the Canada Revenue Agency investigation and audits of Canada’s environmental charities. It seems she’s become a ‘rising star’ because her narrative served the interests and needs of the Harper government and the fossil fuel industry. Do you see her falling into the typical pattern of how individuals are deployed to serve certain interests?
A: There are hundreds of millions of bloggers, so why did she rise to the top? She’s getting op-eds in the news media and it’s interesting to look at that.
She writes for the National Post, which is the most amenable to this kind of corporate propaganda. The Financial Post, which is just the business section of the National Post, is edited by Terrance Corcoran and he’s for a long time gone after ‘junk science’ and has attacked Greenpeace and the environmental movement for decades. So that would be a really good home for her.
[Krause] wouldn’t have really gotten anywhere unless corporate media and some of the industry groups started seeing the benefit of having her.
If she can take away from the harm they’re doing to the environment and move it to the supposedly nasty things that the energy industry’s critics are up to then that really gets the heat off them to a large extent.
She would be playing a pretty significant role for them.
Q: What do you anticipate happening in Canada over the next year as we move into the next federal election?
A: Well that’s an interesting one. Harper has so many files open, from the one on the First Nations property ownership act, trying to transform First Nations [reserves] into private property, but that’s sort of on hold. He moved forward on it to a point. And then the attacks on environmentalists have gone so far…it’s hard to know what he’ll focus on.
If Stephen Harper is voted back in it will be unimaginable, the plans he has ready to go.
If the Harper Conservatives did get back in, it’s incremental, he would move to deregulate new areas, remove the significance of scientific information. He would find places here and there.
He would probably boost the ability of environment Canada to do financial costing of ecosystem services.
It’s never going to be a huge move, it’s always going to be these small steps, but they all add up eventually into something huge.
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