When Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party eked out a victory in the last Canadian federal election, the bare-minority government that he managed to pull together seemed a guarantee that his more truculent neoconservative inclinations would be held in check.
But Harper shouldn’t be underestimated; he has proved a tricky and determined customer. The Tory campaign had emphasized ‘transparency’ in government and ‘accountability’ to a population weary of the patronage scandals and manipulations associated with the Liberal Party that has held power in the country for the bulk of the last 100 years.
No sooner had Harper installed himself in the official PM’s residence than the self-righteous back-pedalling began. Harper reached across the floor of the House to grab a former forestry executive who had managed to get elected as a Liberal in a socialist riding in Vancouver on the basis that he would ‘keep Harper out’. So much for accountability! The Harper political style has turned out to be a micro-managing approach designed to keep redneck MPs from chewing on their toes in public and the press and the populace in the dark. It’s government on a need-to know-basis. So much for transparency!
But it is Harper’s unalloyed hero worship of the sinking heroes of the ‘Westside Gang’ in that gang war called the ‘clash of civilizations’ that has been most startling. The lame ducks of New Labour and especially the addled sheriff from Texas are his natural buddies. He has fallen all over himself as he backs away from the Canadian traditions of multilateralism and at least an effort to be an ‘honest broker’ in a troubled world. Harper and his base in the Alberta oil industry have no use for the ‘myths’ of global warming and are on record against the Kyoto Accords. The first set of vicious cuts by the Canadian Bush wannabes were to a hard-won series of alternative energy and conservation programmes. No need for those.
The inevitable irritants in Canadian/American relations and the country’s anti-Americanism have always embarrassed the Canadian Right. The refusal to send troops to the big adventure in Iraq went down poorly in these quarters. So Harper has been doing everything in his power to appease the unappeasables of the US Empire. He sold Canada down the river on a softwood lumber dispute that had the US illegally collecting millions of dollars in tariffs on Canadian exports. To make up for Iraq, Harper has ramped up Canadian military spending and intensified Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan. He even travelled to the front, where he appeared, Bush-like, in a military flak jacket and addressed the troops. A vicious editorial cartoon at the time of the G8 meetings in St Petersburg had a diminutive Harper doing Cossack dancing while a satisfied George Bush leaned over to Vladamir Putin to say ‘that’s my new friend Steve. He’ll sign anything.’
The most recent and probably most telling Harperism came when he congratulated Israel for its ‘measured’ response in the assault on Lebanon. Unfortunately this came just hours before an Israeli bomb wiped out an entire Canadian family in southern Lebanon – bad timing. By way of damage control Harper then diverted his plane (on a return trip from the G8) to Cyprus to pick up a few of the disgruntled Canadian refugees who had finally made it there. Stage-managed? Photo-op? Not a bit of it, according to the office of the Prime Minister.
Well, Canadians shouldn’t be surprised. Harper cut his teeth on right-wing political causes. He is executive director of a delightful group of reactionaries called the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), which has supported every regressive cause in the country, from privatizing Medicare to the holy rights of gun ownership. Slash-and-burn economics remains the specialty of the NCC. The spin that Tory handlers are trying to sell Canadian voters is that the rough edges of Harper’s reactionary views have been worn off by his experience in ‘making government work’. But his real agenda keeps spilling out. He has, for example, refused to open major international events being hosted by Canada, such as the gay games in Montreal or the big international AIDS conference in Toronto this past August. He and his inner circle feel that such causes as AIDS and climate change have been ‘politicized’ by the Left.
Harper is now trading on his image as a strong leader with a no-nonsense approach. His impulse is towards a moral clarity that abolishes all complexities. Israel right – Arabs wrong! Spending bad – tax cuts good! Bush good – terrorists evil! It is his ability to sell this simple-minded buffoonery that makes him dangerous. Canadian voters need to keep in mind the words of that famous wit HL Mencken: ‘For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong.’ Otherwise Canada may end up on the road to perdition already well travelled by the Bushes and Blairs of this world.