Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper

Everyone has a friend like Howard. We have known each other for over forty years. He is very smart and very funny and loves to send crazy cartoons out to friends. The other day I received this one. Above a picture of Stephen Harper, these words: “If his party is tainted by corruption and he doesn’t know all of the answers, why is it still in power running the country?” Stephen Harper, 2005. And below these words, “For once, Mr. Harper, we agree.”

This is the question many of us on Canada’s tattered Left are asking themselves and whoever presents an audience. “Why is Harper still running and ruining the country?” Why in the world do 40% of those polled think Sleazy Stephen is doing a reasonably good job? The only decent reason must be that most Canadians don’t have a clue how he has stealthily dismantled democracy at home and supported the US Empire’s perpetual wars abroad. If the US were the Hell’s Angels, then Canada works as one of the designated enforcers.

My cousin Pam, who lives in a small village in the southwest of Saskatchewan, thinks that most of her friends are on to Harper, but I am not sure we have enough to send thus miserable guy packing. Noble pundits remorsefully tell us that the youth don’t bother to vote. Sleazy Stephen thinks he can sneak in with less than 1/3 of the votes. Less the kids know, the better, eh?

I picked up Mel Hurtig’s little book, The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper’s takeover of Canada (2015) at the last remaining old commie bookstore in Vancouver’s hip Commercial Drive on the city’s east side. On a Saturday afternoon stroll one can observe punk families all dressed in black with even the four year olds wearing a stud in the ear with a careful tear or two in their jeans. Pretty rough-looking folks jostle the streets with trendy youth heading to the Havana Café for lunch and a peek at a poster of Che.

The People’s Co-op Bookstore (they don’t acknowledge their Communist Party roots too openly, but a few books by Lenin are on the shelves) had a small pile of Hurtig’s book, so I guess the masses have been surging in off the streets to learn more about the malevolent actions of Canada’s rogue Prime Minister.

Hey, maybe my cousin is right! The masses are rising up against Stephen the Cruel! Well, maybe not. Calm down.

Mel Hurtig is Captain Canada. Now 83, this long-time Liberal Nationalist has been one of Canada’s most fierce critics of the foreign ownership of the Canadian economy. His The Betrayal of Canada was a best seller in 1991. In 1973 he founded the Committee for an Independent Canada. Although it folded in 1981, he bounced back with the Committee for an Independent Canada in 1985.

Captain Canada Mel represents a strong nationalist current within the old Liberal party. He has fought hard against free trade agreements, believing fervently that once Canada deals in to an agreement with the United States, well, hey, kiss our manufacturing good-bye.

The cry to “close the 49th parallel” and urgent manifestos declaring that the “major threat to Canadian survival today is American control of the Canadian economy” (words from a group within the New Democratic Party’s “The Waffle Manifesto: For an independent socialist Canada” [1969]) have been considerably muted within the Canadian Left’s agenda (if there be such a thing!) in 2015.

Mel still gives a mighty damn about foreign ownership. And this big theme gets some attention in The Arrogant Autocrat. But Mel’s intense focus in this little book with bite is to convince Canadians that the Harper regime is “appalling, irrational, shameful and catastrophic.” In other words, boot him out on October 19th, the date of the federal election.

In two previous CounterPunch polemical articles (“The tragedy of Harper’s Canada” [July 3, 2015] and “The ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s warmongering” [August 7, 2015]) I documented some of the themes that Hurtig accentuates. These include the “unprecedented attack on our scientists”—which has led scientists around the world to wonder what the hell is going on with dear old, kind and true Canada. The dictator Harper closed one of the world’s leading fishery, oceans and environmental libraries.

Reminiscent of book-burning in Nazi Germany, Hurtig states that: “Reports of collections like that of the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mont-Joli, Quebec, found in dumpsters or sent to landfills, reveal a government that is at best careless with historical and intellectual wealth of the nation, or worse, bent on the eradication of scientific knowledge. Even a former Fisheries minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, Tom Siddon, called the closings ‘Orwellian’”.

Hurtig runs over ground well-travelled by now. He catalogues some of the tricks of the dictator such as tax reviews of select charities, particularly those working in the environmental field, and the now familiar defunding tactics. Physicians for Global Justice had its funding revoked; Oxfam Canada was informed by the Harper “tax police” that preventing poverty was not an “acceptable goal.” The list is long.

Don’t we whisper in the corner that when state and corporate interests fuse we call this “fascism”?

In October, 2014, the CRA focused its attention on the activities of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists, a group of bird watchers and naturalists (who operate under a registered charity). But the CRA did not take well to the group’s letter “complaining about government-approved chemicals that damage bee colonies.” They were told that the group must refrain from partisan activities. They were gagged.

Captain Canada Mel the Good thinks that “what is happening in Canada is nothing short of tragedy.”

It is–no doubt about that. Mel points to the serious erosion of Canada’s foreign aid (now among the lowest in the OECD countries, about .2% of the national income). Harper and his agents have removed organizations and players in developmental sectors (like the North-South Institute). What Harper wants is the elimination of independent civil society associations that can provide critical voice and research that might inform a just orientation to our work in the world.

Harper hates numbers: particularly if they are “unwelcome numbers.” Many Canadian commentators have written about Harper’s “datacide” (Mel’s phrase). It is appalling that arrogantautoHarper kiboshed a fundamental advisory group such as the National Council of Welfare (NCW). It was shut down in 2012 without warning and without public consultation. Bang, Door shut.

In effect, the Harper dictatorship is dismantling the institutional configuration of a deliberative democracy. An organization such as the NCW has links to various poor people and their organizations. The NCW can crystallize their problems and needs, do the necessary research and then carry their articulations inside parliamentary gates for government development of evidence-based policy. Civil society associations, movements and public spheres must have gateways into parliamentary decision-making processes and domains. But the erosion, or even disintegration of, this relationship has intensified under Harper’s oily regime.

This permits Harpers’ theo-con government to constantly bafflegab the population. They don’t use evidence and we, the citizenry, certainly don’t have very much to go on (our newspapers are basically pathetic rags). Hurtig mentions the disappearance of the “Survey of Labour Income and dynamics” and “Social security stats: Canada and the provinces” as illustrations.

Captain Canada Mel Hurtig faces off with Harper, who fancies himself as the Defender of the Economy. Indeed, Stephen the Mighty One fabricates himself as the only person who can defend the Canadian economy. Certainly Mulcair of the faded old social democrats (who appear to be located on the right these days) cannot and Pierre Eliott Trudeau’s handsome boy with gorgeous hair, pretty wife and beautiful kids had better stay in the playpen. I, Stephen, can defend the economy at home and smash enemies abroad.

But Mel strips away the bullshit from Harper’s alleged defence of the Canadian economy. Hurtig reveals that Canada’s record on ending “child poverty” is a “national disgrace”, and has “grown worse under Stephen Harper.” The OECD Fact-book of 2014 placed us at 23rd among the 34 OECD countries on overall poverty rate.” In 2010, 15% of the children “lived in poverty.” In Toronto, 841,00 folks had visited a food bank in March, 2014. We live in the Age of Precarious
Work and Life.

A 2009 Senate report, “In from the margins: a call to action on poverty, housing and homelessness” was dismissed and ignored by Harper. We need a national housing and homelessness strategy; none is forthcoming. Harper even cut back health benefits for immigrants and rejected refugee claimants in 2012. Mel states that “Canada and the US are the only countries that make refugees repay their travel and medical costs.” There is much dirt to be uncovered in and around the Harper dictatorship’s treatment of immigrants and refugees.

Mel’s chapter on income and wealth in Stephen Harper’s Canada (“Unfair, unequal, unjust”) is his most hard-hitting. The gap in salary and compensation levels among Canadian wage earners has increased drastically during the Harper regime. In 2012 the 86th wealthiest Canadians had income equivalent to the poorest 11.4 million Canadians.

“During a period in which 15 other OECD nations managed to reduce their rates of inequality, Canada tumbled from above average to below average.” Mel informs us that Canada has a “low corporate tax rate”—it has dropped in rate from 28% in 2000 under the Liberals to 15% in 2012 under the Harper regime. Hurtig shreds complacent arguments that we all benefit from “lower tax”.

Listen to Mel at his peppiest. “We have been told for decades that lowering corporate taxes would benefit Canadians and the economy; that companies would reinvest their increased profits in research and development—in new factories, new machinery and equipment, and into training to improve productivity. We were promised this would create more and better jobs, and boost economic growth and productivity.”

Well, it hasn’t happened. Top corporate pay has surged unprecedentedly; lower-level employees’ salaries have stagnated. So government at federal and provincial levels encourage a greedy and self-serving corporate elite. Reduced government revenues mean “severe cuts to social programs such as unemployment insurance, job and skills training, and healthcare, leaving enormous holes in the economic and safety net that once assisted low and medium wage earners.”

Harper has not defended Canadians or our economy. Part-time work now makes up 20% of the workforce (in 2014, 80% of job creation were part-time and low-paying). Hurtig presses on and accuses Harper of contributing to Canada’s loss of competitive edge in the world. Canada now occupies 15th position out of 144 in the Global Competitiveness Report.

Canada’s business community, says Hurtig, doesn’t spend enough on research and development. “Canada has one of the lowest rates of direct government funding of business R and D within the OECD.” All Harper seems to give a damn about is the tar sands (as the shout “keep the oil in the soil” resounds in the Canadian hills). Mel blames much of the apathy about R and D to foreign-owned companies. He is probably right.

Hurtig doesn’t think that Harper managed the Canadian economy well during the global meltdown of 2008. Left-wing economist Jim Stanford (who works for UNIFOR, a recent merger of the Canadian Autoworkers and the Communication Energy and Paperworkers’ unions) accuses Harper of having a “smug mindset.”

Mel outlines the way Harper has mismanaged the economy. First, our trade position has deteriorated during the ill-fated Harper years. Second, a wide range of economic indicators show that “Canada’s performance is declining.”

We are 28th in exports of goods and services. After nine years of Harper, our trade surplus fell to a $56 billion dollar deficit. Our government debt (as percentage of GDP) is 13th of 34 advanced economies.

Third, we do rank high regarding number of persons completing some form of tertiary education. But good jobs are not available for many of our graduates. And, as Stanford points out, 400,000 discouraged unemployed workers don’t appear on official unemployment statistics.

Hurtig hammers away: since 2006, Harper and his managers have pulled heavy wool over Canadian eyes. Middle class incomes are stagnant, most jobs are insecure, job quality is declining, and citizens have accumulated huge personal debt and face escalating costs of educating their children. Canadians have low savings, inadequate pensions and young Canadians are falling behind their parents’ generation.

Harper has mismanaged the economy so badly that after his first 8 years he has amassed a deficit of $127 billion. And Mel the Nationalist argues insistently that foreign take-overs have continued the “hollowing out of our nation.”

Not surprisingly, Hurtig argues that the downside of free trade agreements for Canada has eroded our sovereignty and undermined control of our own economy and environment. Unbelievably, foreign corporations can sue Canada for alleged loss of profits under NAFTA.

Mel shouts out: “Canada is drifting towards a state and a condition that is unrecognizable.” That’s what Stephen Lewis, former UN envoy for HV/AIDS in Africa in the 2000s, thinks too. “What in the world is happening to this country?”

Mel doesn’t think that the “Canada we know and love will survive another four years of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.”

Lo and behold, Howard sent me another gem this morning. It is about “How to start each day with a positive outlook.” Here are the six steps:

1 Create a new file on your computer.

2 Name it “Stephen Harper”

3 Send it to the recycle bin.

4 Empty the recycle bin.

5 Your computer will ask you, “Do you really want to get rid of Stephen Harper?”

6 Firmly click “Yes”.

Feel better?

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.