A man and his economic dogma is quietly – and steadily – transforming Canada profoundly, perhaps beyond repair as well as recognition.
From glorifying past wars to ongoing assaults on parliament, the federal public service, science and the environment and from a thinly veiled war on the poor to endless gifting to the rich and the ultra-rich, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure in office has largely been a route map to a nation where only the rich and the Right have any genuine claim to full human rights and citizenship.
Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada by Donald Gutstein, an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University and co-director of News Watch Canada, is a stinging wake-up call to Canadians to the social and economic revolution wreaked on their country in less than a decade.
All indications point to the Harper government’s determination to push Canada back to the pre-World War Two era of clear class divisions, widespread economic hardship and vestigial social programs.
Pivotal to achieving this almost total recasting of Canadian society away from its post-war social democratic era of national social programs, pursuit of equity and equality, social justice and human rights, has been an ever-growing phalanx of increasingly well-endowed think tanks.
Their names are legion everywhere in Canada’s mainstream media. Their boards and staff are daily commonplace faces and voices in the business press, radio, television and print.
Here are the most prominent: the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIM), the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), the Mount Pelerin Society (MPS), the Fraser Institute (Fraser), the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (Manning), the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the Frontier Centre and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy. (ILD).
With only a few exceptions – the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Council of Canadians, the Broadbent Institute – they are all neo-liberal mouthpieces, ceaseless and tireless advocates for ever-smaller government, ever-lower taxes and ever-freer trade.
Continuously and richly endowed by Canada’s scions of Big Business, these pressure groups are the wind in Harperisms’ sails. Endowed with multi-million-dollar bank accounts from corporate sponsors, they grind out a steady stream of editorials and op-ed pieces routinely published in most if not all of the mainstream media. Like a Greek chorus, they endlessly repeat the praises of ever-smaller government and ever-lower taxes.
It’s 24/7 public brainwashing.
These polemicists rage ceaselessly – and almost always successfully – against virtually every aspect of the post-war social welfare state, from unions and free collective bargaining to free education and from medicare, hospital insurance and adequate pensions to child care and equalization between have and have-not provinces, to name a few of the casualties so far.
Of course, the business community is always happy to put its shoulder to the wheel in the service of ever-lower taxes and ever-smaller government, not just to save money, but to speed up quick and easy corporate decision-making.
Gutstein states that there is “a direct link from Mont Pelerin to Harper via the IEA. The Fraser Institute and its allied think tanks today spend upwards of $26 million a year to promote neo-liberal ideas in Canada alone.”
One of Stephen Harper’s first acts upon becoming leader of the brand-new Canadian Conservative party was to remove its historic title as Progressive Conservative, reducing it to Conservative party, period. Next on his agenda was to slash the Goods and Services Tax from seven per cent to five per cent, denying the government $14 billion a year, every year, in foregone revenue into perpetuity.
Everyone knows the ever-watchful think tank chorus would be singing at High-C should any future government ever dare to replace that budget shortfall – ever.
When faced with his first major economic challenge – a yawning budget hole due to that deliberate downsizing of government immediately followed by the 2007-8 world financial meltdown – Harper didn’t look to raise taxes. Instead, he pumped up the austerity, seized yet another opportunity to cut programs and services and laid off 30,000 government workers.
That’s not surprising. Who can forget the prime minister’s frank confession to Eric Reguly of The Globe and Mail in 2009 that “You know, there’s two schools in economics on this, one is that there are some good taxes and the other is that no taxes are good taxes. I’m in the latter category. I don’t believe any taxes are good taxes.”
Ever since, the public service makes an annual march to place its collective head on the Harper Guillotine’s chopping block so that an ongoing stream of national programs and services – services that were once considered vital to the health, welfare, safety and prosperity of Canadians – can be lopped off with just one-line mentions in the Harper government’s annual 1,000-plus-page omnibus budget bill.
That novel development in modern parliamentary democracy, courtesy of Harper & Co., is so much faster and politically safer – and so much less bother – than actually having to kill off the nation’s vital programs and services one by one while your electorate watches.
Indeed, under the eager guidance of uber-fiscal hawk Treasury Board President Tony Clement – the man who spent $50 million in federal dollars to spruce up his riding for the 24-hour G-8 summit in 2010 – the trimming of Canada’s public service has been transformed into a ongoing 24-7 anti-government Whack-A-Mole.
Harper was accused of attacking environmentalists for obstructing resource development. But there’s more to it than that, Gutstein continues. “Eradicating scientific – and indeed, all centralized knowledge – by shuttering research stations and abandoning science laboratories is a more fundamental change,” he writes. “What’s unique here is the idea that environmental decisions should be based on market signals and not on accumulated scientific knowledge.”
Harper and his ever-loyal retinue of business think tanks enjoying instant access to almost every editorial page in the nation prefer to advocate a novel idea drummed up by the free market geeks: free-market environmentalism.
“What kind of Canada would that be,” Gutstein wonders.
Gutstein urges Canadians to think hard and long about their country when they consider its future under continued Harper rule.
“If you focus only on Harper, you can learn a lot about his ruthless control over his party and caucus, his disciplined messaging, his obsessive focus on the economy, his ability to move issues forward in the light of vigorous opposition.”
And his steely determination to change Canada so profoundly that Canadians won’t be able to recognize, remember, or rebuild it as a healthy democracy.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.