National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Pundits often debate whether the public trusts their leader, but here’s a question they rarely ask: Does the leader trust the public? For Stephen Harper, the answer is an unambiguous no.

Harper’s campaign is casting him as the leader who will make the right choices for Canadians; not just because of his conservative views, but because of his character. Qualities such as maturity, experience and discipline supposedly make him the most competent of the candidates: the surest hand on the tiller, the man who can be trusted to get the job done.

One Conservative ad even makes a virtue of Harper being a loner. He is portrayed as someone who puts in the long hours and is willing to make the tough decisions a real leader must make. The ad telegraphs the message that, it may be lonely at the top, but Harper is the kind of guy who can and will see it through. You can trust him to get things done for you.

Now contrast this with Justin Trudeau’s campaign, which also makes a strong appeal to trust, but in a very different way. While competence is implied, Trudeau’s main focus is on openness, honesty and fairness. He is not just promising to do a good job. He wants to build a relationship with Canadians.

Trudeau sees leadership as a two-way street, where citizens have an ongoing role. In his view, the best way to ensure the right decisions for Canadians is to keep them informed and engaged. Far from a loner, he is telling people they can trust him to run a government that is open, responsive, transparent and accountable.

Trudeau is not the only one who sees leadership this way. Thomas Mulcair also speaks of trust and the need for openness and engagement. Elizabeth May has been an articulate champion of both and holds views similar to Trudeau’s.

Not Harper. He is part of a different leadership paradigm. By comparison, his campaign message has a striking absence of any role for the public. It’s not hard to see why. When we examine Harper’s past performance through a democracy lens, our trust in him quickly melts away.

The use of omnibus bills, the refusal to comply with access to information, the gagging of public servants, the attack on officers of parliament, the manipulation of committees, interfering with the Senate, proroguing Parliament to avoid a confidence motion, refusing to work with the provinces or the media—the list of his democratic infractions goes on and on.

Pointing this out is neither a slur on the man nor a partisan attack. Whatever Conservative communications people may say, there is no serious disagreement among independent observers about Harper’s governance style. This is the story historians will write. But it does raise a perplexing question: Why? Why is he so controlling and disrespectful of democracy?

I see only one plausible answer: he does not trust it. Unlike the other leaders, he thinks it is folly to trust the public with sensitive truths or to engage them in any meaningful role in policy debate or decision-making. Harper apparently believes the public are unfit to such tasks.

He is not the first leader to hold this view. George W Bush’s government was notoriously secretive and insular. Jeffrey Simpson recently sketched a striking comparison of Harper with Richard Nixon.

Of course, leaders like these pretend to respect the public’s views. They even present themselves as champions of democracy. But the real discussions and decisions get made elsewhere, usually within a very small, inner circle of supporters.

In such governments, there is an “inside” and an “outside” discussion of issues. The content is very different. The price of entry into the inner circle is secrecy, loyalty and deference to the leader’s judgement.

Given the wall of secrecy around Harper’s inner circle, it is hard to know exactly how deep his distrust of the public runs but, at a minimum, he must believe it’s okay for a prime minister to keep the public ignorant of the facts and to shield his inner circle from any accountability or oversight. He goes to great lengths to do so.

Presumably, he see this as an acceptable price for citizens to pay to ensure their leader is free to make “the right choices” for them. Of course, in such an arrangement, “the right choices” turn out to be pretty much whatever the leader says they are.

And, in the end, that is the real problem with his leadership: over time it has become increasingly less democratic and more authoritarian. So when Harper now appeals to Canadians to trust him, they should know that he is not just asking them to turn the policy levers over to him, but also a growing share of the tools and processes needed to monitor or control what he does with those levers. This is why trust will be a key issue in this election. Too many people have had enough.

Canadians who really want to make an informed choice in this election should not only consider how the party leaders are asking us to see them, but how they see us. And as they reflect on this, they should keep a key question in mind: If a leader doesn’t trust me, why would I trust him?


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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