Moving Beyond Our Obsession with Stephen Harper

Remember Brian Mulroney, the PM so many people loved to hate? We need to remember him so we can learn a lesson from that period in our political history: there is a real danger in demonizing prime ministers to the exclusion of other longer term political objectives. Mulroney’s unctuous manner, his arrogance and his shameless toadying to the U.S. and to corporate CEOs made people crazed with anger at the man.

In the end, however, the corporate interests that Mulroney served so loyally could hardly have asked for a better outcome. Progressives, in particular, were so bent out of shape about the man that they forgot that once he was gone (they all go eventually) there would be someone else whose job it was to serve the same corporate interests. Those progressives actually forgot two things:

One, that the damage done by any particular prime minister sets the foundation for the new normal for the next one.

And, two, things can always get worse.

No one was prepared for what Finance Minister Paul Martin had in store for the country (he effectively ran the Chretien government). Mulroney had established the foundation for corporatism with the free trade deal with the U.S. Martin delivered punch number two: the gutting of federal spending and revenue raising. In his famous 1995 “deficit-fighting” budget speech he boasted not about the reduced deficit but about radically diminishing the role of government: “…it is the very redefinition of government itself that is the main achievement of this budget… Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.” When surpluses went through the roof, he slashed taxes — and revenue — by $100 billion over five years.

Making predictions is a risky business which I try to avoid, but I have a strong sense that Stephen Harper will not be prime minister after the next election. His much-touted strategic brilliance has always been compromised by his narcissism — a critical flaw that will keep undermining his admittedly brilliant manipulation of the political process. And his moral turpitude may finally undo his efforts to lock in his core of largely Christian supporters.

In the meantime just what should the democratic political process look like if Canadians, in their large majority, are to get what they say they want from government? What does the constant, almost exclusive focus on the absolutely worse aspects of politics and politicians (the Senate scandal included) have on democratic practice and citizen engagement? What does it do to the political culture to focus on the corrupt, dishonest, secretive and vindictive character of the Harper government?

The whole exercise is enervating and demoralizing — the more so the longer it prevails. The combination of our perverse political system which gives prime ministers virtually dictatorial powers, and the willingness of Harper to abuse every one of those powers, leaves citizens and political institutions feeling virtually powerless. We are like (and are treated like) peasants in a feudal society with a malevolent and contemptuous monarch. Trying in this atmosphere to maintain faith that the system will eventually correct itself, let alone trying to keep an even keel as an engaged citizen is nearly impossible. It has the effect of immobilizing and incapacitating all but the most committed citizens.

If democracy is ultimately to prevail and if the values of Canadians are to find their way once again into public policy we need to move beyond the obsession with Stephen Harper and pay attention to the other players. It is these politicians and their parties which, after all, we expect and hope will defeat the Harperium. Do we care who or what they are — what their policies will be and perhaps most importantly whether they are committed to reversing the worst aspects of Harper’s blitzkrieg though Canadian democracy?

We had better care or the past will repeat itself and whoever becomes the next prime minister will inevitably — even if by default — start his administration from the new normal. The changed nature of our political culture, even before Harper became prime minister, is its powerful disincentive to be bold on any policy front. We have long since exited the era of political leaders and visionaries and are firmly stuck in a new period of economic managers. This is a reflection of the government being run as a business mentality, the ferocious right-wing media and the resulting fear of proposing anything risky by way of policy.

From this perspective Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have done future managers a big favour: they so thoroughly gutted federal revenues that without serious tax reform — that is, tax increases — bold new policies or even repairs to damaged programs (like decreasing tuition fees) will be impossible.

Has any social justice or group, union or NGO approached the opposition parties asking about their commitment to restore Canadian democracy and governance? If they have it’s a well kept secret.

We can expect almost nothing from trying to engage the Liberal Party except the next phase in the neo-liberal normal. Little has changed in the party of Paul Martin, and Justin Trudeau seems too weak morally and too lazy intellectually to establish a vision that can stand against the party’s power brokers. Yet progressive Liberals must use their voices and pocketbooks to press their party to pledge a reversal of Harper’s right-wing social engineering.

The NDP with its long history of social justice principles should be the party committed to repairing the damage done by Harper. But without a concerted campaign by its own members and supporters we are likely to be disappointed. NDP leader Tom Mulcair has essentially declared that even if his party becomes government in 2015 he will do little more than administer the train wreck left to him by Harper. What else are we to make of his repeated, aggressive statement on raising personal taxes? He told the St. John’s Telegram in August: “Several provinces are already at the 50 per cent rate. Beyond that, you’re not talking taxation, you’re talking confiscation. And that is never going to be part of my policies, going after more individual taxes. Period. Full stop.”

This declaration was made at virtually the same time that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one of the world’s most influential neo-liberal economic institutions, was doing an historic mea-culpa on the topic. After enforcing devastating fiscal policies on scores of countries around the world for over two decades, the IMF now recognizes that to deal with both government debt and infrastructure needs, taxes must be raised. In the most recent issue of its Fiscal Monitor it suggested that taxes on high income earners be raised to levels reminiscent of the 1960s and ’70s — 60 to 70 per cent — and also proposed a one-time capital levy on wealthy households.

In almost the same breath as the tax pronouncements Mulcair was praising progress on the CETA, the so-called trade deal with the E.U. This monstrosity of an agreement (increasing our drug costs, weakening the Atlantic fishery, opening the door to even more temporary foreign workers, and preventing municipalities from giving preferential treatment to local firms in procurement) includes the same investment provisions as NAFTA allowing corporations to sue governments for any measure that affects their profitability.

The party says it is remaining neutral on the deal until it sees the details but clearly the heart and soul of the NDP is up for grabs on this and other key philosophical positions. Don Davies, the NDP’s trade critic, says the party will hold public consultations on CETA. The consultations could be a critical opportunity for the progressive community to be heard. On CETA, the tax issue, on restoring democratic institutions and reversing the worst outrages of the Harper government Canadians need to be just as active and vigilant in pressing the opposition parties as they are in opposing Stephen Harper’s efforts to take us back to the 1930s.

The latter will be a depressing and difficult task as Harper will continue his dictatorial practices until we throw him out of office. Imagining a better future is much more rewarding exercise but if we really want it we will have to convince the opposition parties to deliver it.

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