That Stephen Harper is a shrewd strategist with a fervent desire to lead a majority government needs little proof from me. The evidence is indisputable, for those who still care enough to read it.
Twice denied a majority by those Canadians who bothered to cast ballots in 2006 and 2008, Harper has nonetheless found ways to control both houses of Parliament, not to mention the members of his own party since pulling it together less than a decade ago.
He appointed a record number of Conservative loyalists to Senate, who flexed their muscle as soon as they hit critical mass to kill a climate change bill passed by the elected representatives next door.
He also found a way to counter his party’s minority status on committees in the House of Commons: appoint their chairs and then give them a handbook on how to stall.
“It sets out how to ensure committee witnesses are favourable to the government’s positions and how to strangle opposition motions in procedural red tape,” writes Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in her 2009 book Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy.
Then there’s the vice grip Harper holds on his own party, including his directive to cabinet ministers to run all speeches by the Prime Minister’s Office for pre-approval — prompting one Ottawa journalist to compare the ministers to potted plants.
And then, of course, there’s his propensity to simply shut Parliament down when he’s challenged. Harper first prorogued Parliament to short-circuit the opposition’s non-confidence vote in 2008, then did it again a year later to sidestep questions he didn’t want to answer about Afghan detainees.
When Parliament eventually resumed, the Speaker ordered the Conservatives to produce the requested documents, saying Parliament has every right to demand information from the government it’s meant to hold accountable.
Two months ago the Speaker reiterated that ruling, this time ordering the Conservatives to produce documents requested by the finance committee. The Conservatives’ refusal to provide the requested information is “in and of itself unsettling,” the Speaker found. “What is of greater concern is the absence of an explanation for the omissions.”
That Harper is power-hungry is undeniable. That he is fuelled by an evangelical zeal to, as one journalist suggests, “dismantle the Canada that three generations of Canadians have built,” has yet to be confirmed.
His ties to a cross-section of religious conservatives are well documented, as are the gestures he regularly makes to win their continued support. But do his bedfellows reflect his preferences? Or is Harper the “canny strategist who remains at heart an unalloyed economic conservative, a tax cutter temporarily forced to pander to a passel of holy rollers he can’t wait to shrug off?” as journalist Marci McDonald has suggested.
Either way, he’s not someone I want to see elected again.
But voting strategies designed simply to thwart Harper are not working. Granted, they’ve kept him from the majority he so clearly craves, but they’ve also driven voters away from the ballot box entirely. The 2008 election hit a historic low, inspiring just 58.8 percent of eligible voters to participate.
Voting to keep someone you fear out of power is not nearly as inspiring, in the long run, as voting to empower someone you respect.
When the fear ebbs, all that’s left is a profound distaste for everyone involved: from the original villains to their discreditors, who tainted themselves by putting all their energy into tearing others down.
We need some new inspiration.
If Harper could build a winning machine in less than a decade, surely something more inspiring can emerge in the next decade to challenge it.
It won’t come from any of the parties in Parliament today. But it can be done. What we need are new players with new ideas, and a new Parliamentary system that gives them voice. And a page borrowed from the Harper playbook on how to build a coalition and bring it to power.