It has been a curious phenomenon to observe Stephen Harper as he attends big national events, such as Canada Day or Remembrance Day. The biggest conclusion that one has continually drawn is that Harper, whether by ignorance or design, has been ignoring his place as Prime Minister, and trying to style himself a President.
With this year’s Canada Day, it happened before the cameras were on, but Peter Mansbridge was sure to report on it – that upon his arrival on the Hill, Harper stood on the platform before the honour guard and was saluted. This is something that is generally reserved for the Governor General, because she is the Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces – not the Prime Minister.
But this has been happening at Remembrance Day celebrations for a few years now. Whereas it should be Her Excellency on the platform and the Prime Minister beside, Harper has made a point of standing on it with her, and in what is probably as much of an indictment, she’s allowed him to, in defiance of protocol.
You notice these things with Harper’s ever-expanding motorcade and Secret Service-style RCMP bodyguards he’s been surrounding himself with. That he’s been increasingly centralising power is another worrying trend. But add this up with the Parliamentary crisis that happened in November, and you see that pattern emerging – that Harper is encouraging people to believe that they vote directly for the Prime Minister like they would a President, and he wants to take on that role.
Perhaps it’s because of his ego, or his refusal to share the spotlight with anyone (look at the way his cabinet is really a ministry of one). Once upon a time, the federal Intergovernmental Affairs minister would be the leading voice negotiating with the provinces. Now it’s Harper himself.
What is especially worrying is the poll in the Globe and Mail yesterday where some seventy percent of people said that they don’t identify with either the Queen or the Governor General. And that has as much to do with our lack of knowledge or understanding of our own institutions as it does with Harper carefully crafting a presidential image for himself.
Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of stories printed about polls commissioned by the Dominion Institute, and their findings are pretty grim – that we have little understanding of our own history, that we can barely recognise the faces or names of the people who shaped this nation and the institutions that make us the Canada we are today.
Unfortunately, as with the other attacks on our Parliamentary democracy, there are no easy or quick fixes. Aside from embarking on a massive campaign to educate the public, and to fix the way that Canadian history and politics are taught in our schools, we need leaders to behave according to their office, and governors general to put their feet down and say that no, this kind of presidential behaviour is unacceptable in a Westminster-style system of responsible government. And I sometimes fear that it’s going to be nearly impossible for this kind of confluence of factors to happen.