It is difficult to take the measure of the destruction Stephen Harper and his fellow Conservatives have wrought during the last four years of their majority government, so thoroughgoing has been their reversal of the social gains won by working people and so complete the demolition of every piece of remotely enlightened policy in every field, from environmental protection to prisons, from healthcare to labour rights, from relations with Indigenous communities to foreign policy, from taxation to immigration. The Harper government has waged an unrelenting attack on the interests of the vast majority of people living in Canada or seeking to live here: it has censored scientists, hamstrung trade union organizers, persecuted protestors, victimized refugees, battled veterans — the list of Harper’s targets is very long.
The majority of Canadians did not vote for this government. Harper’s Conservatives got just shy of 40 per cent of the popular vote in 2011. If you factor in the 39 per cent of citizens who declined to cast a ballot, their majority rests on a quarter of the eligible voters: a limp mandate even by the unaspiring standards of representative democracy.
That’s a travesty attributable to the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, but there are myriad ways in which this government has deliberately degraded democratic process and impaired the mechanisms of citizen representation and engagement — from setting a record for proroguing Parliament to passing the laughably titled Fair Elections Act, designed to deter voters unfriendly to the Conservatives. The apogee of Harper’s denigration of democracy was Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-terrorism Act. Aptly described by Michael Harris as “Harper’s ‘War is Peace’ moment,” C-51’s criminalization of dissent is considered by defenders of civil liberties as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a piece of the constitution despised by Harper and his accomplices, who prefer property rights to human rights as a suitable object of constitutional protection.
There is nothing remotely novel, of course, about capitalist governments failing to represent the interests of the majority of people. The revolving door between private enterprise and what is purportedly public service has always spun out of control, although the case of Harper’s government is particularly crude. Dirty oil flows in Harper’s veins. He has behaved like an errand boy for the fossil-fuel industry, subordinating all national interests to his prime directive of tar sands and pipeline development.
The Harper government has also been eager to cede Canadian sovereignty in an unprecedented way through trade agreements strengthening the already formidable powers of transnational corporations: the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China, the yet-to-be ratified Canada Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the highly secretive 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which recently fell through for the time being. These agreements serve to topple non-tariff barriers to trade, spurring labour and environmental deregulation as well as privatization by enabling corporations to challenge rules imposed by sovereign states that they deem detrimental to their profit-seeking interests. For example, according to a Wikileaked document, the TPP, which Harper had counted on ratifying before the election, would, in effect, bar the government from using taxpayer money to fund public enterprises such as the CBC and Canada Post while requiring them to operate solely for profit.
Here again, Harper’s policies are largely of a piece with those of his Conservative and Liberal predecessors, whether in respect of recolonizing Indigenous lands or tying foreign aid to a resource-extraction agenda. But in its administration of neoliberal capitalism, Harper, his henchmen and his hangers-on seem to manifest an extra measure of meanness.
For Donald Gutstein, what defines “Harperism” is a blend of right-wing economic policies and social conservatism in a manner reminiscent of Thatcher and Reagan. The analogy is apt. And as was true in the case of Maggie and Ronnie, what appears as social conservatism in Harper’s case is often also a convenient sheath for business-friendly policy.
Take the repression of science. It signals the singularly retrograde character of the Harper regime, which, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May has charged, practises “decision-based evidence-making” in lieu of evidence-based decision-making. So egregious has been the Harper government’s attitude towards science and scientists that it was the object of a censorious editorial in the New York Times, a petition by members of the international scientific community and a demonstration in Ottawa by Canadian scientists, not a crowd in the habit of descending into the streets in protest.
But even if Harper and many members of his contemporary Conservative base are sincere in their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, which are at odds with the prevailing scientific consensus on issues like climate change, the regime’s scorn for science serves a pivotal purpose for the Harper government: by dismissing the relevance of accumulated knowledge about the ecological crisis and by hobbling further research into the effects of state policies and industry practices on environmental degradation, it allows the government to give business a free pass, even if it means gagging Galileo.
Harper’s law-and-order agenda is another example. To any rational observer, the Harper government’s tough-on-crime posture looks ever more incoherent in light of steadily declining crime rates (writing in Maclean’s magazine, John Geddes notes that from 2002 to 2011, Canada’s crime rate declined by over 30 per cent, and Statistics Canada reports that in 2013 the police-reported crime rate reached its lowest point since 1969). But it partakes of a socially conservative ideology that plays well to his main constituency of older white men from western Canada and also, on some accounts, to a segment of well-established affluent immigrants.
At the same time, prisons have become a lucrative industry in the United States and Harper has his eyes on the prize of prisons-for-profit, laying the groundwork with prison expansion and privatized penitentiary services as well as punitive legislation, such as mandatory minimum sentences, aimed at keeping jails full. Meanwhile, with millions of dollars of cuts to Correctional Services budgets, prison sare reportedly becoming increasingly dangerous for inmates and guards alike, to the point that the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers is campaigning against Harper in the election.
Harper sold himself and his government above all as a responsible and sound economic manager. But after nearly a decade of his economic policies, Canada is tilting towards recession. So even when it comes to the sanctified bottom line, Harper’s policies have been deleterious, tethering the economy to the pursuit of oil revenues and concentrating investment in tar sands and pipelines. At 6.8 per cent, the official unemployment rate — which hides much real joblessness — is still higher than it was prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when it stood at 6.1 per cent.
In August, the research department at Unifor published an analysis of the Harper government’s economic record, comparing its performance on 16 key indicators with previous post-war governments. They looked at things like job creation, unemployment, youth employment, GDP growth, exports, job quality, household debt, and government debt. They concluded that Canada’s economic performance has been worse under Harper than at any other time in the country’s postwar history. And they join a chorus of critics in attributing this stellar failure in no small part to Harper’s gamble on transforming Canada into a petro state at the expense of other export industries, in addition to his attacks on workers, wages and public services.
This issue of Canadian Dimension seeks to take the compass of the incalculable—and in many instances irreversible — damage that this government-for-and-by-the-rich-and-reactionary has wrought. To do so we have enlisted an all-star roster of scholars and activists. Each of our contributors to this focus shines a revealing light on a particular theme: Michael Harris kindly granted us permission to republish his essay “Legacy of a Tyrant,” pillorying Harper’s authoritarian approach to governing; Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks tackle Harper’s reverse Robin Hood tax policies; Ben Powless takes on Harper’s brand of colonialism; Hassan Husseini lays bare the assault on organized labour; Karl Nerenberg scrutinizes Harper’s heartless immigration and refugee policies; Jerome Klassen analyzes Conservative foreign policy through the lens of the political economy of neoliberalism. Finally, courtesy of the website The Harper Decade, we are republishing an overview by David Schindler of the evisceration of environmental protection.
Taken together, this is a blistering indictment of Harper’s egregious legacy; it cannot but leave Dimension readers all the more unnerved at the real prospect of his imminent re-election.
This article appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Harper Demolition).