Veteran political journalist Lawrence Martin has some experience covering secretive governments that prefer censorship over open communication.
In the 1980s as the Moscow correspondent for the Globe and Mail, he discovered how difficult it was to gather information from those who worked in the Kremlin.
That experience came in handy in researching his 10th and latest book, Harperland: The Politics of Control, which chronicles the first four-and-a-half years of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s command-and-control regime.
“I’m not saying that this government is as bad as the Kremlin,” Martin quipped in a phone interview from Ottawa, “but in some cases, the degree of censorship, vetting, and control was comparable.”
His new book paints a startling portrait of a prime minister who is often obsessed with controlling the message in ways that his predecessors never imagined.
According to Martin, Harper imposed a vetting-and-censorship program wherein virtually every message transmitted by the federal government—whether it comes from a civil servant, a Conservative MP, an agency head, or the diplomatic corps—must be approved by either the prime minister’s office or the Privy Council Office, which provides advice and support to Harper and his cabinet.
“This went down to minutiae, as I mentioned in the book,” Martin said. “A Parks Canada official was putting out a release on the mating season of the black bear, and he had to get that approved by central command. How far do we want to take this?”
Harperland is replete with examples of this. A federal scientist was prohibited from giving a speech about his novel about global warming. Justice department research reports on crime were suppressed. The prime minister’s office tried to prevent the publication of a favourable book by a former senior aide, Tom Flanagan. Even the timing of cabinet meetings was concealed to keep cabinet ministers away from media microphones.
After Harperland was published, the Harper government banned a B.C. imam with a PhD from Simon Fraser University, Zijad Delic, from keeping a scheduled speaking appointment at the headquarters of the Department of National Defence.
Martin suggested that the prime minister’s penchant for control may be his government’s “foremost characteristic”.
The author, who writes a political column for the Globe and Mail, also said that Harper has a temper, which was revealed by close aides in various interviews.
“It surprised me,” Martin acknowledged. “They didn’t just use the word anger. They used the word hatred—his hatred for opponents. I mean, I don’t like throwing the H-word around. It’s an ugly word. But when you’re motivated by feelings that run that deep, you are going to go to some strange places. You’re going to bring extremes of interpretation into your behaviour. In some cases, this has worked for him in that he has obliterated opponents. In some cases, it has backfired because it has gone overboard, like with the padlocking of Parliament.”
Martin said that Harper’s aides told him the prime minister’s foremost goal is the destruction of Liberal party dominance in Canada.
In this regard, the author feels that Harper has been quite successful. The Liberals have been stuck below 30-percent approval in the polls for two or three years, which is unheard-of in the party’s history.
“Part of the credit goes to the brutal tactics of Stephen Harper in rubbing them out,” Martin noted.
In a reference to former U.S. president Richard Nixon, the veteran political journalist suggested that the prime minister has a “Nixonian distrust of people”, along with “Nixonian secrecy”.
At the same time, Martin praised Harper’s intellect and political skills, and suggested he has made headway in achieving his objectives around rebuilding the military and promoting a law-and-order agenda.
“He’s a very effective political operator,” Martin emphasized. “He also is, by the way, a guy with a big, big mainframe-computer mind. It’s very impressive. He’s disciplined. He studies files. He knows his stuff as well as anybody.”
In summing up, the author suggested that Harper is a “low-road political hatchetman, but he’s also a high-road intellectual thinker.”
“You don’t often get a leader who combines those two elements,” Martin said.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.
What is your level of trust in Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
“Not that high. He runs a very tight-knit ship, very authoritarian, like they won’t allow for any dissent. I live in Vancouver Kingsway. [Former MP] David Emerson before when he was a Liberal, he used to say, ”˜Come here, talk to us.’ And then he flips, and it’s like you can’t contact him. If you’re leading a country, you should be open to ideas. Canadians want someone who listens to different opinions. If you have someone who’s just proroguing Parliament, it’s not the best.”
“I think he’s an exceptionally intelligent person. And I find him to be a bit cold. I think he’s probably competent, if you get what I mean, but I suspect the sort of ideological policies that drive him. But I think he’s likely a man of integrity. Again, I don’t want to underestimate the concern I have about Conservative policies, especially in relation to aboriginal issues. But I don’t think I could pin any concerns to him as an individual.”
“I think he’s close to the worst thing that we could have. He’s deeply regressive in his politics, and I feel he’s quite out of step with the majority of Canadian society based on all of his policies that are attacking all the elements of progressive culture in Canada, from the arts to cuts to women’s funding to mandatory prison sentences for cannabis cultivation, including compassion club cultivators. He certainly hasn’t won any friends over here.”
“I think he’s doing the right things for the country. Economywise, he’s on the right track. He has shown that Canada can withstand the global recession. We are not deeply affected about what’s going on south of the border. This country is stable. That’s a good sign. I mean, it can always be better. The political process is very alive. He is doing the best he can do. He probably can be a little bit more vocal about what Canada is doing for other countries.”