Stephen Harper's political tactics are nothing new
Author Lawrence Martin brings up former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien in order to put Stephen Harper into perspective.
The veteran political journalist was being asked about a piece of legislation that has sparked widespread anger against Harper’s Conservative government. It’s Bill C-38, an omnibus measure that rewrites a raft of laws on subjects ranging from environmental assessment to old-age pensions under the guise of implementing the federal budget. Many have denounced its introduction as undemocratic.
“I was one of the leading critics of Chrétien in terms of his heavy-handed behaviour and dictatorial behaviour, and it was sort of similar,” Martin told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Ottawa.
He recalled headline-grabbing stories like the Shawinigate scandal around Chrétien’s involvement in two property deals. He cited controversial government grants channelled to the former prime minister’s riding in Quebec. Martin also noted that the Harper government isn’t the first to use omnibus bills.
However, Martin stressed that there’s a difference this time around. “I wrote a lot about Jean Chrétien and abuse of power under the Liberals,” he said. “I would say that this government has taken it to new levels.”
Martin has written books on both leaders. In 2010’s Harperland: The Politics of Control, he detailed Harper’s low regard for democracy, shown through actions like proroguing Parliament twice.
According to Martin, Bill C-38 is an example of Harper’s “all-controlling methodology, in which he shows very little respect for the democratic system”.
“He looks upon politics as war,” Martin said. “He looks upon governing as defeating the enemy and using any measure he can to defeat the enemy. He does it in an entirely ruthless way.”
Martin also suggested that Harper may have cribbed from Chrétien’s playbook in ignoring public opinion. Like the Liberal leader, Harper has kept on winning elections despite scandals.
But, the author recalled, the sponsorship scandal caught up with Chrétien and the Liberals, paving the way for the election of a Harper government in 2006.
“It took years for the public to be convinced that there was something nefarious going on with the Chrétien government],” Martin said. “And it seems to me that the Harper Conservatives better be careful because at some point, it might catch up to them the way it did to the Chrétien government. Because some of the things they’re doing and the number of things they’re doing are worse than under the Chrétien government.”
He suggested that the issue of electoral fraud may decisively tilt public sentiment against the Conservatives. Elections Canada is investigating the use of automated phone calls, or robocalls, that misled voters across the country during the May 2011 election.
That election was triggered by the Harper government’s refusal to provide information on the funding for legislation it brought forward. For that, Harper became the first Canadian prime minister to be found in contempt of Parliament.
“So you’d think he would learn from being caught on abuse of process, and won’t have the gall to go against the integrity of the system in this way again,” Martin quipped.
In Harperland, Martin wrote: “As a strongman prime minister, he was beyond compare. He made previous alleged dictators like Jean Chrétien look like welterweights.”
Tom Flanagan, a former Harper aide, also mentioned Chrétien when asked for his opinion on the controversy regarding the budget bill. “There had been many omnibus bills in the past,” Flanagan told the Straight in a phone interview. “I don’t know if this is the biggest one or not, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. The Liberals had different omnibus bills under Jean Chrétien.”
Flanagan, the Conservative campaign manager in the 2004 election, acknowledged that it’s a “fair criticism” to say that the introduction of Bill C-38 is undemocratic.
However, Flanagan said he’s happy the Harper government is doing such things as changing the environmental-review process for resource-development projects. “It may be an imperfect process,” he said, “but I think the goals are so important here that it’s worth doing this.”
The University of Calgary professor of political science noted that the Conservatives may not be done yet. “They probably have another wave of changes that they’re planning for a new session of Parliament,” Flanagan said.