The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper's Takeover of Canada
By Mel Hurtig (Mel Hurtig Publishing, Vancouver 2015)
Reviewed by Manfred Netzel
All right, hands up all of you who bought or were gifted with a set of Mel Hurtig's The Canadian Encyclopedia as a kid or nascent Canadian nationalist decades ago?
Well, Hurtig has just authored his eighth passionate polemic about the Canadian state of the union, and he pulls no punches in the process. Here's a sample from the first few paragraphs:
"I have spent much of my career warning Canadians about the increasing threat that foreign takeovers of our companies and resource sectors pose to our sovereignty and to the overall economic and social well-being of our country. . . I never imagined that the greatest threat would come from the takeover of our democratic institutions by one politician determined to make our nation according to his own values and priorities."
Of course, that politician is Stephen Harper. Apparently, Hurtig experienced the ominous influence of the Prime Minister first-hand in the eventual publishing of this relatively concise effort. He stated in an interview that he went to one Canadian publisher (after his original choice had been bought out by an American firm), who turned him down because he was "frightened by what Harper would do to his company." After a few more problems, he decided to publish the book himself through his own Vancouver-based resources—good news. It is selling well in both major and smaller bookstores across Canada, and he is getting feedback from many grateful academics and civic-minded individuals. According to Hurtig himself, "the book is intended as a wake-up call to all Canadians to reclaim our democracy and our country before it is too late."
The sources used by Hurtig are well documented throughout, and are respected by other authors and media sources, as well as prominent Canadians in politics, economics, business, and research think tanks including Jim Stanford (Unifor), Armine Yalnizyan, Trish Hennessy of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians, David Suzuki, and Ed Broadbent. There are also references to others who have written biographical works about Stephen Harper, such as Lawrence Martin's Harperland: The Politics of Control, which reveals the PM's "iron-clad, dictatorial control of communications and information" that is comparable to the current situation in North Korea. Not surprisingly, there is a litany of anecdotes and examples describing the practices (maybe tactics is more accurate) of the Harper administration, with which we have all become too familiar:
- Three prorogations of Parliament since 2008 to avoid likely votes of non-confidence, not for the usual purpose of ending a session of the House and Senate;
- Emphatic use of Message Event Proposals (MEP) prior to any release of information by cabinet ministers, Tory MPs or public servants, that must be submitted to either the PMO or Privy Council Office no matter how innocuous the topic or policy statement;
- Use of massive omnibus bills (often over 400 pages long) to obscure issues or actions from the opposition parties, the media and the Canadian people. The federal budget in 2010 was over 800 pages in length, and other examples of government bills of over 400 pages are not unusual;
- The PM's disdain for both the press(no regular press conferences are held) and even parliamentary committees is legendary, as witnessed by a 200-page manual for Conservative caucus members on how to obstruct, delay or end proceedings, if necessary.
This book is most useful, in my opinion, because it does an amazing job of reviewing and analyzing almost a decade of arrogant behaviour and autocratic decision-making which the average person has forgotten about or dismissed as common to our political system. Who can forget some of these seemingly criminal actions that shook our faith in democratic institutions and even damaged our international reputation?: electoral "robocalls" in the 2011 election; passing the so-called "Fair Elections Act" (2010) which attempted to disenfranchise large numbers of vulnerable Canadians through stricter voter registration; denying budgetary data to oversight agencies such as the Auditor-General or Parliamentary Budget Officer, or making the use of Freedom of Information requests more laborious and expensive; using the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) to conduct audits of charitable NGOs or groups that challenge or disagree with government policies or data.
Hurtig uses numerous examples to show how Canada's ranking in numerous global reports or studies has been dropping in areas such as upholding press freedom, access to information, environmental protection (remember Kyoto?), economic productivity and technological innovation, wealth redistribution, child poverty rates, foreign aid levels, and scientific research and development. With respect to the latter, since 2010, over 2,000 federally-funded government scientists have been dismissed while world-renowned Canadian research facilities and libraries have lost their funding from Ottawa. The author even raises the specter that there has been a noticeable rise in the influence of Christian fundamentalism on the Harper Government.
The titles of various chapters in the book give the reader a clear indication of where the author is headed:
- "Harper's War on the Environment"
- "Harper's War on our Scientists"
- "Harper's Tax Police"
- "Neglect of the Poor and Vulnerable"
At the same time, Hurtig devotes two chapters to the ongoing "Mismanagement of the Economy" in an attempt to dispel the ongoing political spin about the strong and tried-and-true economic policies and directions of the Harperites since 2006. Using both public and private statistics and analysis, including sometimes critical assessments by key business leaders, Hurtig shows the reader how Canada has been gradually slipping in relation to our economic trade and investment partners (especially in the OECD) in many areas such as global competitiveness and productivity, trade balances, technological innovation, and even higher incidences of trade court cases due to high levels of foreign takeovers in Canada. Who would have thought that the current fetish of signing free-trade deals with anyone has resulted in Canada being the most sued country under NAFTA's trade tribunals? The biggest indictment of the Conservatives' economic management has been an increase in the national debt by $130 billion since 2006, along with public debt charges of almost $30 billion thus far.
The final indignity in these chapters is an eye-opening quote from Harper's recently departed financial helmsman, Jim Flaherty, who justified using the CRA to audit only certain targeted charitable groups by saying that "charities are not permitted to accept money from terrorist organizations." Imagine—David Suzuki—a terrorist?
Hurtig reserves the final part of the book to discuss both the need for major reform of our political system, and the manner in which this could best be accomplished. Voter participation in Canada has been dropping over many elections due to growing political cynicism and upset with our current institutions and decision makers. Did you know that according to the UN, our rate of eligible voter participation ranks 93rd in the world and 28th out of 34 OECD countries? The need for a different system (such as proportional representation) is made clear when one is reminded that in the 2011 election, the Conservatives received only 39.62 per cent of the popular vote but won 54 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Now, for the 2015 election we will see 30 more ridings up for grabs, but riding re-distribution will see the six smallest provinces get 15 MPs too many while the four largest will have 14 too few MPs. Ontario will be short-changed by eight.
Thus, the same political inequalities will likely remain until there is true reform of the actual voting process as over 80 countries around the world already have done.
Although Hurtig has some reservations about both Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair, he seems to believe that electing either one is an absolute imperative for Canadian voters this year. Hurtig comes to the conclusion that it is imperative to defeat the Harper agenda and stop the current direction that Canada is following. Failing that outcome, the author ends with a proposal that was tried in the recent past, but failed. Are we ready for a Liberal/NDP coup?