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February 23, 2015

The real Harper: A must-read book

Scott Stockdale

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Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 promising transparent and ethical government, but as Michael Harris documents in great detail in his book Party of One, there is almost no evidence of either, after Mr. Harper's nine years in power.

In fact, Mr. Harper's policies are more often than not diametrically opposed to the rhetoric he continues to spew. Perhaps this is why his political mentor and former head of the now defunct Reform Party, Preston Manning said: “Stephen thinks words don't mean much.”

Although he made Afghanistan his first foreign trip after becoming prime minister, standing in front of the troops and the television cameras saying: “We're not going to cut and run. That's not the Canadian way and that's not my way. We're going to stand and fight,” nine years later - however one wants to word it - Canada left Afghanistan, after much loss of blood and treasure.

This is, of course, part of the more muscular, principled foreign policy championed by Mr. Harper and his minions in the Canadian media. However, don't despair, perhaps Canada will do better in the next war the Harper government finds necessary, as part of the endless “war on terrorism.”

On page 465, Mr. Harris wrote: “The last troops to leave Afghanistan were greeted by the Prime Minister in March 2014. As Harper welcomed them home, they could not know that his government had just instructed federal lawyers to argue in court that no legally binding covenant existed that obliged Ottawa to look after the troops.”

Back home in Canada, our brave men and women continue to feel the effects of the Harper government's policies.

On page 464 Mr. Harris wrote: “Despite the Harper government's boast about the excellent care afforded wounded Canadian soldiers, many veterans face long waits for help as stress injuries multiple and the suicide rate keeps going up.”

Mr. Harris writes that Prime Minister Harper seldom talks about Afghanistan nowadays, and moreover, he’s releasing as little information as possible about Canada's involvement there. On page 446, Mr. Harris wrote:  “The Harper government's secrecy about everything to do with Afghanistan was staggering. To this day, records dealing with Afghanistan remain heavily censored, and cabinet papers and legal opinions are excluded from those documents that are released.”

Meanwhile, the government tried to say Canadian forces and companies were succeeding in modernizing Afghanistan by building infrastructure projects like schools and roads and by defeating the Taliban. On page 447, Mr. Harris wrote: “It was third-rate propaganda and many of the schools Canada had built were crumbling.”

As for transparent governing practices – which Mr. Harper promised Canadians during his rise to power - Mr. Harris wrote on page 345: “For seven long years, the Conservatives had successfully hobbled the national press by restricting the flow of information. Bureaucrats, government scientists, and cabinet ministers had all been silenced, except for talking points provided to them by the PMO. Even the location of cabinet meetings was secret ... Government workers were forced to sign “silence for life” loyalty agreements if they wanted to keep their jobs. As for the Prime Minister himself, he rarely held press conferences and always restricted the number of questions.”

Robert Marleau, who served as Information Commissioner of Canada from January 2007 until June 2009 said that at first, in 2006, there was a fog over information in Ottawa.

But, although Mr. Harper said all the right words, that was where his commitment to making information available ended. “It is no longer a trickle of information coming down from the top. It's shut off,” Mr. Marleau said.

Mr. Marleau said that as a result, government spending goes unverified. He said the Harper government creates new programs but suppresses their costs. It makes cuts at the department level but the details of what services are affected are kept secret. It proclaims policy without white papers or a word of debate. The late finance minister Jim Flaherty would bring in a budget but wouldn't table the Planning and Priorities Report to show how the funds would be allocated.

Never at a loss at devising ways to conceal the true effects of its policies on Canadians, the Harper government has made continuous use of omnibus bills - loading huge amounts of unrelated legislation into one bill – often the budget bill – to make it extremely difficult for anyone to scrutinize the true meaning of the legislation. On page 429, Mr. Harris wrote: “Peter Milliken (former speaker of the House of Commons), like Shelia Fraser (former Auditor General of Canada) was appalled by the government's extensive use of omnibus legislation. Mr. Harris said this not only made it impossible for opposition MP's to discharge their fundamental task – the scrutiny of the government's legislation program – it also turned the budget process into a farce.

Those who are concerned about the kind of environment we're leaving to future generations should remember that in 2011 Canada became the first country in the world to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Mr. Harris wrote that at the same time Harper was pushing tar sands oil on all, including emerging economies, while showing no interest in helping emerging economies pay for new, lower-emission technology.

On page 222, Mr. Harris wrote: “At every opportunity since abandoning Kyoto, the Harper government has undermined any global effort to come up with a new climate accord ... In the 2014 report by the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, Canada ranked dead last among twenty-seven wealthy nations in protection of the environment.”

Canada's environment policies -or lack thereof – are not the only area where Mr. Harper has put his stamp on Canada's image in the world.

On page 210, Mr. Harris quotes Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former UN ambassador: “Canada's diplomacy is hugely different under Harper,” Heinbecker said. “The neo-conservative idea of foreign policy is about flexing military muscle. It's about free-trade deals. It is a reversal of our history. We used to be advocates of constructive internationalism. We used to work hard to make that work.”

After explaining that Harper believes foreign policy should be fought out on moral grounds, Paul Heinbecker said: “But for some reason, the moral argument did not extend to Palestinians. We became blind in one eye, a pretty major change when we present ourselves internationally as principled and fair-minded.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Harper's much boasted about investment deals include the Canada/China Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPPA) signed by Harper in September 2012. On page, 236, Mr. Harris said this agreement gives China the right to sue Canada for unlimited damages if domestic laws by any level of government harm the value of Chinese investment.

With regard to the robocall scandal, Mr. Harris wrote on page 89: “Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley ruled that widespread telephone fraud targeting non-Conservative voters had taken place. He said: 'There was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person or persons with access to the CIMS (Constituent Information Management System) database.' ”

He then mentions that National Post columnist Andrew Coyne said in his column: “someone has committed massive electoral fraud that could only benefit the Conservative Party, but apparently has done it without the party's involvement.”

On page 96 Mr. Harris wrote: “Rather than serve the Conservative Party with search warrants, Elections Canada investigators relied on Conservative lawyer Arthur Hamilton to obtain emails and documents and set up meetings.” Mr. Hamilton also sat in on many of these meetings, coaching the interviewees as to what to say.

As Canadians await Senator Duffy's court case in the Senate scandal, where he has been charged with several criminal offences for accepted a secret $90,000 payment from Mr. Harper's then chief of staff Nigel Wright, Mr. Harris wrote on page 361: “If it was a hanging offence for Mike Duffy to have taken a $90,000 gift to pay back improper expenses, it was surely a hanging offence to have given him the money to do it.”

Meanwhile, NDP MP Charlie Angus wondered how the act of writing a secret personal payment to a sitting senator didn't contravene the law.

The RCMP has never explained its decision not to charge Nigel Wright. Canadians can only wonder why that is.

Regardless of the outcome of Senator Duffy's trial, Party of One is already being compared to Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, which has come to define Mr. Diefenbaker's years in power and still has a long waiting list at Toronto libraries. It remains to be seen if Party of One will define Prime Minister Harper's legacy.

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