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Op-Ed: On character — Scandals, cynicism and Stephen Harper

“When people say let’s do issues, not personalities, never listen to that. Always, always, always focus on the character of the candidate, because they can change their mind on the issues, but they can’t alter the fact that they’re a cretin or a scumbag or a crook, right?” Christopher Hitchens

Character: “The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” (As defined in the online Oxford Dictionary)

Hitchens was right. It’s easy to be distracted by the issues of a day; I mean, should Canada be involved in Syria? How will free trade with Ukraine impact the economy? What would candidate X, Y or Z do if a, b, or c happened? The trouble with quizzing candidates for answers “on the issues” is the same problem that one finds when talking about hypotheticals; there is no good reason to think that a person who is speaking hypothetically will, in reality, act in that promised way.

Although I mean for this essay to be fair and illuminating, it’s not unfair or darkening to mention the shadows that have long been cast on Harper’s tenure as prime minister; examples of scandal and cynical leadership are legion. With worry of coming across as Harper Watch does, the “In-and-Out” scandal, the prorogation of parliament in order to escape inquiry into the treatment of Afghan detainees, the “Robo-call” scandal, the “ETS” controversy, the costs associated with the G8 and G 20 meetings (literal and social), the treatment of Omar Khadr, laughable appointments starting with Michael Fortier, including Patrick Brazeau and capped with Mike Duffy, pernicious Bill C-51 — which goes alongside an expansion of murky, unobservable powers for Canadian security agencies– and his inappropriate feud with Justice Beverley McLachlin all need to be mentioned, if only in this brief but awing way.

Anecdotes they are. Taken individually, even (and especially) in consideration of Harper’s public statements on any of the problems above, one can learn precious little. Be sure, there is a reason Harper “won” the Cone of Silence award from the Canadian Association of Journalists in 2012 (and that the PMO took the award in 2008). It is, however, worth knowing how the man-in-charge reacted in the face of these adversities; taken in sum they are revealing.

As hinted, when reading through Harper’s answers on any of the various veins of contention it quickly emerges that to nearly every question posed he attests an appreciation for the inevitable investigation, which is followed by a quick assurance that he will comply with it. Beyond that he’s consistently said nothing at all, instead choosing to rebuff the questions of prodding journalists by allowing the PMO to reply, almost uniformly, with a request that the reporter read Harper’s first statement on the given subject — a masturbatory “he-said, he-said” — so that the inquirer is back to the first and vapid answer.

Even in interview, Harper has a tendency to answer questions about himself with a reply that speaks to the Conservative Party; When asked “what would you do?” the answer all too often begins with “well, we would.” With such a modus operandi, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to nail down this person’s definitive character… Fortunately, with Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, his diamond-grip control on all things federally Conservative allows the inquiring to glean an idea of his character.

I offer another quote: “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll show you who you are.” I haven’t been able to track down the author of that passage but the axiom is more than just kitsch. There is something to be said of the company one keeps, it does speak to one’s character. And with this in mind comes a sordid list: Dean Del Mastro, the late Arthur Porter, Don Meredith, Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, Duffy and Nigel Wright, Irving Gerstein, the late Doug Finley, Michael Sona, Peter Penashue, Marc Nadon, Bruce Carson, and Tom Flanagan… These were all friends or at least colleagues, and each were axed or dropped along the way when it came to public light that they were either cretins, scumbags or crooks… And although Harper and Belinda Stronach may not have ever been friends, she’s a fun one to bring up, and also a worthy one. Portrayed as some sort of deceiving and conniving slut, she was one of the first victims of Harper’s reign, excoriated by nearly all for the unforgivable crimes of having sex and switching political parties (pray tell, why was MacKay considered a manly-man, and not cast in the same red-light as Belinda?).

The hamper of dirty laundry is rather full, isn’t it? And I still haven’t handled the most soiled.

Before falling deeper into a pit of disdain for our 22nd prime minister, let’s surface for a moment and recognize the decent; to actions that speak to a strong and praise-worthy character.

For one, Harper has phoned a relative of each perished soldier who died fighting upon his command for the freedom of others. This isn’t necessarily what is “good,” but rather is what is decent and responsible and proper. I’m sure it is difficult, that it never becomes banal and that it is a burden of a task yet Harper acknowledges it as necessary. Broadly, it certainly does fit in the “good” column. As well, Harper seems to understand that combating totalitarian regimes requires more than donating funds to charities and providing non-military aid.

With regard to the subject Harper is most likely to hang his laurels on in the coming weeks, if any credit ought be given for Canada’s apparent durability in and through the financial crisis of 2008-9, it is deserved to the late (and highly-laudable) Jim Flaherty. And so if praise is given to Harper vis a vis our most recent economic calamity, it ought to be forwarded along to the right man; after all, it was Flaherty whose politics of fast-applied stimulus won the day against Harper’s bland and traditional wait-and-see approach. (Do not forget that Flaherty promised to quit if Harper proceeded with an idea to introduce income-splitting tax breaks for parents with kids… Both kept good on their respective word and idea. On this issue, as often, Flaherty was right.)

The title of a book by Paul Wells on Harper says more than the PM’s public comments, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-. Not a particularly interesting title, not particularly laconic, it is simply a statement of the fact that the man-in-charge wants to remain the man-in-charge. In an excerpt from the book, featured in Maclean’s in October 2013, staffers and ex-employees had much to say of Harper’s personality, little of it positive and none of it revealing. The most glaring fact in that snip is what is not said, primarily, the names of those former staffers and employees… Even out of office, they are leery of putting their name to direct criticisms for fear of 22’s reach. How it is that Harper — a man so publicly innocuous and bland — can keep the lips of former confidants sealed post facto, apparently due to fear of reprisal, is a worthwhile question.

Well, the obvious now glares. Poorly chosen friends and fearful workers contrast a dad-like family-man image; what’s up?

The long and short of the above is to say that Harper’s public character is not his character, but rather a caricature which reflects what the latest polls suggest he’s personality should be molded into.

To return to the reputable work of Paul Wells (here with John Geddes), take for example one instance in late 2008, a time when Harper was facing a coalition government which threatened his title: “As always, Harper’s instincts were bolstered with as much polling as his staff could hurry to gather (…) What they found was a high level of concern about what [Stephan] Dion and the others were up to. [Gilles] Duceppe’s presence was the biggest source of concern, followed by the prospect of Dion as prime minister. The presence of New Democrats in the federal cabinet fell a distant third on the list of hot buttons.” With every finger available, Conservatives started pushing said buttons. “The whole gamut,” a Conservative staffer told Wells. “Paid advertising, grassroots mobilization, events, a media blitz.”

Note “Conservative staffer” and not the person’s real name. In any case, the strategy wasn’t aimed at leading from the front, or of offering a strong case for Conservative leadership, but rather one of degrading the opposition, of insisting on their incompetence; in short, it was strategy that was hardly praise-worthy.
Much worse than anything mentioned thus far, the bloodiest stain on Haper’s record, is his lack of attention to the treatment of Native peoples. Beyond a case of passivity, Harper’s inaction on matters related to Indigenous peoples has been and is contemptible.

Perhaps the best write-up on this subject is one of the more recent. Penned by the excellent Joseph Boyden (I cannot recommend enough, dear reader, that you take in his unforgettable works) and published on 25 June 2015, the title reads “First came truth. Now comes the hard part.” Although the entire article is surely worth the time to read, I will parse, at some length and at times out of order, the salient:

To be First Nations in this country is to know that the very history outsiders are telling you to get over—if they know the history at all—isn’t something of the past but what continues to rock communities every day. Many have come to label it intergenerational trauma. All I know is that it is a very real thing. (…)

The highest suicide rates in the world aren’t the only by-product of generations of trauma. (…) If you are a First Nations woman you are four times more likely to die violently than your non-native peers. Please consider that. (…)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (…) [claims] it’s simply a criminal issue and not a sociological one. I know he’s smarter than to truly believe that, but in politics going to the lowest common denominator is more often than not the most efficient and safest course of travel. (…)

Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden — In 2008 his novel, “Through Black Spruce” won $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Wordsworth Books

At the TRC [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission], I sat just down the aisle from and had a direct line of sight on Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s representative at this historic gathering. As the commission made its recommendations, painful years in the making and the heart of what so many survivors had been waiting to hear, the whole room, including people like former prime minister [Joe] Clark, rose over and over to give standing ovations. What struck me hard in the gut, though, was dour Minister Valcourt refusing to stand, refusing most often even to clap, hunched and either jotting notes as if he were making a grocery list or worse still, sitting and staring straight ahead, a scowl on his face like an angry child who thinks those around him cheer his bad fortune.(…)

When the recommendation that a national inquiry into our missing and murdered Indigenous women was read, the room erupted in applause. But even as Thomas Mulcair, the official leader of the Opposition, stood right beside Valcourt along with everyone else in that room clapping wildly, Valcourt simply sat, his hands in his lap. (…)

This physical act of disapproval, this infantile display of a grown man being the only person in a packed room of hundreds and hundreds to remain seated during the announcement of what are clearly moderate and fair recommendations, spoke as loudly to me as anything else that day. Valcourt is Harper’s representative, after all (…)

It’s no secret that Harper keeps a tight leash on his ministers and that they must march in lockstep to his orders. To either subtly imply—or worse, directly point the finger at the victims and families of those victims—in order to avoid an inquiry is, at best, ignorance. At worst, it is one of the most callous, vile, and corrupt political attempts to not just dumb down reality but completely ignore it that this country has ever seen. (…)” [emphasis added]

A powerful set of passages, to be sure, for which there is no exculpatory evidence. In fact, it only seems worse when put under the microscope. (A quick aside, make sure to visit the last link above — on top of it linking to Boyden’s article, there is a photo of Valcourt, hands folded and cross-legged, seated in a roomful that is in the middle of a standing ovation, Mulcair in frame.)

Harper was so uninterested in and disaffected with this credible and worthwhile commission that he couldn’t be bothered to attend even the final conference where the conclusions and recommendations would be offered. Instead he sent Bernard Valcourt, the same gentleman who remarked during a debate in 2013, and in regard to the fact that Native teens suffer some of, if not the world’s highest suicide rates — five to six times above what is an already high national average — that it was “the responsibility of their parents.” Monsieur Valcourt, surely you see the revolting nature of your argument? Again Boyden, “Simply put, to be stripped from your parents and then in turn stripped of the tools to become a parent, the pattern repeating for generations, has a high toll attached. Throw into this caustic mix the theft of your language, your religion, even your dances and songs, and it becomes easier to begin to understand the lasting impacts.”

With it that Harper won’t even fake an interest in Native affairs, that he refuses to concoct an interest in the most enduring and wicked nightmare that this country is so intimately related to, comes the realization that this man shirks the most difficult domestic issues and is not much inclined to ensure that our most at-risk are our most attended to. (One might say ‘well it makes a lot of sense for Valcourt to have been there considering his job,’ to which I agree but add that a second seat could have been arranged for our current prime minister.)

Harper, more recently and more generally, has been a bit of a recluse when it comes to domestic interests. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was reduced to writing an appeal on behalf of the people of Ontario for a meeting after a lengthy bout of cold shoulderitis from the PM, which, after the letter was sent and frenzied upon by the media — to be fair — came to fruition quickly. The part that must have bothered her most, which can be attested to by several premiers is that these “constructive” meetings seem to, more often than not, end with “agreeing to disagree.”

This leads to an interesting insight on Harper. Heading into his reign, Harper was known as a rep more willing than previous prime ministers to meet with provincial premiers, and was (according to Wells) quite nervous heading into his first international gathering (the 2006 G8 meeting). Fast-forward to the present and Harper is now often derided for ignoring Canadian provincial premiers and national issues, and relishes the international stage. What a 180!

All this to say Harper nowadays is more comfortable being on the international stage than he is at home and in dealing with the long-term issues this country has endured, namely the abuse of Native people. Instead he does his best to look a worldly international player by taking jabs at Putin and sending aircraft or military trainers to whoever the US is bombing, all while ignoring Native culture to the fullest limit passable — an attitude that ought to be outspokenly decried.

In all, if one takes the idea that Harper publicly expresses as little about his personality as is possible — aside from the odd keyboard solo (a talent so innocuous that it may well be more vanilla than vanilla) — and instead accept that one is more likely to learn about his character by way of his moves and actions in office, most credulous do his supporters become.

Harper doesn’t rely on his judgment, nor on the will of his constituents, but rather on the latest Conservative opinion poll. This is not strong leadership but base pandering. It is suggestive of someone more interested in being popular than in being correct on an issue. It suggests a person with little backbone and a crippling fear of not being in charge.

Collectively taken, Harper’s history of dubious politics, poor company and stolid inwardness is enough to comment on his character. This character is defiling of others (his party, his opposition, Canadian minorities), duplicitous (nepotistic appointments, denying knowledge in cases of wrongdoing, apologies without action), cowardly (prorogation of parliament, Native rights… hiding in the closet), and authoritarian (C-51, poor media relations, unwilling to work with provincial premiers). While I don’t know who to vote for, I do know that a defiling, duplicitous, wannabe-authoritarian is hardly my idea of a decent prime minister.

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