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Will the real Stephen Harper please stand up?

A citizen’s guide to comparing election campaign promises to deeply held beliefs

By Murray Dobbin
January 10, 2006


The biggest spectacle of the election has been the apparent transformation of Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, and long time right-wing ideologue, into a born-again liberal. It’s almost unbelievable.

Actually it is unbelievable. At the beginning of this election, Canadians worried about Harper’s “hidden agenda”. But after he said openly that a Conservative government would table a bill revoking gay marriage, for some reason, people seemed to think that all his agendas were on the table. Harper’s more recent promises have gone largely unscrutinized.

It’s time for a reality check. Canadian pundits often say that the Liberal party campaigns from the left and governs from the right. How can the Conservatives campaign from the left without anybody recognizing the pattern?

It’s time for a reality check.

Let’s compare Stephen Harper’s recent promises with the record of what he has been saying for the last twenty years. As you may remember, Harper left the Reform party in a snit in 1997, when it became clear that Preston Manning intended to remain Leader for the foreseeable future. When someone asked how he felt about stepping down as MP in order to become Vice-President (and eventually President 1998-2001) of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), Harper replied: “Frankly, I’m looking forward to being in a position where I can speak much more independently than I’m able as a Member of Parliament.”

In a 1997 interview, Harper made it clear that he had supported the NCC as an MP and at every stage in his political career. He stated plainly that, "The agenda of the NCC was a guide to me as the founding policy director of Reform." When he became Leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, Harper received the 2002 NCC’s "Freedom Award". NCC Chair Colin T Brown said, "Stephen, whether as a Reform MP, or NCC president, or Canadian Alliance leader, has consistently, energetically and articulately defended and promoted this country’s economic and political freedoms."

Many of the quotes below came from Stephen Harper during the period that he was head of the National Citizens Coalition, the most virulently right-wing and anti-government organization in the country. He chose to go there because - in his own words - the NCC represents what he really believes.

There will be a test at the end.

MEDICARE

In the December 15 debate, Harper said that he is opposed to two-tier Medicare. This is an astounding about-face. Right up until last year Harper believed in two-tier care and when asked by the CBC about a parallel health care system, said:

"Well I think it would be a good idea. We’re alone among OECD countries in deciding that we’ll have a two-tier system, but our second tier will be outside the country where only the very rich and powerful can access it and will be of absolutely no benefit to the Canadian health care system."

In October 2002, Harper was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, "We also support the exploration of alternative ways to deliver health care. Moving toward alternatives, including those provided by the private sector, is a natural development of our health care system."

Remember Harper’s allegiance to the National Citizens Coalition. The NCC was founded explicitly to oppose publicly funded, universal Medicare. In 1997, as NCC Vice-President, Harper said that Canada should scrap the Canada Health Act.

UNIVERSAL SOCIAL PROGRAMS

Harper’s promotion of his child care program has been effectively exposed as actually undermining a national child care system. His pledge of a $1200 a year per child tax credit does nothing to contribute to a high quality, safe, early learning system - which is what genuine child care is about.

Harper is steadfastly opposed to any universal social program at the federal level. In a speech to the National Citizens Coalition in 1994, while still MP for Calgary West, Harper crowed over public policy changes that he attributed to the Reform Party’s influence:

"(T)he Liberal government in Ottawa has announced... no new major social spending programs," he said. "Universality has been severely reduced: It is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy. The family allowance program has been eliminated and unemployment insurance has been seriously cut back."

CANADIAN CULTURAL PROGRAMS AND THE CBC

Harper has always seen culture just as the US sees it: as an entertainment industry. He NEVER uses the word culture. His contention - like Americans he emulates - is that there is a North American culture. In their extensive platform document, the word culture never appears. Asked in a 1997 CBC interview, "Is there a Canadian culture?" Harper replied:

"Yes, in a very loose sense. It consists of regional cultures within Canada, regional cultures that cross borders with the US. We’re part of a worldwide Anglo-American culture. And there is a continental culture."

With respect to the CBC - expect it to be privatized, over time, in the hands of Mr. Harper:

At a news conference in Winnipeg on May 18, 2005, Mr. Harper spoke specifically of commercializing the CBC’s English TV network and Radio Two - the precursor to privatization. He said,

"And I think when you look at things like main English-language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could look there at putting those on a commercial basis."

During the French-language leadership debate on Monday June 14, 2004, Jack Layton asked Harper about his commitment to the CBC. Harper replied:

"Let me outline my policies on this issue. I would keep those services of CBC which are unique, including those for Francophones outside Quebec."

He did not say what he meant by "unique" but it could easily be argued that there is very little that is truly "unique" on CBC. Much depends on his definition.

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY

On December 22, Harper pledged to protect Canada’s north from incursions from US submarines. "[We] will increase surveillance, build icebreakers, deploy troops and aircraft as part of ’Canada First’ Northern Strategy." This was a real jaw-dropper.

Harper’s position - literally right up to that moment in the campaign - was one of total support for the US military and all that it did and stood for. He would have joined in George Bush’s US Anti-ballistic defence shield. He supported US President George Bush’s war in Iraq, calling the Canadian position "abrasively neutral."

As the US was invading Iraq in March 2003, Harper said on CTV’s Question Period, "This government’s only explanation for not standing behind our allies is that they couldn’t get the approval of the Security Council at the United Nations - a body [on] which Canada doesn’t even have a seat."

In a May 2003, speech to the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Harper said:

"The time has come to recognize that the US will continue to exercise unprecedented power in a world where international rules are still unreliable and where security and advancing of the free democratic order still depend significantly on the possession and use of military might."

He called for Canada to replace the "soft power" of persuasive diplomacy and peacekeeping with "hard military power" in the service of continental security. The implication was clear: in Bush’s "You’re either with us or against us" world, we should be with the US.

ON "LOVING" CANADA

The media joked about Harper’s inability - or refusal - to utter the words "I love Canada." While such a refusal may not mean much for most politicians, it does for Stephen Harper. While he was head of the extremist organization the National Citizens Coalition, he wrote a letter to the National Post lauding Alberta - and its adherence to "American enterprise and individualism" - as a better model than Canada’s:

"Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status... "

In assessing the Conservative Party under Joe Clark, Harper wrote:

"We don’t need a second Liberal party. Westerners, but especially Albertans, founded the Reform/Alliance to get ’in’ to Canada. The rest of the country has responded by telling us in no uncertain terms that we do not share their ’Canadian values.’ Fine. Let us build a society on Alberta values."

ON A STRONG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND QUEBEC SEPARATISM

Harper now talks about a "Canada First" policy. But for thirty years, he and the pro-American think tank at the "Calgary School" (the political science department at the University of Calgary) have joined together to promote "Alberta First." That means a weakened federal government. In a letter to the National Post in 2000, Harper wrote:

"If Ottawa giveth, then Ottawa can taketh away. This is one more reason why Westerners, but Albertans in particular, need to think hard about their future in this country. After sober reflection, Albertans should decide that it is time to seek a new relationship with Canada. It is time to look at Quebec and to learn. What Albertans should take from this example is to become ’maitres chez nous’."

In his infamous January 2001 "firewall letter" addressed to Ralph Klein, Harper and his Calgary School colleagues stated:

"It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction."

Among other things, he recommended that Alberta:

"1. Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan to create an Alberta Pension Plan... 2. Collect our own revenue from personal income tax, ... 3. Start preparing to let the contract with the RCMP run out in 2012 and create an Alberta provincial police force. ... 4. Resume provincial responsibility for health care policy. ...We can afford the financial penalties Ottawa might try to impose under the Canada Health Act. ..."

The implications of this attitude are truly alarming, if Harper ever becomes prime minister. He has already doubled his voter support in Quebec by promising a devolution of power to the provinces. This is exactly what Quebec has been demanding.

Under Harper we would see a dramatic down-sizing of the role of the Canadian government - a tacit alliance between Giles Duceppe and the closet Alberta separatist, Stephen Harper.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN CANADA’S REGIONS

Stephen Harper has little to say about the federal government’s role in evening out the economic disparities in Canada. At least that way he doesn’t have to contradict himself. On May 31, 2002, Harper ridiculed people in Atlantic Canada:

"There’s unfortunately a view of too many people in Atlantic Canada that it’s only through government favours that there’s going to be economic progress, or that’s what you look to. The kind of can’t-do attitude is a problem in this country but it’s obviously more serious in regions that have had have-not status for a long time."

CHILD POVERTY

Mr. Harper has suddenly discovered "child poverty" and poor families in Canada. He touts his cut to the GST as his solution to poverty. But his announcement that a Conservative government would roll back the Liberal tax cut to the lowest income tax bracket (from 16 percent to 15 percent) would also eliminate the GST saving for many.

His attitude towards programs to deal with poverty, before this election?

"These [federal government] proposals included cries for billions of new money for social assistance in the name of ’child poverty’ and for more business subsidies in the name of ’cultural identity’. In both cases I was sought out as a rare public figure to oppose such projects. ..."

HUMAN RIGHTS

There is no mention of human rights in the Conservative election platform. That’s not hard to understand if you know how Stephen Harper feels about the idea.

In 1999, he told a writer for BC Report magazine that human rights commissions, "as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society. It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff."

ON POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY

Stephen Harper began the election campaign with a promise to get big money out of Canadian politics with his pledge to pass the Federal Accountability Act, "...a sweeping reform plan to clean up government." The act would end "the influence of big money in politics by banning corporate and union political donations, and limiting individual donations to $1000. ..."

This - from a man who had spent the previous fifteen years in politics doing everything he could to promote corporate money in politics - is perhaps the most unbelievable and hypocritical move the Conservative leader has made in this election. It is pure opportunism - a way of extending the party’s efforts to exploit the Liberal corruption scandal.

The National Citizens Coalition (NCC) became known in the 1980s and 1990s for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing legislation that would prevent well-heeled organizations (mostly corporations) from spending in elections. The 1992 Lortie Commission examined the issue and concluded that corporate spending did have a big impact on election outcomes - using the 1988 free trade election as an example. It also found that 93 percent of Canadians supported such legislation.

But Harper used the NCC’s big budget (much of it from corporations) to launch a court case against the legislation that Lortie had recommended. He also went after similar legislation in Manitoba and BC. The Manitoba Act capped individual contributions at $3000 - three times the limit Harper is now committed to. But Mr. Harper attacked it, calling the law "..the most dangerous and oppressive gag law in Canadian history. ..." and accusing NDP premier Gary Doer of "waging a war against freedom."

On May 18, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of federal legislation restricting third party election spending, ending the NCC’s twenty-year success in fighting such laws.

We could go on and on, comparing Stephen Harper’s statements in the last thirty days against his record of the last twenty years. But you must get the point by now. Most of what Stephen Harper has been saying since the election call is in complete contradiction to everything he has stood for previously.

So we’ll wrap up on a light note. Here’s a little test to see how good you are at detecting b.s. Would you believe it if:

Osama Bin Laden issued a new video tape, recanting his attacks on the US, and saying he is converting to Christianity. His new name is Bob.

George Bush gave a special address to the American nation and told Americans he has changed his name to Abdullah and has converted to Islam.

Ralph Klein declared that he was going to nationalize all the oil companies in Alberta.

Stephen Harper says he is going to save Medicare, support public transit, and defend Canadian sovereignty, and give the poor a break.


Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?, published by James Lorimer, is in bookstores now.

 

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