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. Its almost unbelievable.
Actually it is unbelievable. At the beginning of this election,
Canadians worried about Harpers 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. Harpers more
recent promises have gone largely unscrutinized.
Its 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?
Its time for a reality check.
Lets compare Stephen Harpers 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, Im looking forward to being in a position
where I can speak much more independently than Im 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
NCCs "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 countrys 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.
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. Were alone among OECD
countries in deciding that well 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
Remember Harpers 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
Harpers 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 Partys 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?"
"Yes, in a very loose sense. It consists of regional cultures
within Canada, regional cultures that cross borders with the US.
Were part of a worldwide Anglo-American culture. And there is a
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 CBCs 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.
"Let me outline my policies on this issue. I would keep those
services of CBC which are unique, including those for Francophones
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 Canadas 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.
Harpers 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 Bushs US Anti-ballistic
defence shield. He supported US President George Bushs war in Iraq,
calling the Canadian position "abrasively neutral."
As the US was invading Iraq in March 2003, Harper said on CTVs
Question Period, "This governments only explanation for not
standing behind our allies is that they couldnt get the approval
of the Security Council at the United Nations - a body [on] which
Canada doesnt even have a seat."
In a May 2003, speech to the Institute for Research on Public Policy,
"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 Bushs "Youre either with us or against us"
world, we should be with the US.
ON "LOVING" CANADA
The media joked about Harpers 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 Canadas:
"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 dont 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 CANADAS REGIONS
Stephen Harper has little to say about the federal governments
role in evening out the economic disparities in Canada. At least
that way he doesnt have to contradict himself. On May 31, 2002,
Harper ridiculed people in Atlantic Canada:
"Theres unfortunately a view of too many people in Atlantic
Canada that its only through government favours that theres
going to be economic progress, or thats what you look to.
The kind of cant-do attitude is a problem in this country
but its obviously more serious in regions that have had have-not
status for a long time."
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
His attitude towards programs to deal with poverty, before this
"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. ..."
There is no mention of human rights in the Conservative election
platform. Thats 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 partys efforts to exploit the Liberal corruption
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
But Harper used the NCCs 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 NCCs twenty-year success in fighting such laws.
We could go on and on, comparing Stephen Harpers 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 well wrap up on a light note. Heres 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
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.