|He Knows he's Right|
Not for the first time, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have puzzled many pundits.
They won an unassailable majority. Their party is united. They face an opposition that is weak, divided, leaderless. Their dominance is complete and while it’s possible to dream up challenges in the future, they are only the stuff of imagination.
Here and now, nothing can touch them.
So why do the Conservatives continue to act like the elbows-up, stick-swinging, trash-talking goons who bullied their way through five years of minority government?
Public safety minister Vic Toews has repeatedly accused those who oppose the government’s omnibus crime bill of being “pro-crime.” Environment minister Peter Kent said NDP MPs who went to the United States to voice opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline had behaved “treacherously.” Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the minister of heritage, publicly suggested Liberal MP Justin Trudeau isn’t a good Catholic and shouldn’t be invited to speak at Catholic schools.
Each time the tone seems to have reached bottom, down it goes again. When the House of Commons marked Remembrance Day, each party stood to say a few words honouring the dead, but MPs from the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois needed unanimous consent to speak because they are not officially recognized in the House of Commons. They didn’t get it because some Conservative MP, or MPs, objected. The next day, with the support of the NDP, they tried again. Again the Conservatives blocked them.
Blocked them. From saying a few words in honour of the dead. Why? Who knows? The Conservatives never bothered to explain this shameful deed.
More substantively, the Conservatives have been imposing time allocation and closure — shutting down debate — at a faster rate than any government before them. The opposition is livid. It’s undemocratic, they say. And it’s hypocritical because the Conservatives furiously denounced the Chrétien government for using the same tactics more sparingly. In response, the government sneers. Literally. Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, has an impressive repertoire of smirking facial gestures and cutting insults.
All this is obvious to anyone who looks. But why is it happening?
Parliament has been a particularly nasty place for years but that was a consequence of minority government, many pundits said. The government was always in danger and so the Conservatives behaved as if they were in a non-stop election campaign. A majority would change that, the pundits said after the election. The Conservatives will calm down, drop the nastiness, and deliver a more statesmanlike government.
But that hasn’t happened. Puzzling, isn’t it? Well, the pundits say, that must mean the Conservatives are struggling to adjust to the new reality. They’re like a dog that has been chasing a car, wrote the Star’s Tim Harper. “Just as the dog has no idea what to do if it ever catches the car, the Conservatives seem unsure of what do with a majority after years of chasing it.”
Maybe. But I’ll venture another hypothesis.
It is who they are: They are the party of Stephen Harper.
Tom Flanagan recently described the prime minister’s personal interests. “He doesn’t really care much about money,” Flanagan told the Hill Times. “He likes to watch hockey and so on, but he doesn’t have a lot of active interests that he wants to pursue. He doesn’t play golf. He doesn’t play tennis. He doesn’t care much for travel. He doesn’t paint. He doesn’t fish. You know, he loves politics.”
Indeed. Stephen Harper has been obsessing about political power his whole life. It’s what he does. It’s all he does.
The same is true of many of the top people around him. John Baird, Jason Kenney, Tony Clement, Peter Van Loan. They’ve spent their entire lives in politics. It’s all they know.
But Harper is more than a political obsessive. He’s a passionate obsessive. Almost frighteningly so.
As Conservative strategist Rod Love told author Lawrence Martin, Harper and other Reformers seethed — and rightly so — at the way the Chrétien-era Liberals framed them as the lunatic fringe. “Others got over it,” Love observes in Martin’s book Harperland. “Harper? It was just burned in his psyche. So when he came to power it was payback time. This wasn’t just about going after someone in the Commons in the day, then going out for a beer at night. This was about destruction.”
The same description surfaces over and over. Stephen Harper doesn’t want to beat the other side; he wants to destroy them. They’re not opponents; they’re the enemy. As for the depth of his ideological feelings, the prime minister’s colleagues use the word “hatred” to describe his antipathy to liberalism.
When politics is everything, when opponents are enemies, when there’s hatred in your belly, certain things follow. Ruthlessness, for one. Personal attacks. A refusal to accept the legitimacy of different views and to work with those who hold them.
Stephen Harper is only one man, of course, but unlike every Liberal prime minister his dominance of his party is total. He effectively built it from the ground up. It is his party. And its personality mirrors that of its creator and master.
The Conservatives did not behave the way they did in the past because they had a minority of the seats in the House of Commons. They behaved that way because they are the party of Stephen Harper. They still are. And so they still behave that way.
Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. It would be better for everyone if the Conservatives would relax and govern with a little more dignity and respect for parliamentary tradition. But I fear they won’t.
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