At a slim 124 pages, Mel Hurtig’s latest book, The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper’s Takeover of Canada, doesn’t leave him much track to bulldoze the Conservative prime minister’s record. Instead this series of short chapters is like a bobcat that levels the mess that “The Harper Government” has made of our country.
Harper apologists can dismiss Hurtig as a left-wing, nationalist has-been. But his bruising commentary is backed with facts that flatten the Harper legacy throughout these themed chapters, on our democratic system, his record on the environment and “war on our scientists,” his abuse of the tax system, destruction of data, neglect of the poor and vulnerable, income and wealth inequality, and especially his mismanagement of the economy.
Hurtig concludes with a call for a fairer electoral system, one of proportional representation to prevent another ruthless regime from exploiting our “first past the post” system, and a look at Harper’s two opponents, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.
He opens his diatribe with a bold statement: Throughout his career writing about the threat to Canada’s sovereignty of foreign corporate takeovers of our companies and resource sectors, “I never imagined that the greatest threat would come from the takeover of our country by one politician determined to remake our nation according to his own values and priorities.”
He then goes on to back up his claim by highlighting all the lowlights of this right-wing regime: How Harper has single-handedly tarnished Canada’s environmental record, the erosion of our civil liberties, an almost North Korea-like censoring of scientists, data and libraries, and the growing disparity between rich and poor.
One glaring example of the latter: In his chapter “Harper’s Tax Police,” Hurtig writes of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) hounding Oxfam Canada — among many other Canadian charities — through its political-activity audits. Quoting The Toronto Star, Hurtig writes of how CRA officials informed Oxfam Canada that “preventing poverty” was not an acceptable goal. “Relieving poverty is legitimately charitable, but preventing it is not.”
CRA’s reasoning? “Preventing poverty could mean providing for a class of beneficiaries that are not poor.”
Except in the world of Kim Jong-un or Kafka, the reasoning is palpably absurd.
So is Harper’s relentless assault on scientific research and data, the parts of the book I found most interesting — and dangerous. The author quotes from journalist Chris Turner’s book The War on Science of Harper’s “bureaucratic war on science, on reason — on the very foundations of enlightenment thought.”
The list of sins against science and reason, especially Harper’s censoring of scientists, is appalling in a democratic nation like Canada. Says Hurtig:
“What we are witnessing is the systematic dismantling of the statistical and informational foundation necessary for a stable and healthy democratic nation.”
The author can only speculate that perhaps this is related to the Christian fundamentalists among Harper’s supporters who are anti-science. (The far fringe believe climate change is something to be welcomed “as a sign that the anticipated second-coming and Armageddon are at hand.”) Certainly, Harper is no fool in pleasing his base supporters.
He is also — and this is what Hurtig leaves out — a shrewd politician who knows how to work the system and believes in power above all principles. Harper could easily bend to the will of the most vocal social conservatives in his movement by making some bold policy moves on hot-button issues like abortion and capital punishment. But he’s no dummy. He recognizes this would be political suicide and so Harper has used an iron fist to ensure these issues never get in the way of his agenda.
Hurtig also omits Harper’s assault on trade unions in his criticisms of the Conservative leader’s assaults on our cherished institutions. Bill C-377, for instance, imposes heavy-handed reporting obligations for unions; it has been decried far and wide and may very well meet its death blow before the courts because it violates our charter rights (which would be yet another defeat of the Harper government in the courts, still a sanctuary of sanity in our country). Harper also forced back-to-work legislation on federally regulated unionized workers at Air Canada, Canada Post, and CP Rail and has been obstinate and arrogant in refusing calls for a national strategy for the auto industry.
The Arrogant Autocrat does a good job of destroying the biggest Harper lie, one that’s playing now on the election trail: His party as good economic stewards.
By almost every measure, Hurtig writes, Harper has weakened our economy considerably. Consider just one eye-popping stat — net non-energy exports have plummeted from about $30 billion in 2000 to about negative $60 billion in 2011. That’s a precipitous drop of about $90 billion, mostly under Harper’s watch.
And he can’t use the financial meltdown of 2008 as an excuse. Quoting Saskatchewan MP and former Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale, Hurtig relays how Harper put Canada back into deficit “before (not because of) the recession which arrived in late 2008.”
One of the few bright lights in the economy is the percentage of Canadians who have attained tertiary (higher or post-secondary) education. We’re third in the world, Hurtig writes, but given the decline in our economy, “Where will our new graduates find meaningful employment in a nation with sluggish growth and diminished prospects?”
There’s no doubt that Hurtig examines the Harper legacy through an ideological lens, leaving readers with the impression that this “arrogant autocrat” has done bad things to everyone but the rich. Harper may be a rotten prime minister but he’s no monster — at least not yet. What he has done is delivered death blows to Canada through a thousand cuts, often buried in weighty and Machiavellian “omnibus” legislation, and in measures that have harmed our image as a progressive nation.
Hurtig’s conclusion that a coalition of Liberals and the NDP is the best alternative to another Harper government makes great practical sense but seems a distant political reality. So too are his dreams of a more proportional representative electoral system, if the experience with the failed mixed-member proportional representation ballot in the 2007 Ontario election is any indication.
But he is on firm ground indeed when he takes on Harper and the many ways he is changing the country “towards a state and a condition that is unrecognizable.” Hurtig has done all the spadework in leveling the house that Harper built. It’s now up to the rest of us to haul away the mess when we go to the voting booth on October 19.