Who Is The Real Stephen Harper?


Anyone attempting to get a read on Canada’s PM, Stephen Harper, will quickly realize that this is a man who is far from transparent. Some have argued that his dominant trait is a Machiavellian willingness to play the political game in order to maximize his winning potential.

The inconsistencies between Harper’s declared political standards and his behavior in parliament were clearly demonstrated this week. His attack on the Liberals for their position on anti-terrorism measures due to expire this month, took the form of a smear directed against the family of backbench MP Navdeep Bains.

The PM made the accusation that the Liberal opposition to the anti-terrorism measures was driven by their desire to prevent further investigation of Bains’s father-in-in-law, Darshan Singh Saini, who is a potential witness in the RCMP’s probe of the 1985 Air India bombing. MP Bains asked twice for a retraction, characterizing Harper’s remarks as an “attack on my integrity and the integrity of my family”. Harper twice refused to comply.

Personalizing the debate about anti-terrorism measures in this fashion is unbecoming in a national leader. The title of the Toronto Star editorial for February 23 2007 is “How much lower will Harper go?”. That pretty much describes the reaction of quite a number of Canadian pundits to his tactics on this issue.

It is important to recall that this is a Prime Minister who came to office as a reformer guaranteeing a new era of political civility. In targeting the Bains’ family in this fashion, he is employing tactics that are anything but civil. In its editorial, the Toronto Star characterized his approach as “the equivalent of of a hockey goon, trying to beat the Liberals by throwing a vicious sucker punch …”.

This is also the PM who has given the green light to some of the most negative attack ads we have seen in Canada. One French language ad insultingly characterized Stephane Dion, the Liberal leader, as “vendu” or “sellout”.

The contradictions between Harper’s declared principles and his actions, are borne out by his flip flops on policy. His political positions appear to be driven by expediency and a ruthless win-at-all-costs agenda.

He recently declared Quebec to be “a nation within Canada”, arguably a form of “special status”, something he is on record opposing. In 2004 he endorsed official bilingualism. Yet this is the same politician who was well known for scoffing at the very notion of bilingualism. In the Calgary Sun in 2001 he is quoted as saying “As a religion, bilingualism is the god that failed”.

On the issue of human rights we find the same contradictions and the willingness to alter political positions in order to court approval. He is on record calling for an end to Human Rights Commissions. In the past he referred to them as – “an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society”. He even characterized them as a form of “totalitarianism”. Despite these sweeping condemnations, we have seen Harper recently position himself as a human rights champion in his relationship with China. The obvious inconsistency between these two positions can be explained by his former opposition to the cozy business connections former Liberal PM Paul Martin enjoyed with the Chinese. So once again the motivations seem less high minded than an exercise in political oneupmanship.

On the environment his positions have also morphed so as to accrue political capital, given the increasing number of voters who are are now concerned about climate change. Harper has moved ninety degrees from characterizations of Kyoto as a “boondoggle” and “a socialist scheme”. Nowadays we find an entirely new tune. Despite his former attacks on the Liberal’s environmental position, he announced a green energy program in January 2007 – one which is basically a new version of the Liberal program which the Conservatives canceled. It’s difficult to overlook the fact that this is the same PM who shortly after his his election win, quietly canceled 15 federal programs that were designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The champion of the “new” federalism, eager to court the Quebec vote, is the same man who sounded like a Western separatist when he called for a “firewall to be built around Alberta”. He even went so far as to propose replacing the RCMP with provincial police.

Despite assuming positions on human rights and the environment that play to progressive credentials, there is little progressive in his views on gay marriage. At one point he threatened to use the Notwithstanding Clause to overturn the Supreme Court’s definition of marriage. He is also on record as stating that it is “vile” to make any comparison between civil rights and gay rights.

On health care the flip flop is virtually a cartwheel plus a back somersault. Harper has a history of hectoring the federal government to get out of the health care business. In 2001 he joined in a letter writing campaign to petition premier Ralph Klein of Alberta to drop out of federal health care altogether. When Klein proposed Alberta initiatives in 2004 that directly contravened the Health Act provisions, Harper refused to stand up for the federal program. Yet these days he is lauding it as invaluable, even saying that his family has long been dependent upon it.

It’s precisely this type of reversal that generates cynicism in Canadians who have been following Harper’s path to the PM’s office. When his position changed as a consequence of being in power, so too the positions that got him elected began to change. In some ways it appears he is attempting to neutralize the Liberals by taking over some of their causes. In any other politician this might be viewed as typical posturing and simply confirm the cynicism a lot of people have about politicians in general. But in Harper’s case a long history of crusading for right wing causes distinguished his course. That was what defined him as a politician. So this sudden readiness to discard or minimize causes that he presented as matters of high principle, is a problem for many who see his moves as a cynical attempt to retain power at all costs.

On the basis of these and other inconsistencies, many Canadians rightly wonder what Harper really stands for.

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