BY Jim Harding
A Conservative ad came on the radio as I drove home from meetings in Regina. It was another attack ad on Justin Trudeau. It was trying to get listeners irate that Trudeau would take money back that the Harper Conservatives had so generously given to parents; the punch line was that Trudeau would jeopardize the economy and the security of families. Trudeau was quoted out of context as saying “the economy will balance itself”. The quote intended to depict him as aloof and uncaring.
Trudeau is being targeted in an effort to split off some Liberal votes as happened in 2011. Traditionally the second vote preference of Conservatives has been Liberal rather than NDP. But Mulcair too will be targeted when that serves Harper’s strategic purposes.
The ad didn’t appeal to reason or curiosity; like most Harper ads it was intended to misinform and polarize and to inspire resent among people already feeling vulnerable. It was yet another wedge to divide us from each other.
The Conservatives were made to seem pro-family with Justin Trudeau as the bad guy who would jeopardize economic security. There is no interest in exploring why Canadian families are carrying so much debt, or how services such as child or homecare or a national drug plan could provide family support in a cost-effective way. Imagine how much more debt and stress today’s families would face without universal healthcare in Canada? Under Harper that system, too, is in serious jeopardy.
The Harper sub-text is always that lower taxes will give families a little more cash to help them along. Then there’s the predictable small handout using the taxpayers’ own money. It’s a throwback to what Medieval Age monarchs did with peasants. Of course the ad didn’t mention the term “income splitting”, because many Canadians now know that this Conservative policy redistributes income to the top. Before his death Finance Minister Flaherty rightly warned Canadians about this Conservative policy.
Harper’s ads are intended to divert public attention from a serious, evidence-based consideration of policy options; to divert attention from who really benefits from his tax cuts and spending and to make politics and voting even more vindictive and partisan!
This base approach helped Harper in his steady rise to rule from the Taxpayer’s Association to the Reform and Alliance parties to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). But will it work again in 2015? Will this approach consolidate a Conservative voting base that again captures the first past the post electoral race?
Or might the coming onslaught of attack ads also drive even more Canadians out of the political process? Will deepening cynicism about “politics” reduce the number of voters even further? If so could Harper regain power with an even smaller minority of support? Either way he would win.
We need to carefully assess the threat that manipulative messaging poses to the health of our democracy. Harper’s wedge politics should itself be a political issue in the coming election. No one can seriously argue that our democracy is healthier now than it was when Harper started on his quest to change Canada. On any number of indicators, domestic and international, Canada is becoming a shrunken version of its former self. Harper’s onslaught of expensive ads, many paid for by the taxpayer, may try to drum into us that we have become “strong, proud and free”. Yet, in terms of parliamentary supremacy, rule of law, freedom of information, evidence-based policy, inequality, environmental degradation and just basic civility and respect in political affairs, Canada has lost serious ground.
This ground can be hard to recover. You can only drive so many wedges into a population without everyone starting to suffer. Sooner or later the fragmentation will jeopardize the larger common good. If Harper carries on with his cynical rule for yet another term, what will happen to our country?
I am not asking this as a politically partisan person. I am not a member of the Liberal Party or for that matter, any political party. I am among the majority of Canadians who are becoming less and less partisan or loyal to any one party. If this trend meant that the Canadian voter was more independent thinking, more informed and critical of political posturing and spin, then this might be a good thing. But the widespread disengagement means something else. Cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high. Many Canadians give valuable public service as elected officials, at all levels of government, but get tarred with the same brush. Many good people are deterred from running for public office; the attack ads and pit-bull politics are not comforting. Public office gets abandoned to those who use it for private or corporate gain.
It can be tempting to turn our backs on politics, but this would only serve the masters of deceit. Re-engagement is the only real option if we care about the Canada of our grandchildren.
Wedge politics helped Harper get a minority government in 2006 and a majority in 2011, all with minority support. This fact must sink in before the 2015 election. With only 39% of the votes cast in 2011, he got 100% of the power. His centralization of control in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) also took power away from all elected MP’s, including the Conservative caucus.
Voter turnout has dropped steadily over recent years. It was 79% when Lester Pearson was elected Prime Minister in 1963; when Harper was first elected it was down to 65% and in 2011, when he got his majority, it was down further to 61%. That’s an 18% drop in voter turnout. And 39% of the 61% voting in 2011 is less than one-quarter of the electorate. This graphically shows the vulnerability of our democracy.
Hardcore Harper Conservatives clearly believe in end-justifies-means ideology; winning by whatever means necessary. They will gladly sacrifice the health of Canadian democracy. Governance is not a privilege granted by the electorate; the electorate is something to be mined for votes. Governance gives the power to rule by the force of law, while not respecting the rule of law and to use hundreds of millions of public moneys to consolidate this rule. This is shameful; look at the years of Economic Action Plan ads.
Harper Conservatives exploit our political system. They try to consolidate and split votes so that they can hold power with only minority support. It’s not like a military coup, it’s more like a public relations coup, though it does have a similar aggressive sentiment. Unless the non-partisan, real majority of Canadians stand up for our country and push back on this wedge politics, the civility of our democracy will most certainly continue to erode. With a perfect storm of global and environmental crises our democracy could go into free-fall, as we’ve seen happen in other places. Is it worth the risk?
True patriotism can’t come from a robotic acceptance of the manipulation of national symbols. Harper standing in front of our flag and a group of hand-selected people used as political props for a photo op is not strong leadership. It is control politics and a ducking from responsibility. Just why won’t Harper meet with provincial leaders in the spirit of co-operative federalism, to actually find solutions to our many economic and environmental challenges? Because that’s not his objective!
Are Canadians going to stand up to Harper in 2015? Are we going to say “enough is enough”? Are we going to end this reign of rule by the wedge? We have a few more months to respond with a vision befitting our country, its heritage, its challenges and its potential.
Next time I’ll look at the roots of wedge politics.