BY Jim Harding
When Harper’s tough-on-crime measures are criticized he typically goes after the messengers, not the message, much like Conservative attack ads. In his book Harperland, Martin noted that Harper claimed his critics were trying to “pacify Canadians with statistics…your personal experiences and impressions are wrong they say; crime is really not a problem.” Harper was tapping into a distrust of experts in order to mobilize his base. Under his rule his retributive opinion was consistently going to overrule evidence.
Before he exited federal politics, Manitoba MP Vic Toews fronted Harper’s crime agenda. Toews attacked Statistics Canada for “underreporting” the crime rate in 2009, claiming that Canadians were reporting fewer crimes because they lacked “confidence in the justice system”. Meanwhile the same Stats Can report indicated that the vast majority of Canadians felt quite safe.
Statistics Canada’s crime rates have to come from standardized police reports over time, just as health statistics must come from standardized medical reporting. It is legitimate to do research on underreporting, about violence against women for example, but this is very different than elevating ideological positions above evidence. However, this is what Harper has done.
Instead of rational parliamentary debate on justice policy, which would expose Harper’s ideology, we have seen reoccurring personal attacks. In 2012 Vic Toews said to a fellow parliamentarian that you can “either stand with us or with the child pornographers” when the Conservatives’ internet surveillance Bill C-30 came under public scrutiny. After retiring from such divisive politics Toews got appointed as a judge with a salary of $290,000/yr. According to the March 26, 2015 Globe and Mail he’s since had his own troubles with the law, having some of his salary garnisheed due to his failure to pay rent for a Quebec apartment for a year when he was in politics.
ATTACK ON STATISTICS
Soon after Toew’s made his attack on Statistics Canada Harper announced that he would scrap the mandatory long-form census, which he did in 2010. His government was not just discrediting official crime reporting, it was deliberately undermining the collection of valid social data which put social and economic policy on a sound footing. Government, non-government, business and labour groups continue to press for reinstating such data to encourage effective governance.
Harper continued his attack on evidence-based policy by marginalizing health protection researchers and climate scientists within the public service. To appear tough on “drug criminals” Harper tried to shut down Vancouver’s InSite Safe injection centre. B.C.’s highest court ruled that it was in the public interest to have safe injection sites, but Harper appealed. In 2011 the Supreme Court found in favour of the provincial decision. Then in 2013 Harper tabled Bill C-65 to again try to block the program.
There is overwhelming evidence that this program reduces drug overdose deaths and the spread of HIV. Harper was acting like past U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose moralistic approach was greatly responsible for discrediting and stalling evidence-based approaches to prevent and control this horrendous disease. Many lives were unnecessarily lost due to this dogmatic approach. However Harper Conservatives remain intent on imposing their retributive moralism on Canadians.
Eighty percent of Canada’s baby boomers support some form of legalization of marijuana. The New York Times editorial board came out in support of this in 2014. Even a majority in the Conservative heartland of Alberta support such change. The evidence is overwhelming that the criminalization of this plant drug has done more harm than good.
However Harper is using marijuana as a wedge issue and he’ll likely soon bring out his attack ads on Justin Trudeau. In the July 29, 2014 Macleans, Paul Wells suggested, “If Conservatives are strongly against pot liberalization and the pro-ganja vote is split among Liberals, NDP, Greens and the Bloc, Harper might still do nicely”. There remains the risk that using marijuana as a wedge could split libertarians and social conservatives in his ranks.
Harper’s political wedges have a subtle purpose, of polarizing opinion issue-by-issue to steadily amass a core vote. How quickly we forget that Reform-Alliance opposition to same-sex marriage was used to unite right-wing conservatives and raise election funds. It accomplished this, yet the issue pretty much vanished from public debate.
The tough-on-crime approach persists regardless of consequence. Between 2009 and 2011 Harper’s government abolished all six federal prison farms. The quality of the food steadily deteriorated after prison kitchens were closed and $6.6 million was cut from Correction Canada’s grocery bill. Complaints increased that the food wasn’t edible. Harper’s Justice Minister’s response made it sound like rotten food was part of the punishment.
This harsh attitude is bound to strengthen in the corrections’ subculture where overcrowding and solitary confinement are already on the rise. The anguishing death of young Ashley Smith from self-inflicted strangulation in a federal prison in Ontario, while guards watched nearby on video, shows what can happen when such a retributive ideology gets institutionally normalized.
Authoritarian politicians use law in a dictatorial and punitive fashion to enforce their rule from above. What we call the rule of law is not the same as rule by the force of law. It’s no surprise that Harper is hostile to those who enforce the rule of law and who act as a counter-weight to the centralized executive powers that Harper has used to dominate parliament. Harper’s distain for evidence-based policy carries over to distain for the judiciary.
We saw this in 2014 when Harper attempted to appoint Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court. Nadon was more to Harper’s ideological liking, but he didn’t qualify. When Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin contacted Harper to discuss this, he refused to take the call. Later, when trying to recast the meaning of his actions, he publicly criticized the Chief Justice for supposedly interfering in judicial appointments.
This distain perhaps played well among the Conservative base. After all, a government, even if elected by a minority of voters, shouldn’t be told what to do by unelected judges; so goes the contemporary populist ideology. Don’t forget that a majority of this Supreme Court was actually appointed by Harper.
The International Commission of Jurists, based in Geneva and made up of sixty judges, investigated this controversy. In July 2014 they issued a statement concluding that Harper’s actions were an “encroachment on the independence of the judiciary”. There has been no reply from Harper who clearly prefers to rule more like a bully than a statesman.
HARD ON DEMOCRACY
Canada’s Prime Minister should be showing respect for knowledge and diversity; he should be taking the moral high ground. He should be working with the provinces to tackle serious problems of inequality and sustainability. If an elected person can’t live up to the expectations of the office, it’s not the expectations that should go.
Nevertheless, Harper shoves aside hard evidence about crime. He follows repressive policies that have failed elsewhere. He apparently isn’t willing or able to take advice from anyone, other than his handlers, until, like Nigel Wright, they get thrown under the bus.
Harper is willing to nurture narrow mindedness and intolerance to maintain power and control. He’s willing to play wedge politics even if it threatens the separation of powers upon which democratic government rests. He has pushed crime policy back a century. He’s compounded the fear of crime and of terror, which ultimately reinforces the fear of “the other”. His attacks on Islam as an “anti-women culture” have placed him on the slippery slope of Islamophobia. This wedge may get votes; if a more tolerant Canada wakes up it may yet backfire.