12/05/2011 12:22 EST | Updated 02/03/2012 05:12 EST

Harper: Not as Scary as Advertised

Is Stephen Harper's government really a leadership cult? When giant portraits of Harper appear in city squares and when Ottawa is renamed "Harperville," that's when I will worry about a leadership cult. (I would say, however, that there is a Harper leadership cult within the Conservative Party. But that's a different story.)


Better polish your jackboots and practicing goose-stepping because Canada is in the grips of a democracy-hating, military-glorifying, censorship-loving right-wing reactionary.

Or so implies columnist Lawrence Martin, who recently warned about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's brand of "right-wing nationalism."

Martin says Harper's brash ideological style "contributes to fears of his being a dangerous reactionary."

And yes that does sounds kind of scary.

But keep in mind that branding Conservative politicians as right-wing reactionaries is a common tactic among certain elements of the Canadian media, for whom anyone to the ideological right of Fidel Castro is automatically catalogued as a modern-day version of Attila the Hun.

So before we accept Martin's thesis and assume Prime Minister Harper is getting fitted for a medal-bedecked military uniform, let's go through his argument point by point.

The Glorification of the Military. Martin argues this is "the new cornerstone of Harper nationalism." Martin contends the prime minister "boasts proudly that Canada is now a warrior nation" and uses every opportunity to salute the armed forces. Well first off, most true fascist-types don't glorify the military, they glorify war and violence. Has Harper done this? Not as far as I can see. Yes, unlike former Liberal prime ministers who disdained and degraded our military, Harper respects the history and traditions of our armed forces. But if that's right-wing nationalism, then so is every Remembrance Day commemoration.

A Strict Law and Order Regime. According to Martin, the "government's omnibus crime bill and jail-building program, and its hard line on drugs have pushed our criminal justice system further to the right." Here I am more sympathetic to Martin's case. Harper, for political reasons, has gone overboard when it comes to his Dragnet-inspired "law and order" crusade. But is this really dangerous "right-wing nationalism" or just run-of-the-mill conservative populism? And don't forget left-wing governments have their own version of a "strict law and order regime" in which they use draconian laws to go after people like gun owners and smokers. Does that mean lefties want to impose a Soviet-style dictatorship?

Message Control. "Information control" is central to right-wing nationalism, says Martin who notes how the Harper government has imposed savage message discipline in Ottawa. And it's true, Harper wants strict control over how the government message is relayed to the public. Yet that's a political communications strategy, not an ideological attack on information. Harper is not closing down newspapers, or censoring news reports or putting people in jail who disagree with him. This is why Martin and other columnists are still free to fear-monger to their hearts content.

Flag-Waving Populism. Martin says, "The Conservatives are melding war and sport to appeal -- Don Cherry style -- to the masses." Hmm, if Don Cherry really epitomizes dangerous right-wing nationalism somebody better tell the CBC.

Anti-Democratic Instincts. Martin, like many leftists, bemoans how the Harper government has bullied "its way through democratic barriers." He notes, for instance, the government imposed closure and time limits on parliamentary debate. OK fine. What about a few years ago when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois tried to topple the duly elected Conservative government so they could set up an unelected ruling triumvirate? So maybe other parties also have an anti-democratic instinct.

Less Tolerance. "Progressives" always like to brand Conservatives as intolerant, which ironically sort of betrays their own intolerance. Anyway, Martin says the Harper Tories are right-wing nationalists because they are "less inclined toward multiculturalism" than previous governments. Is this really scary? I mean, "Less inclined towards multiculturalism" doesn't exactly sound like the motto for the National Front. In fact, you could probably find a lot of Canadians from all ethnic backgrounds and from all ideological stripes who are less inclined toward multiculturalism than previous governments.

Anti-Intellectualism. Martin writes, "In appealing to their populist base, the Conservatives boast of going by gut instead of erudition." Yes, this is called politics. All parties do it.

The Smearing of Opponents. According to Martin, the Harper Conservatives "make frequent use of it with manslayer attack ads and demonization of critics." Yes, this too is called politics. All parties do it.

Anti-Labour Bent. Martin says the Tories like to bash unions. Well considering big union bosses in the public sector like to use their monopoly power to hold consumers hostage, that union bosses use forced union dues to promote a radical left-wing agenda, and that union bosses often use bullying tactics on picket lines, I'd say they could use a good bashing every once in a while.

Cult of the Leader. Right-wing nationalism, says Martin, requires the elevation of the leader's status. Hence, the Conservatives have ordered civil servants to change the nomenclature from Government of Canada to the "Harper government." Is this really a leadership cult? When giant portraits of Harper appear in city squares, when children must sing his praises at the beginning of a school day, when Ottawa is renamed "Harperville," that's when I will worry about a leadership cult. (I would say, however, that there is a Harper leadership cult within the Conservative Party. But that's a different story.)

So you see, Harper is not as scary as advertised.

Now I realize that Harper is not a cuddly guy; he can be tough-minded, vindictive and ruthless. And he certainly practices a Genghis Khan style of political warfare.

But none of that means the prime minister is out to rebrand Canada as some sort of "Northern Reich." He was elected democratically, he is operating within the law, he will ultimately have to answer to the people of Canada in the next federal election.

So lefties need not worry.

Indeed, if anyone should be concerned it is Canada's ideological conservatives. After all, since coming to power Harper has made government bigger not smaller, he has increased spending instead of cutting it and plunged the country into a sea of red ink.

In short, when it comes to fiscal issues, Harper has acted and talked a lot like a Liberal.

Now to me that's scary.

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