Prime Minister Stephen Harper's hostility toward Elections Canada is long-standing and visceral. As Elections Canada starts its investigation into harassing and misleading phone calls in the 2011 election, it's uncertain how confident Canadians can be the Conservatives will co-operate or that Elections Canada can proceed without consequence.
As head of the right-wing National Citizens' Coalition, Harper fought Elections Canada all the way to the Supreme Court over the ban on unlimited third-party election advertising and lost. From today's vantage point, that court case has an eerie if not prophetic title -- Harper vs. Elections Canada.
In 2001, Harper penned a fundraising letter to his members claiming "the Elections Canada jackasses are out of control" for charging a private citizen who transmitted election results in real time.
Harper has had two more bouts with the agency since becoming prime minister, accusing it of staging a partisan witch hunt and of being in bed with Liberals and the media. He attacked it for prosecuting the Conservatives for the "in and out" affair, illegally transferring money to 67 local candidates who then transferred it back to be spent on national ads, thus exceeding campaign spending limits. He also attacked it for upholding the law allowing veiled voting.
This past weekend, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held a conference in Ottawa where its founder, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, condemned the use of harassing and misleading phone calls to suppress opponents' voters. "I've spent my life trying to get people to participate more in the political system," he said. "And the fact there would be people out there trying to work in the opposite direction is deplorable."
But on March 5, The Globe and Mail published a letter from John Fryer, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria's School of Public Administration and a member of the Order of Canada, saying he received an invite to attend a Manning Centre campaign school in 2010.
"Intrigued, I signed up for the three-day event," he writes. "Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed from those used by the U.S. Republican Party. Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robocalls worked, techniques for recording messages, plus costs... He distributed his business card upon request.
"Instructors made it clear that robocalling and voter suppression were an acceptable and normal part of winning political campaigns," Fryer continues. "With election ethics like this, a more compelling case for changing to a system of proportional representation where each and every vote counts is hard to imagine."
Harper's bare-knuckle political style is creating a chorus of critical commentary among journalists and academics.
Globe and Mail columnists Lawrence Martin and Jeffrey Simpson have drawn parallels between Harper and former U.S. president Richard Nixon, as has Trent University historian Dimitry Anastakis and journalist Jeet Heer.
In an article published in the British newspaper The Guardian in April, 2008, Anastakis and Heer wrote that, like Nixon, Harper displays "utter contempt" for public institutions. "In fact, it's not a stretch to say that Harper sees many Canadian institutions -- Elections Canada being simply his latest target -- as illegitimate... Canadians have never had a prime minister who has literally made his career attacking and undermining the legitimacy of Canadian institutions."
Anastakis and Heer note Pulitzer prize-winning U.S. historian Garry Wills once observed Nixon wanted to be president "not to govern the nation but to undermine the government. The Nixon presidency was one long counterinsurgency against key American institutions."
Harper has the same approach to politics -- attack not just political foes but the institutions that make governing possible. "The state for Nixon and Harper exists not as an instrument of policy-making but as an alien force to be subdued."
Parliament is chief among the institutions to be attacked by the prime minister. The December 2008 prorogation allowed the Harper Conservatives, then in minority, to avoid defeat on a non-confidence motion.
Empowered, the Harper government reversed the core principle of parliamentary democracy -- that the government is accountable to Parliament. Now, Parliament is accountable to the party in power. Incredibly, even its committees operate largely behind closed doors. MPs who break that secrecy risk contempt citations.
This is a "war" government. It fights the media, the courts, Elections Canada, the opposition parties and Canadians who support them, the civil service, its own departments and agencies, anyone with a contrary view. All now are "enemies" of the state -- attacked, discredited and vilified.
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.