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Who's next on Harper's smear list?

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The George W. Bush administration isn't gone, its policies and political style have just moved north.

Like the Bush administration, the Harper government uses Karl Rovian tactics to smear and intimidate not just opposition critics, but parliamentary officers, heads of quasi-judicial agencies and tribunals and even Canada's seven major Christian churches

Who's next?

Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission and Paul Kennedy, chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, have both been refused second terms for not toeing the government's line. Tinsley's sin was initiating the Afghan torture probe; Kennedy's was criticizing the RCMP's actions regarding the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.

Marc Mayrand, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, was publicly attacked and finally taken to court for probing the Conservatives' alleged "in and out" advertising scheme in the 2006 election.

The Conservatives created the "independent" Parliamentary Budget Office but slashed its funding when their own appointee, Kevin Page, embarrassed them by questioning their rosy fiscal forecasts.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has effectively branded Canada's seven mainline Christian churches anti-Semitic by cancelling funding to KAIROS, their interdenominational humanitarian aid organization. The government claims KAIROS took a "leadership role" in a boycotting, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, an accusation KAIROS executives deny. "The policies of KAIROS have all been approved by the collective board of KAIROS, so in a sense what Mr. Kenney is doing is accusing Canadian churches of being anti-Semitic," says United Church of Canada spokesman Bruce Gregersen. The churches are demanding an explanation from Harper.

Prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien were widely denounced for their "imperial" and "presidential" airs. But it's Harper who's really moved the bar. Until there was a public outcry, the Government of Canada's main website carried a link to the video of Harper's Beatles performance at a National Arts Centre gala last October.

The Prime Minister's Office not only has vastly expanded the distribution of official photographs of the incumbent to media across the country -- all at public expense -- but now also has a $1.7 million video operation in full swing. Ironically, it was the PMO's videographer who recorded Harper's Bush-like speech to sailors onboard HMCS Ville de Quebec anchored off Trinidad in November. Harper slagged opposition MPs for their supposed disloyalty to Canada's fighting men and women and set himself up as Canada's sole patriot.

Political cynicism reached new heights this weekend when pundits who should know better applauded rumours Harper may prorogue Parliament until March so he can use his taxpayer-financed PR machine to burnish his image from the Olympics. It would be "smart strategy," a CTV Question Period panel of former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan, former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory and erstwhile Liberal Jean LaPierre agreed. Nobody much cares about Parliament any more anyway, they decided. And prorogation would have the added benefit of deep-sixing the torture issue.

Pollster Nik Nanos says voter suppression tactics -- constant visceral attacks and hardball politics -- often provide big political payoffs to conservative parties by discouraging opposition turnout and animating their own base. Parts of the Conservatives' core constituency "condone this type of behaviour," Nanos says. "They have a particularly hard view... align with the hard-hitting style. For many Conservative strategists, it's a very valid and very effective way to win."

Nanos says the Conservatives haven't paid any political price because "none of the opposition parties has been able to string together a broader narrative about what type of government Stephen Harper's is on issues such as nation-building in Canada, on accountability and transparency, foreign policy, health care, social issues... It's a sad thing to say but if anyone wants to move the dial, they have to draw a picture."

Harper's next target is Parliament itself. He risks precipitating an unprecedented constitutional crisis if he refuses to obey Parliament's majority vote demanding all documents surrounding the torture of Afghan detainees.

Some constitutional experts say he can't command a prorogation from the Governor General because this is not a confidence issue arising from a government initiative. It is the ultimate declaration of parliamentary supremacy over the executive, backed by the majority of Canada's 308 MPs.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2009 A11

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