Government in a party of one


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My best friend got me Party of One by Michael Harris for my birthday this week. Clearly, my friend knows me well. As a political junkie, I thrive on these kinds of books featuring insider looks at politics. Warren Kinsella's Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics and Jeffrey Simpson's The Friendly Dictatorship remain two of my favourites. Harris's books join others in my book shelf (and my Kobo) that deal with Stephen Harper and his legacy, including Tom Flanagan's Harper's Team and Lawrence Martin's Harperland: The Politics of Control.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/01/2015 (3063 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My best friend got me Party of One by Michael Harris for my birthday this week. Clearly, my friend knows me well. As a political junkie, I thrive on these kinds of books featuring insider looks at politics. Warren Kinsella’s Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics and Jeffrey Simpson’s The Friendly Dictatorship remain two of my favourites. Harris’s books join others in my book shelf (and my Kobo) that deal with Stephen Harper and his legacy, including Tom Flanagan’s Harper’s Team and Lawrence Martin’s Harperland: The Politics of Control.

Harper is the only sitting prime minister in Canada who has had, by my count, at least 13 books written about him and how he has changed Canadian politics. Most of them have been relatively negative. Harris’s latest is no exception, laying out his argument Harper is anti-democratic.

Love him or hate him, Harper certainly has changed the rules of the game on Parliament Hill. Frankly, his ability to take advantage of new social media to target and build support in key demographic areas is impressive. This is a prime minister who built a stable of talented political operatives that could take him from opposition territory to majority government. That’s no small task.

Dale Cummings / Winnipeg Free Press Files Dale Cummings / Winnipeg Free Press Files

However, his ability to get elected and then re-elected at all costs has had an impact on democracy. Most egregious is the robocall scandal for which Conservative aide Michael Sona has taken the fall. It is clear there was an organized scheme to suppress the vote and the information used by Sona (and others) likely came from an internal Conservative database.

But it’s not just that. The Harper government’s use of omnibus bills to pass complicated and multi-faceted public policy is viewed by many experts as a way of side-stepping the role of Parliament. In particular, these bills erode the ability of committees to adequately study the implications of these pieces of public policy. As Louis Massicote detailed in 2013, from 1994 to 2005, “budget implementation bills averaged 73.6 pages, while since 2006 they averaged 308.9 — four times longer.” Since 2008, budget implementation bills have become even longer, running in recent years “closer to 550 pages — seven times longer.” That’s a lot of information to plow through — page by page — in a careful evaluation of policy.

Harper’s government has also been criticized for its rather public dust-ups with public servants when they don’t sing its praises. Kevin Page, Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, was derided by Harper’s then-finance minister, Jim Flaherty, in 2012 because Page was critical of the government about the costs of F-35 fighter jets and cuts to the budget. In 2013, Page wrote in the Toronto Star his decision to take on the job was political suicide. As he detailed, the idea of a PBO was implemented in 2006 as a way of ensuring transparency and accountability, but now, “our institutions of accountability are in trouble. Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) to account.”

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser — the woman viewed by many as the no-nonsense AG who brought down the Liberal government — was at odds with the Harper government over attempts to control the amount of information her office made available to the public. With a majority government win, Harper significantly diminished the AG’s power and increased his government’s ability to control information.

The latest has been the confrontation with the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin. Harper’s government, smarting from the failed appointment of Marc Nadon to the court on constitutional grounds, claimed McLachlin lobbied against the appointment, a claim she vehemently denied. Since there’s no love lost between the Harper gang and unelected and unaccountable judges, to lose an appointment on constitutional grounds must have cut deeply.

It is no small wonder his mandate has been described by the Environics Institute as one in which we’ve seen “the emergence of partisanship and rancour not previously witnessed in Canadian politics.” In a survey conducted in 2014, Environics determined that “Stephen Harper is a polarizing force in Canadian politics” with one-third of the respondents supporting him and one-third not. According to this poll, Harper remains one of the least trusted national leaders in the Americas.

Further, the survey points out respondents feel the balance of power in Canada has shifted away from Parliament and our elected officials to the Prime Minister’s Office, a partisan office which is responsible for recruiting political candidates, providing communications for the prime minister and employing speech writers and political strategists.

The size of the PMO has grown enormously. Under former prime minister Paul Martin in 2005, there were 68 staff members. In 2014, under Harper, there were 94 people. And the PMO’s chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and communications manager are in the list of the Top 15 most influential people on the Hill, surpassing the Supreme Court chief justice and the Bank of Canada governor. There are concerns as well in the survey, particularly from those who are on the right, that power has also become more vested with the Supreme Court.

Those fears that the PM and his office have far too much power seem well-founded. It’s no secret Harper controls his cabinet and its messages, closely shielding cabinet ministers from the prying questions of journalists; releasing cabinet shuffle information via Twitter; providing fiscal updates away from the critical eye of Parliament Hill to a more receptive and forgiving audience at the Canadian Club in Toronto; cutting access to information by hiking fees and slashing budgets.

This is why more books have been written about this sitting prime minister than any other. Harper won power, first as a minority and then a majority government, because he said he was going to do better. He was going to be more transparent and more accountable.

And now, he indeed has changed politics, but not in a positive way.

As former information commissioner Robert Marleau says in Party of One, “Canadians are sleepwalking through dramatic, social, economic and political changes surreptitiously being implemented by a government abusing omnibus bills and stifling public and parliamentary debate… having attained absolute power, (Harper) has absolutely abused that power to the maximum.”


Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.

Twitter: @PaulySigh


Updated on Thursday, January 8, 2015 7:38 AM CST: Adds image

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