Brief bio: Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative government and Prime Minister for nine-and-a-half years: 2006-2008 (minority government); 2008-2011 (minority government); 2011-2015 (majority government). A reclusive, secretive, evangelical, controlling and even vindictive person. A polarizing figure with high negativity. Machiavellian in exploiting wedge issues. A one man band: rebranded the name of Government of Canada, “The Harper Government”.
October 19, 2015 sealed the historical and decisive victory of Trudeau-mania (triumph of Canadian values of a compassionate, peaceful, inclusive and pluralist society) over Harper-phobia. But there is a burning question: was Stephen Harper really the worst, mean-spirited and dangerously divisive prime minister in Canadian history? Many would disagree and scholars would examine the issue in detail in future. But my answer is clear, based on following evidence.
Note: these are selective cases. Media is littered with Harper government scandals, corruptions and unethical behaviour.
Economy has been center piece of Harper government achievement. He boasted at every occasion (warranted or not) how great Canada’s economy has done under his helm, compared to other G7 countries. But in reality, it could be dubbed as the worst myth of Harper government. Facts are:
- Real GDP grew at average annual rate of 1.6% compared to 2.9% during Martin and 3.5% during Chretien tenure. It was nearly three times worse than Canada’s growth rate during the 1950s and 1960s.
- Real GDP per capita recorded an annual average growth of only 0.4% compared to 1.9% during Martin and 2.4% during Chretien tenure.
- Employment recorded an annual average growth of 1% compared to 1.5% during Martin and 2% during Chretien.
- Average growth in exports was 0.3% compared to 3% during Martin and 6.2% during Chretien.
- Share of total income for the top 1% of earners increased to 12.9% from 11.3% in Chretien tenure.
Harper inherited a booming economy in 2006 from Paul Martin (Liberal government). The economy was growing at 3% annually and the unemployment rate was 6.6%. The government was running a surplus of more than $13 billion and net debt was $492 billion (and falling). Against this background, Harper government ran consecutive deficits for seven years and federal debt is now more than $615 billion.
Harper slashed corporate taxes from 22% down to 15%, and cut personal taxes. To grab popular vote before 2006 election (against the recommendation of economists from all over the world), he reduced GST from 7% to 5%. Since GST is a broad-base consumption tax, such a reduction eroded the most reliable revenue base permanently. When the country needed revenue to cushion the 2008-09 recession, treasury had a shortfall of $34 billion due to various tax cut measures.
It was Liberal Paul Martin that stood determined to keep Canada’s banking and financial regulations robust to weather financial crisis in future. While in opposition, the Conservatives were fighting tooth and nail to make the financial sector more open like the United States. Later (2007 and 2008), US experienced the worst financial crisis and busting of housing bubble after Great Depression.
By focusing on raw commodities and resource extraction during Harper regime, instead of developing alternative industrial strategy, Canada was fully exposed to boom and bust cycle, in particular when oil prices tumbled last year. The Canadian economy is now extremely vulnerable as headlined in an article by a Yale University professor:
“Why Canada’s economy is headed off the cliff? …Canada is among the most vulnerable large economies in the world. With a high level of consumer debt ($1.82-trillion) that now exceeds GDP ($1.6-trillion), combined with rising housing prices and dropping oil prices … Canadian Coyote has run off the cliff.” — Vikram Mansharamani, Yale University, Department of Economics
The unemployment rate is now close to 7% and is rising. While population increased by 308,000 last year, job grew only by 121,000 (three-quarters of which were temporary). The commodities boom has gone and oil prices plunging.
While manufacturing jobs were already shrinking over the years due to global competition and technology revolution, 400,000 additional manufacturing jobs were lost during Harper era. Manufacturing sector’s share in the economy dropped from 16% in 2004 to 12% last year. High-tech manufacturing sector did not perform any better: it shrunk and now its share as percentage to GDP is one of the smallest in the developed world (1.3%). Canada’s business R&D performance is the worst among the industrialized country and so is its productivity growth.
Another alarming fact is that until year 2000, Canada had a well-rounded economy: value-added products accounted for over 60% of exports. Now it is close to 30%, whereas share of unprocessed and resource based products excessively dominate the share of total exports.
According to an EKOS Research survey, Canadian middle class declined from 70% to about 60% since the start of 2000s. Meanwhile, the level of consumer debt has shot up from just under $1 trillion in 2006 to $1.82 trillion today. In other words, every Canadian households with a disposable income of $100, now owe $163 in debt.
Just opposite happened with the rich. By 2012 (according to Canadian Business) the 86 wealthiest Canadians held the same amount of wealth as the poorest 11.4 million Canadians combined — or almost one-third of the population. While the average wage in Canada increased by 6% between 1998 and 2012, the average compensation of Canada’s top 100 CEOs increased by 73%.
One of the Conservatives’ $2.5 billion-a-year pledge to introduce income-splitting for couples was publicly questioned even its own then-finance minister Jim Flaherty. According to C.D. Howe estimate, it would actually benefit only wealthiest 15% Canadians who can live off on one income. The expansion of TFSA limit was another measure taken by the Harper government that benefited a small number of upper income earners.
Politics and Democracy
Harper told media during his 2011 campaign tour that he will entertain only five questions a day. This is from a prime minister who had been in power for five years and who promised more openness and accountability. His own MPs (even his cabinet members) weren’t allowed to talk to the media or their constituents.
Harper government introduced Bill C-50 (March 2015) that resulted in voters’ suppression for Canadian citizens living abroad. The government believed that citizens abroad may commit fraud, while there was not a single case reported. Citizens at home were required to provide a number of IDs (driver’s license, health card etc.) to cast their votes. Vouch from friends and acquaintances was no longer accepted. This was clearly to suppress votes of homeless and underclass, who tend to vote NDP or Liberal.
In March 2011, Harper government was ruled in contempt of Parliament (first in Canadian history) for tampering with funding documents and refusing to release costs for corporate taxes, fighter jets and crime bills. Speaker of the House also ruled against embattled International Aid Minister of lying to the Parliament regarding funding denial to a long-standing charitable organization, KAIROS that often disagreed with Conservative policies.
Offending the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in May 2014 on the appointment of a Harper nominee as a Judge to the Court (who was not qualified) was also a first in Canadian legal history. Experts believed that such a difference was a prelude of challenging the authority of Supreme Court as an institution by Harper government. The latest in a long list of people on the public payroll who were hit by Harper included the parliamentary budget officer, the chief electoral officer and the former auditor-general.
Harper prorogued Parliament four times (shutting it down for 181 days). Once in 2008 when opposition threatened to bring down his minority government; twice in 2009 to avoid investigations into the Afghan detainees affairs; and again in 2013 to avoid questions over the Senate spending scandal.
Draconian Bill C-51 (anti-terrorism legislation) is another example. The bill could criminalize free speech and allows government agencies (like CSIS, RCMP and CSEC) to widely share personal information without any regard to privacy. The law also allows these agencies to hold people up to a week in “preventative detention.”
Harper introduced the Federal Accountability Act, but only 29 of the act’s 60 promised reforms were put in place. He created the Parliamentary Budget Office, but his own officer had to quit after disagreement with the government on budgetary numbers.
Harper started the tradition of tabling Omnibus bills (a total of 11) to circumvent debate in the Parliament, while making sweeping changes in laws and regulations. Omnibus bill of 2010 had 883 pages, including major changes to Canada Post and environmental assessments. One bill attempted to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court who was not eligible. In one of the omnibus bills, C-38, it completely gutted Canada’s environmental laws, cut $36 billion from health care fund, weakened Canada’s food inspectors, and made it harder to qualify for EI benefits.
A sleazy tactic of Robocalling was adopted during the 2011 election. Just prior to the election day, some voters across Canada who didn’t support the Conservatives received recorded calls to go to the wrong polling stations from a consulting firm linked to the Conservative party. A low-level staffer was sentenced to nine months in prison. Two judges found a likelihood of involvement of other senior Tories.
In the name of Fair Elections Act, Harper government overhauled Canada’s election laws last year to deal with electoral fraud. But in reality, it weakened the power of Elections Canada: muzzled the chief electoral officer from communicating with the public and MPs about investigations and cut off the agency’s investigations arm. Instead of Elections Canada, now polling supervisors were being appointed by the incumbent party’s candidate or party.
Taxpayer-funded political ads: $13.5 million was spent this year on ads to boast about the government’s budget. The Toronto Star estimated that $500 million had been spent by the Harper government since 2009 promoting its programs like Economic Action Plan, skills initiative campaign and its lower tax incentives.
This year was the longest election campaign in the Canadian history. Just to force opposition parties to stretch their limited budget and have restricted election ads. The frequent running degrading ad was against Trudeau: Justin was “not ready”. Imagine if he would have been ready, Conservatives would be disseminated to only 9 seats, instead of 99.
Harper changed the tradition of political debates on TV (instead they were held on social media) to minimize exposure of impressive performance of opponents like Trudeau (the guy who is “not ready”).
Some $13 million a year earmarked in 2012 budget to audit selected charities working in the area of anti-poverty, foreign aid and human rights. Audits were politically motivated as no conservative think tanks or groups were targeted.
Harper government planned to buy 65 of F-35 fighters: $9 billion to purchase and $7 billion to maintain. This was in clear violation of Canadian law which required open tender for a large defense contract. Moreover, when Tories own parliamentary budget officer made an estimate, he found that fighters would actually cost nearly $30 billion over 30 years. Another estimate suggested the total cost could be as high as $126 billion – or $110 billion more than the Tories had originally proposed. Yet the Tories refused to answer the questions and religiously stuck to the story of initial low cost. Only after years of denial did the government shelve the order.
Corruptions and Crime
A culture of dishonesty. Ingrained habit to lie and then lie to deny the previous lie. This year, PMO posted two videos of Harper visiting Special Forces soldiers in Iraq, in violation of security protocols. When question was raised, the PMO first claimed the protocols was not breached, then claimed that videos were at the consent of defense officials, and then issued an apology, which was evasive.
Mike Duffy affair is another example. Harper continued to lie about the knowledge of $90,000 payment to Duffy from his Chief of Staff to cover up Duffy’s controversial Senate expenses. How could one believe that someone who was so control freak and close to his Chief, did not know about the payment even if he had not approved it. Harper’s own ex-lawyer had a problem swallowing it.
Initially Senate spending scandal seemed straightforward – Tory senators (Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau) abused the public purse by spending money on non-Senate related business and travel. But what also emerged was the length at which Harper and his staff had gone to try and bury the scandal. When auditing firm Deloitte submitted the report on expense claims of certain senators, the report was diverted to PMO, where it was extensively revised before sending to the Senate. Moreover, senators like Duffy and Wallin were using their taxpayer-funded positions to bankroll their jobs as fundraisers for the Conservative party.
Harper’s parliamentary secretary on Ethics was convicted and jailed last fall of three electoral offences: overspending, failing to report a contribution he made to his own campaign, and knowingly filing a false report.
2010 G8 Summit was held in the resort area of Muskoka, — just two hours north of Toronto – in the riding of Industry Minister Tony Clement. He spent $50 million for its beautification by diverting fund from Canada’s borders. Auditor General investigated the case, but there was no paper trace about how the money was spent. The NDP later accused Clement of using the money as a “slush fund” to better his chances of getting re-elected.
When the scandal broke, Clement was neither dropped from the cabinet nor even reprimanded. Instead, Harper put him in charge of the Treasury Board – the very entity designed to oversee spending, ethics and accountability in government. In the same year, the Harper government chopped 92 auditing positions from the civil service.
After the government got rid of the long gun-registry in 2012, the RCMP was ordered to destroy its records. While access to information was in the process for the data, RCMP gutted it, which is against the law. Canada’s information commissioner recommended charges be laid against the high-ranking responsible officers. But to protect these officers from facing criminal charges, Harper government rewrote the law to be applied retroactively. This sets a dangerous precedent of simply arbitrarily changing laws in order to protect political allies.
Harper’s “tough on crime” legislations, in reality amounted to no more than a political gesture as courts already have the power to address cases of dangerous offenders and other criminals. Further, it is doubtful whether all new laws have actually made the country any safer. Like all other western country, Canada has benefitted from falling crime rates for many years, primarily due to demographic changes. Violent crime is now at its lowest level since 1969.
Conservative government, which always projected the party as the best friend of veterans and military personals, underspent its budget on Veteran Affairs a staggering $1.1 billion since 2007 – at a time when some 40,000 veterans were returning home from their services in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the government shutdown 8 regional Veterans Affairs offices; significantly reduced full-time staff while caseloads doubled and many received meagre lump sum payment in lieu of proper pension. No wonder, the catching slogan of veterans during this election was ABC (Anyone But Conservatives)
For political and ideological reasons, scientists were advised to exclude or alter technical information in published reports. He and his party was allergic to science and facts. His moto was to follow their faith-based approach.
He instructed responsible agencies and staff to avoid responding to the media or the public, especially on research which are contradictory to Tory’s philosophy. Stick to speaking points as laid down by the ministerial office, especially in international conferences. Respected experts were routinely silenced and demoralized.
A simple request to interview Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist about a particular type of algae was denied last year because it could become an issue for the oil industry: algae growth is linked to climate change. Denial was the result of 110 pages of emails between 16 different government communications staffers. Case in point: what an optimal use of public servants from a government who always believed in efficiency, cutting waste and lean bureaucracy.
CSIS and RCMP were used to spy environmental and aboriginal activists especially those who are opposed to oil and gas pipelines.
Harper never hided his contempt for the cultural sector. He believed “ordinary people” don’t care about arts and have no sympathy for “rich” artists. CBC was the first to be attacked. CBC budget was cut by $115 million in 2012 alone. It was already one of the most poorly-funded public broadcasters in the world. According to a 2006 report, Canada stood 16th out of 18 nations (under the study) in per-capita funding of public broadcasters.
Harper also attacked Canada’s historical institutions. In 2012, Harper chopped the budget of the national library and archives, making it more difficult for historians to research the country’s past. Moreover, it also changed the citizenship guide to reflect a narrow, pro-military and pro-business view of Canadian history.
Despite the fact that a record 13 of the hottest years occurred since 2000, Harper fought every effort against implementing climate change combating measures. He persistently refused to sign any binding agreement that would force Canada to meet climate change targets and cut greenhouse emissions. As he won his majority in 2011, Harper pulled Canada out of Kyoto, the first signatory to do so. According to a report card by the European Climate Action Network last year, Canada ranked 58th out of 61 countries with regard to its efforts to combat global warming. Harper along with his Australian counterpart Tony Abbot, named “earth’s worst climate villains” by the American magazine, The New Republic.
The reasons for Harper’s inaction was purely based on political calculations: his party enjoys broad support in Alberta and his economic agenda was focused on developing the oil sands. Alberta emits more greenhouse gases than Ontario and Quebec combined, while 60% of Canadians live in these two provinces and they are the heartland of country’s industrial activities.
The Harper government also fought to get Keystone XL built, along with other pipelines accessing the tar sands. In 2012, he launched an unprecedented assault on Canada’s environmental laws when it introduced Bill C-38, an omnibus bill that put a halt on automatic environmental assessments of projects under the federal government’s purview.
Elimination of Long-form Census
The Harper government replaced the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) in June 2010, giving a justification to ‘protect privacy’. According to Statistics Canada, all the data is depersonalized for statistical purposes, meaning that it cannot be traced to any individual. Therefore, Harper’s reasoning was difficult to swallow. It was purely due to ideological reason to “protect” Harperites from facts and figures.
The elimination of the census contradicted advice from experts and professionals, including statisticians, economists, business people, doctors, lawyers, police officers, faith groups, anti-poverty groups, scholarly societies and advocates for linguistic minorities. At least 370 organizations from a wide cross-section of Canadian society expressed their disagreement with the government’s decision.
Just after few years of elimination of long-form census, researchers and policy makers started facing its anticipated negative implications. Any meaningful historical comparison of key socio-economic issues became next to impossible. As one former chief statistician described the Survey as a waste of money and the data generated was “largely useless”.
Several public agencies, including Toronto Public Health, simply refused to use the numbers collected by the voluntary Survey, saying they were unreliable. According to Auditor General, job market now became a guessing game with the Survey. A sociology professor stated that there was no longer reliable data on a fairly wide range of information that allowed researchers to look at the relationship between place of birth, parent’s place of birth, ethnic self-identification, education, age, gender, geographic location, economic outcome indicators, housing quality, languages, etc.
Under Harper government, aid to poor countries was increasingly based less on need and more on economic opportunities for the Canadian companies. In 2013, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was dissolved. Canada’s foreign aid stands at the bottom among the G-8 countries (0.27% of GDP compared to 0.7% of Great Britain, as an example).
Canada’s peacekeeping force has been almost eradicated. Once the world’s number-one provider of peacekeeping personnel, Canada now ranks 67th on the UN’s peacekeeping contributors’ list, or a grand total of 122 people.
Canada’s fair and balanced policy on Palestine and Israel was respected for more than a half century. But Harper government took a U-turn and became the most zealous supporter of Israel in the world, completely ignoring inhuman treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and illegal settlements on Palestinians land. His continued blind support to hard-liner Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, which shocked even the most ardent backer of Israel. Netanyahu, who pledged to never negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians and made implicit racist comments on the eve of the vote, “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” as a warning to voters to back his Likud party. The recent outrageous comment that it was the Palestine Grand Mufti (Haj Amin al-Husseini) who planted the idea of the extermination of European Jews in Hitler’s mind, is considered the worst distortion of Holocaust history even by Zionist hardliners.
Despite international condemnation over what was seen as Israel’s overkill in instances — like invasion of Lebanon in 2006, two invasions of Gaza strip: 2008 and 2009, storming of Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in 2010 in the international water — the Harper government consistently rushed to Israel’s defense and was quick to brand Palestinians and their organizations as “terrorists.”
In 2012, Canada was only one of the nine countries in the UN that voted against Palestinians achieving statehood. During his rule, Harper government cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, voted against all UN resolutions recognizing the rights of Palestinians and complained bitterly when Palestine was admitted as a full member state to UNESCO. Harper’s foreign policy left no opportunity unturned to alienate Canada’s Arab and Muslim communities.
In 2012, against the wishes of majority of Canadians, the Harper government denied health care coverage to some refugees in exceptionally vulnerable circumstances, including children, pregnant woman and cancer patients while also restricting most refugees’ healthcare access to bare basics. Later, the Federal Court struck down the Harper government’s cut to refugee health care and branded, “cruel and unusual”.
On Syrian refugees, Harper stated he wants to “make sure that we are selecting the most vulnerable bona fide refugees … with a focus on the religious and ethnic minorities.” Literally, it meant rejecting the applications from Shia and Sunni refugees who made more than 80% of Syrian population. Moreover, Canada will accept only a total of 10,000 refugees from the region over the next four years. While the former chief of Defense, General Rick Hillier said Canada has a capability to bring in at least 50,000 refugees by this Christmas.
Security concern being main reason was repeated many times during the election campaign by the Harper government in accepting refugees as if security was not a concern for Europeans, where refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are pouring in thousands each day, even in a small country like Macedonia. While Germany, France and other Western European countries are accepting them in millions, leading to their permanent residency.
Xenophobic, especially against Muslims
Harper government was running ads in large urban centers of the country that the Liberals will sell marijuana to children, expand safe injection sites and establish neighborhood brothels. In fact, it is the Supreme Court and all other parties that agree safe injection sites are a humane way to deal with drug addicts. With respect to brothel, it is only the Supreme Court that called for such a possibility in an effort to diminish the suffering of trafficked, beaten and desperate prostitutes.
In 2011, Harper government barred women from wearing niqabs (the face-covering scarves) during citizenship ceremonies, but the Lower Court ruling struck down the ban. After appeal to the Federal Court, Harper government lost it again. It was not that drove of Muslim women trying to take citizenship oath with wearing niqabs, but it was the case of at the most two women.
Harper promised, if re-elected it will implement its tabled Bill S-7, which establishes a snitch line for reporting ethnic groups “barbaric cultural practices” to the RCMP. That reminds dark days of Stalin era: neighbours spooking neighbours.
Two-tier Canadians: Bill C–24 became law on June 20th, 2014, which divides Canadians into two classes: First-class, basically old stock Canadians. Second-class, immigrants especially those with dual citizenship. Second-class citizens may lose their Canadian citizenship for criminal conviction and will be send back, even if the other country is non-democratic. The law is silent on what happens if the other country is not willing to accept the convicted person. Will that person be dumped into the international water?
Bill C-24 is very relevant to various cases of terrorism in the country. Only terrorist attacks that caused death and mayhem were committed by “old stock white Canadians” (to borrow from Harper own vocabulary): Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, who recently converted to Islam. According to the law, did they not deserve to be deported to their native motherland, France or Britain?
Political parties come and go; campaign promises are made and broken; economy faces up and down cycle; scandals, corruptions and financial mismanagements are political realities. But a country’s institutions take generations to build and nourish. Harper government tried to erode institutions: undermine its historical, legal and political system. Turning Canada into a place one does not recognize.
Examples are numerous. To name a few: contempt of the Parliament; offending Supreme Court chief justice; voters suppression; proroguing Parliament four times for political opportunism; muzzling scientists; gutting long-form census, which is indispensable for sound socio-economic policies for a vast and diverse country, Canada; promoting two-tier citizenship; swaying ‘niqab’ issue as defining moment of Canadian, which is a multicultural society; planning to setup snitch line to report ‘barbaric cultural practices’; blind support to Israel in extreme; ridiculing United Nations, a cherished institution of Lester Pearson; devaluing Canada at the international forum.
New and future governments would have colossal task to erase Harper legacy and restore Canada’s historical position at home and abroad.
Globe and Mail: (1) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/despite-the-rap-sheet-harper-isnt-the-worst-pm/article26845638/; (2) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/its-wasnt-just-harper-why-the-conservatives-lost-and-how-they-can-win-again/article26957781/
National Observer: http://www.nationalobserver.com/2015/05/18/news/harper-worst-prime-minister-history
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/opinion/justin-trudeau-low-expectations-high-relief.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region®ion=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0
PressProgress: (1)http://www.pressprogress.ca/6_charts_show_stephen_harper_has_the_worst_economic_record_of_any_prime_minister_since_world_war_ii; (2)http://www.pressprogress.ca/101_scandalous_unethical_or_just_plain_sad_harper_government_moments
Statistics Canada, Various Publications
Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/10/16/demonizing-trudeau-with-brothel-ads-is-conservative-racism-mallick.html
© Mahmood Iqbal and ipotpourri.wordpress.com: 2015