Robo-gate, considered by many to be a concerted (if so far unproven) assault on democracy, has opened wide the simmering debate about Stephen Harper and his cronies. Are they reformers or revolutionaries? Are they simply a somewhat more ambitious form of the conservatism Canadians have known since John A., just a further notch or three along the traditional Canadian ideological continuum?
Or do they represent a radical transformation, an extreme new form of conservatism that had, until now, been relegated to the lunatic fringe of Canadian political culture? It’s hardly an academic question. You could even say that the future of Canada depends on the answer.
I don’t mean to be disingenuous here. Of course many partisans have already answered this question to their own satisfaction; that includes me, as faithful readers well know. Ever since it was formed from the American-style populist Reform Party and the dead ashes of the Progressive Conservative Party, and with a pugnaciously hard-right Stephen Harper as its leader, the usual suspects have demonized the new Conservative Party as beyond the pale.
Liberals and New Democrats insisted Mr. Harper's baby was a new and unwelcome species, one that was determined to shatter the vague but real consensus that had ruled Canada for so long. For the truth has long been that even while New Democrats had great fun and won some points portraying the PCs and Grits as the entirely interchangeable “old parties,” Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Visa and MasterCard, the NDP too played within certain very broad Canadian parameters.
Of course there were always real differences on a wide array of key policy matters. But on fundamental ethical and process questions, there was crucial agreement, with all parties accepting that real democracy meant accepting certain constraints on their political practices. It’s not always an easy distinction to make, but it can be seen as the difference between hardball and barely legal dirty tricks, between toughness and take-no-prisoners. It’s the dangerous mindset of the type who say – and believe – those not with us are communists/terrorists/child molesters/pornographers. As political scientist Alan Whitehorn has couched it, it’s the difference between “civil rivalry between fellow citizens of the same state [and]all-out extended war to destroy and obliterate the enemy”.
Again, I don’t want to give the false impression that there weren’t real divergences, real animosities, real bitterness. On occasion, the consensus was entirely breached, as when Pierre Trudeau recklessly invoked the War Measures Act – a moment that will forever scar his reputation.
But on the whole there was an underlying civility, a belief that one’s opponents (not enemies) were not going to change the rules of the game – though they might stretch them a fair bit. Signs might be torn down, street people might suddenly turn up at conventions as rabid partisans (though that was largely an inter-mural sport), a deceased chap might occasionally present himself at the ballot box. Nasty insults were exchanged, Question Period was often a zoo. An aberrant American-style Progressive Conservative or Liberal brawler would occasionally threaten the consensus. Nevertheless, there was an overall sense of playing the same democratic game, of getting a kick out of the game, of matching wits with opponents, of some of them even being worthy.
Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, many of us fear, have changed the entire game. In fact for them it’s not a game at all. Like their cherished American Republican role models, when they speak about their war room, they mean it. And in war, it hardly needs saying, there’s little tolerance for democratic niceties.
Do I exaggerate? Listen once again to Tom Flanagan, former Harper strategist and a powerful voice still among conservatives and Conservatives. A Globe piece by Mr. Flanagan before the 2011 election was actually titled “ An election is war by other means,” while earlier he had compared the 2008 campaign to ancient wars in which Rome (the Conservatives) defeated Carthage (the Liberals) and “razed the city to the ground and sowed salt in the fields so nothing would grow there again.” This is crazy talk.
The University of Ottawa’s Ralph Heintzman sums up this Harper credo: There is a “lack of sense of inner self-restraint on the part of the Prime Minister, a sense that it is some kind of war and therefore anything is legitimate, that it's quite acceptable for a prime minister to lie, for example, about how our parliamentary democracy works.”
It’s within this context that Robo-gate should be viewed.
Would a party that believed in politics as war hesitate to use the latest technology to keep opponents – the enemy! – from voting? Would a party that has already systematically undermined many traditional parliamentary and democratic niceties, as The Globe’s Lawrence Martin has repeatedly documented, hesitate to violate accepted democratic limits? Does a party that has already been found guilty of violating the election laws and that deliberately attempted to destabilize a sitting Liberal MP deserve the benefit of the doubt?
Here’s the problem. Both sides know with certainty the answer to these questions. Those of us who wouldn’t trust Stephen Harper if he told us today was Friday have no doubt who organized Robo-gate. In fact, I’m informed by a former Conservative operative familiar with both the party and technology that there’s far more to be revealed in this saga. This is said specifically to involve close ties between the Harperites and American Republicans who have been constructing a terrifying, full-blown voter suppression machine, as The Nation magazine, among others, has well documented and CBC Radio’s The Current has noted. I have no idea if this will be found to be true, but based on the record, it is surely not implausible.
Yet Mr. Harper's faithful base, that slightly-more-than-one-third of the electorate on whose behalf the entire government of Canada operates, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is some kind of vicious Liberal frame-up and that their man is as innocent and pure as the driven white snow we occasionally still get.
Both sides can’t be right here. Let’s all pray mine is wrong.