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gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.

There is something unique about Stephen Harper's government, a uniqueness that stems from the Prime Minister himself. As articulated by his former adviser Tom Flanagan, Mr. Harper "can be suspicious, secretive and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia … he believes in playing politics right up to the edge of the rules." Mr. Flanagan compares him to Richard Nixon, not, I think, meant flatteringly.

Mr. Harper does not have opponents; he has enemies to mow down. To that end, the Prime Minister and his entire government indulge in verbal extremes that were once the exception in Canadian politics. A democratic culture demands civil discourse and a certain respect for one's opponents. Mr. Harper and his thuggish minions reject this tradition. They don't debate, they demonize. They are routinely uncivil, cruel and bully without mercy. They know this and revel in it.

None follows these mean-spirited guidelines more enthusiastically than Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. Mr. Alexander tramples everything in his path without mercy. In an interview last month, he spoke to a broad list of his government's immigration reforms, which include opposition to Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab when taking the Oath of Citizenship at citizenship ceremonies, and explained that Canadians "don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists."

Now there is in real life only a single case of a woman demanding to wear her niqab at this ceremony. Her name is Zunera Ishaq and for months the entire Canadian government has piled on this one woman, repeatedly maligning her for wanting to conform to her religious beliefs.

The government of course knows perfectly well the charge is a bald-faced lie. Ms. Ishaq is a terrorist the way "Taliban Jack" Layton – Stephen Harper's cute smear – was a Taliban sympathizer. But the slurs never stop. Only last week, in full campaign mode, Stephen Harper charged that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's priority is to become "best friends" with the government of Iran, "one of the state sponsors of terrorism in the world." This is of course yet another shameless lie.

Nor are the government's enemies merely treacherous terr-symps. After maligning Ms. Ishaq, for example, Minister Alexander went after the entire Liberal Party of Canada. Responding to a Liberal MP, he said: "I would invite that member to apologize for decades of racism by his party under Mackenzie King," who died in 1950. Parts of the Liberal record certainly should embarrass party members. But while he's invoking history I'd invite Mr. Alexander to apologize for Conservative prime minister John A. Macdonald calling aboriginal peoples "savages" and using starvation as a weapon to steal their land.

The Harper gang simply can't resist the low blow. No one knows why. A rational debate on factual grounds is just not in their armoury. They always need to add an extra gratuitous slander, even when it's completely stupid. Here's Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs, when opposition MPs advocated Canadian support for a UN peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic. "Of course, we are very much concerned about the situation…. What is more important is that the Liberal Party, as well as the NDP, would like to put Canadian soldiers' lives in danger out in the region."

This apparently irresistible compulsion to hit below the belt is really quite pathological. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney cannot mention Omar Khadr's name without baselessly maligning him, wildly misrepresenting Mr. Khadr's record while virtually accusing him of being a terrorist threat even today.

Peter MacKay brought these same Tricky Dicky Nixon traits with him to the new Conservative Party from the defunct Progressive Conservative Party. First, in order to win the PC leadership, MacKay gave an explicit written vow that he wouldn't merge the party with Stephen Harper's Canadian Alliance. Within months the merger was concluded and the Conservative Party was born.

It was a good fit. Mr. MacKay evidently shares the Harper way of politics, as he showed again when Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin blew the whistle on Canada's practice of turning over Afghan prisoners to Afghan authorities to be tortured. Mr. MacKay repeatedly and viciously attacked Mr. Colvin's credibility and integrity. But as Defence Minister, Peter MacKay had to know that Colvin was 100-per-cent right.

With comparable scruples, as Justice Minister, Peter MacKay joined with the Prime Minister in a shameful and fabricated assault on the integrity of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

In perhaps no area has the government played a more dangerous or dirty game than around Israel. As Stephen Harper put it last year, criticism of Israeli policies is "the new anti-Semitism…. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel." According to cabinet minister Jason Kenney, channelling Mr. Harper, critics of the Israeli government actually "advocate the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people." Presumably that includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's many Israeli and other Jewish critics.

Can anything be more despicable than exploiting anti-Semitism for partisan purposes? No question. Don't underestimate Mr. Harper's team. They now have a new anti-Trudeau ad that actually reproduces Islamic State anthems and grisly Islamic State shots of their victims about to be slaughtered. It's a form of political pornography.

Every time you think they've reached absolute rock bottom, they always find a road that runs lower yet. Hard to imagine what unplumbed depths they could sink to over four more years.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this column stated Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Canadians "don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists" in the House last month, in reference to his government's opposition to Muslim women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. In fact, Mr. Alexander made the comment in an interview in reference to many immigration reforms he had made, which include opposition to the niqab during those ceremonies. This version has been clarified.

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