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Last week, at an event in Saskatoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned his focus to guns. He talked about there being too many restrictions on gun ownership, making the point that people in rural areas need guns for self-defence.

He used his wife Laureen as an example. "My wife's from a rural area and obviously gun ownership wasn't just for the farm, but was for a certain level of security when you're a ways away from immediate police assistance," he said.

The comment boards lit up. Many rural folk heatedly supported Stephen Harper's position, saying if someone attacks your house, you have to have weapons to defend yourself. A smaller number took the other side, saying they don't want the U.S. mentality on guns brought to Canada. The more people own guns for self-defence, they said, the more it will push others to want their own guns for self-defence. Where does it stop? This isn't Louisiana.

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Whatever side of this debate you're on, it was only fitting in the current climate that this subject has entered the conversation.

The Conservatives were already pushing hot buttons everywhere – provocative rhetoric about the niqab, sabre-rattling on Russia and Iran, fear-mongering on terrorism, lock-'em-up-forever legislation on crime and punishment.

It's hard to recall another time when we have witnessed such a flame-throwing approach to politics, policy and Parliament. Too often, the governing party resembles a band of belligerents rather than sage public servants. How many fights do they want to pick? Are they not concerned about the impact on the country's social fabric, the dangers of pitting one Canadian against another?

Other governments had men at the top who served as voices of reason or restraint – think of Don Mazankowski in Brian Mulroney's government, or John Manley under Jean Chrétien. Mr. Harper has no such force of measured resistance in his office or cabinet, no one to keep his harder-edged ideological impulses in check.

It is instructive to compare the Prime Minister's words to those of U.S. President Barack Obama, especially with regards to terrorism and foreign conflicts. One man sees his leadership role to include reducing tension, seeking consensus, keeping the lid on. The other appears to be more interested in winning votes with divide-and-conquer tactics. He panders to prejudice instead of asking the population to rise above it.

Provocations at home have also been coupled with provocations abroad. Last week, James Bezan, parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Jason Kenney, raised the ante with Russia, claiming that our navy was "confronted" by Russian warships and "buzzed" by fighter jets in the Black Sea.

NATO officials said this was nonsense – that Russian vessels remained far off and that there was no buzzing.

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The idea appears to be that if you provoke some kind of clash with Russia, you'll get the patriotic juices flowing back home. More support for your party.

Mr. Bezan's penchant for courting conflict hardly compares to that of his minister's. Mr. Kenney infamously tweeted a photo purporting to show Muslim women put in chains by members of the Islamic State. In fact, the photo depicted a Shia religious ceremony. The women were re-enacting the persecution of the Prophet Mohammed's family.

Meanwhile over at the Commons public safety committee, critics of the government's security legislation were being treated as if they themselves were threats to national security. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney spoke out against the "so-called experts" raising concerns about the bill – a group that includes national security specialists, former prime ministers and former Supreme Court justices.

One witness from a civil liberties group was accusingly asked if she was "fundamentally opposed to taking terrorists off the streets." Another Tory questioner said the executive director of Greenpeace's opposition to new surveillance measures "makes me wonder if your organization is a national security threat."

The news report in the next day's Ottawa Citizen featured a big picture of senator Joseph McCarthy, the face of the 1950s anti-communist witch hunt in the United States. The headline read: Tories Unrepentant For McCarthyesque Attacks On Security Bill Critics.

McCarthyism here? Not yet. But we're getting closer.

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