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Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announces new regulations to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to fight organized crime during a Montreal news conference on Aug. 4, 2010. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announces new regulations to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to fight organized crime during a Montreal news conference on Aug. 4, 2010. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lawrence Martin

Puritanism could be a winner Add to ...

For a politician said to be short on vision, Stephen Harper isn't doing too badly lately. Since the beginning of this year, in particular with the onset of social conservatism, we've begun to see a national direction emerge.

The latest manifestation of the new way is his campaign against drugs, gambling and illicit sex. With a new set of "serious crime" regulations announced last week by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Canadians can be headed off to the slammer for five years or more for selling a few ounces of marijuana, bookmaking on a game of checkers or operating a prostitution ring with two hookers. In going after these small-time players, police and prosecutors have been given new powers in respect to wiretaps, bail regimes, parole rules and the like.

By the cynically minded, the measures are seen as helping generate enough criminals to justify the government's $9-billion prison binge. The measures are part of the so-called war on organized crime. It's a hype job, a dire-sounding phrase to bring back to the public consciousness, but probably politically useful. As in, these are dangerous times, but no need to worry. We're dispatching a team of J. Edgar Hoovers to track down these hoodlums, and we'll nail the evil weed users as well.

Do we have the makings of a new puritanism here? A Calvinistic comeback? The Justice Department has become the Conservatives' priority department. There's all that perfidy out there, so much that even the evangelical colleges have been getting economic stimulus grants. Onward Christian soldiers!

Mr. Harper's priorities bring back images of a 1950s Canada. There's a big focus on family values, pride in the armed forces, the monarchy, the Arctic, law and order, hockey, unintrusive government, low taxes. The vision is the true north strong and free and - with respect to its supreme ruler - on bended knee.

Critics say the Prime Minister is in an ideological time warp, but the time slot isn't all that bad. The 1950s were one of the better decades. Mr. Harper has always had a problem in articulating - he's not exactly a wordsmith - where he wants to take the country. But he would probably do well, appealing across party lines, to put this vision into a set piece laying out the virtues of the old Canada. In so doing, he could do another National Arts Centre number, this time channelling Pat Boone. As the national drink, he might start promoting rum and coke. As the national shoe, white bucks or Hush Puppies.

Mr. Harper's persona kind of fits the 1950s. He's a bit of a "square," as they called them back then. You can picture him in that era, stamping forms at the local army recruitment centre by day and going out to the midway in the evening to enjoy a snow cone.

I was talking to one of his former close advisers recently and, reflecting the Prime Minister's view, he launched into a tirade about how good Canada used to be until Pierre Trudeau came along with all that "hippie bullshit." He spoke of how Mr. Harper was in fact a very old-fashioned type and how he had immense pride in the country. This is hard to square with some of his derisive remarks about the place, but many of those did come while Canada was under Liberal rule.

In the Harper view, Canada was great until the 1960s, when Quebec, the most leftish province, took over the agenda and a series of prime ministers from that province set the country on a welfare-state course. In beholding this, the square was not a happy camper. When he came to power, he was prepared to go to extraordinary measures - treating democracy like a rat at the door - to undo the damage.

What's happened this past decade is that Quebec has lost its long-time leverage. No one cares much about its priorities now that the separatist blackmail threat, the sword of Damocles, has been removed.

It's a development that dovetails wonderfully with Mr. Harper's vision. If only he stopped governing like Vladimir Putin, he might just achieve it.

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