Harper's Peculiar Refusal to Talk to Canadians

Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned in the last election for greater transparency. The country was still pissed off at the sponsorship scandal (remember that? seems so yesterday), and Harper was seen as bringing democracy and public accountablility back to Parliament. Well! It soon became obvious that Harper had a style all his own that was the opposite to transparency. He had an antipathy to the media that went further than any Prime Minister before him, and he had an antipathy of ministers of important portfolios speaking for themselves. This style is not Conservative because Brian Mulroney government encouraged stars in his cabinet, both male and female. That's probably a big part of why he won a majority twice in spite of being attacked viciously by media and opponents alike, especially over his patriotism. You see, it wasn't just him running the government but a strong Conservative party of competent, well-respected MPs.

This peculiar need of Harper's to control media access, to talk as little as possible to the media that is the main way that PMs talk to their constituents, to ban his MPs from attending traditional events with the media, to be the chief mouthpiece for the government, to have his ministers, even those with large portfolios, seem like mere minions, is so strange that last May the Toronto Star did a week-long series on it.

I bring this up now because Harper has become even more peculiar in this controlling penchant of his during this election, a time when one would expect him to take every opportunity to talk to Canadians directly. I'll get back to that in a moment.

I've posited that Harper is a control freak -- appropriately, this month's Reader's Digest has an article on control freak bosses -- but the Toronto Star series suggests it's a strategy based on all the lessons he learned from previous leaders of Canada, of either party and in particular Paul Martin's minority government; also from Australia, the UK, and the US. His goal, like any leader's, is a majority government. But in his lack of transparency, he has taken the opposite tack to Mulroney, the last Conservative to win a majority. He is also not emulating George W. Bush, who despite his speech foibles, speaks to the media often, no matter where he is. He is not emulating John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia and the man the Liberals just accused Harper of plagiarizing. According to the Star, after losing the 2004 election, Harper dispatched a staff member to study Howard's "successful campaign messaging and political marketing." (Allan Woods, The Toronto Star, 31 May 2008). Harper emulated these strategies and after his win, Howard's penchant for talking to regional media. But he didn't emulate Howard's openness to national political media.

This need to keep things secret extended to the public service as well. "Efforts to work around the bureaucracy and to guard information (have) increased while there seems to be less willingness to accept public service advice." said the Public Policy Forum report (Bruce Campion-Smith and Joanna Smith, The Toronto Star, 29 May 2008). This penchant gives the impression that Harper thinks it's him against the world, the world being the media and the public service. Whereas others have responded to this as a challenge -- Pierre Trudeau and Mulroney provided many entertaining moments as they butted heads with pundits yet still accomplished their big goals -- Harper seems to have turtled. He's supposed to be an intelligent guy, and intelligent guys generally thrive on debating and persuading people to their point of view. But clearly he believes that doing that will never net him a majority, and yet Trudeau and Mulroney had no trouble.

And then there's the idea of having a unified front, something that is more difficult to pick apart than if ministers speak for themselves. Some agree with his idea that his "imposition of disciplined, controlled message management projects an image of competence and ability." (Tonda MacCharles, The Toronto Star, 31 May 2008) I actually find it projects an image of incompetent Conservatives being kept on a tight leash so that they don't embarrass their leader; I've heard Tory supporters also theorize that Harper has weak people in his caucus, a strong impression that would not have formed if ministers of large portfolios had been allowed to speak for themselves, Maxime Bernier notwithstanding. He created this impression when he chose not to put in cabinet the one Tory MP everyone agreed was very competent. Maybe it's cause the MP was a she -- only females allowed are ditzes. Or maybe because she would have outshined him and not being kept quiet. Who knows!

Recently Julie Couillard said that Bernier complained that Harper was a dictator. So clearly, not everyone was happy with his controlling style.

For the last two plus years, his reversal of his promise of governmental transparency was aimed at the media and apparently at the public service.Tory supporters nodded their heads in approval because as everyone knows the media are all Liberal (I think CFRB would have something to say about that) and the public service are all Liberal lackeys. Yeah, OK. This idea is not quite so strong now, and is really rather silly as the media have supported Harper and some of his moves, even the controversial ones like income trust reversal, and in this election, they've focussed more on Stephane Dion's supposed weaknesses and have been pumping for Harper, declaring him Prime Ministerial and Dion as losing the election and wondering when Dion's head will be rolling. So anyway, except for some segments of the population, people weren't too hyped about Harper's controlling style, about him making more extreme the trend toward centralizing power in the Prime Minister's Office and taking it from Parliament, a trend started by Trudeau. We are a Parliamentary Democracy. The seat of governmental power was meant to be in the House, not the PMO. But never mind, Canadians essentially said as they shrugged their shoulders and considered four-year dictatorships inevitable. At least the Prime Minister would talk to them every four years.

Oh yeah.

This one doesn't. Have you noticed?

CFRB is probably the safest media haven for a die-hard Conservative. They offered one-hour live call-in shows to every leader. Elizabeth May, Jack Layton, Stephane Dion all took CFRB up on the offer, even knowing that the traditional 'RB audience would be hostile to them. The one man who probably would have gotten a soft ride refused. Instead Harper agreed to tape a soft interview with a reporter, one that was played today. The live one-hour shows all took place before the advance polls closed. Harper's interview was broadcast this morning, after all the advance and special ballot polls closed.

Strombo of The Hour invited all the leaders to appear on his show. Strombo is an entertaining interviewer. He asks challenging questions sometimes, but he's always sympathetic to whoever he's interviewing, and so no one in the chair opposite him could expect him to dump all over them. All the leaders trotted to his studio but Harper. Instead, Strombo's been regaling us with new nightly ways to entice Harper onto his show: Harper Bait '08. I personally liked the platform shoes the best. Harper remains silent.

The Agenda on TVO invited all the leaders on. Steve Paikin stick handled the English debate superbly, giving Harper all sorts of chances to rebut the accusations of the other members. Yet Harper, alone of all the leaders, refused to appear on The Agenda. Although Paikin is a penetrating interviewer, he's also supremely fair. He may've grilled Harper, but no more than the others, and he would have given him a fair shake. Anyway, Harper said no.

I didn't really see this trend of Harper not talking directly to us, the people of Canada, the people he's campaigning to lead, until last night when I was watching Peter Mansbridge interview Stephane Dion. Unlike the previous night when Mansbridge did a pre-taped feature interview with Harper, last night Dion took questions directly from Canadians live. In fact, all the leaders but Harper did a live "Your Turn" show. All the leaders but Harper answered taped questions from Canadians. All the leaders but Harper didn't know in advance what those questions from Canadians would be, just like the leaders that hosted a one-hour call-in show on 'RB didn't know what Canadians would ask.

Although Harper probably didn't know the questions Mansbridge would ask or the 'RB reporter, he would have had a fair idea as he's dealt with them or seen them in action for years. However, he would not have had a clue what complete strangers, strangers he's trying to entice to vote for him, would ask him. There's zero control in that sort of situation.

'Tis passing strange that Harper would take his need to control the message to the point that he won't even talk directly to Canadians in a public forum, he won't even take their questions, live or taped. He'll only talk to Canadians at Galas or banquets, where he's been invited to speak. Whether he takes questions from them, I don't know because they're only shown in clips by the media, when the RCMP allow the media to photograph the events that is. And, of course, no reporters are allowed to actually question and speak.

One other note: Harper didn't do his interviews on the national media -- 'RB or CBC with Mansbridge -- until after the advance polls closed. He didn't release his platform -- if you can call it that -- until after the advance polls closed. He ensured little information would get out about him and what his party will do if re-elected, prior to the advance polls. His negative campaign talked mostly about the others, not about himself or his platform. Only the debate showed more of him and his party's non-platform.

I don't know if it's true in general, but all the seniors I know have already voted, which meant that the segment of the population that's most likely to vote did so based on less information about Harper than those who will vote on election day. As for the other leaders, we've learnt a lot about them and their platforms already. They were out there from the get go. Still, there's more to learn about them as I realised when I watched Dion on "Your Turn" last night. But not as much as for Harper and the Conservatives. I only got the leaflet from my Conservative candidate today. How about you?

This peculiar Harper strategy, or controlling behaviour, whatever you want to call it, is worrisome to the health of our democracy. We cannot have a government run by one man. We need the wealth of ideas that the entire Parliament can generate. We need our MPs to have a leader that inspires them to rise to higher levels of competence. When we treat people like idiots or children, not trustworthy enough to speak, they tend to become stupider and more incompetent. When we treat people with respect and involve them in decisions and handling of issues, they grow, they become eager to get involved, they contribute to our governance in a way that adds to our country not detracts. I know this from organizations I've worked for or volunteered in. When the guy at the top treats you like an idiot, you become an idiot. When the guy treats you like a valued member of the team, you work hard to contribute and become better. We complain that our MPs don't represent us, they represent the party they belong to. Well, now the Tory MPs represent Harper and only Harper. Is that what we want, to devolve our democracy to a government of one?

Sitting governments don't have motivation to change. But we need a democratic revolution in our House. We need to reform our Parliament to ensure no one man (or woman, though with the current electoral system, hard to see a woman becoming PM) can ever take power to himself like this again. I don't know about you, but I want a PM who will talk to me and take my questions. I want a PM who believes in the value of Parliament. I want my democracy back.