In the last days of the campaign, Stephen Harper retired the attack ads for a simpler, more positive message. This election is not about me, he said, but as the result from Monday night’s vote confirmed, actually, it was a little bit about him. Making the campaign about him was just the way Harper wanted it, and it was his downfall as many commentators noted because while Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair leaned on their team, Harper always felt like a one man band. Now, in the aftermath of a blistering defeat, right-leaning Canadian politicos are wondering why, and they need only look to the man whose face and name had literally become synonymous with Canadian conservatism for the last 13 years.
The Prime Minister Designate did something unusual this afternoon: he held a press conference in the National Press Theatre. What a minute, you may say, we have a National Press Theatre? Yes, it’s where all types of Government of Canada press events have been held, and the Prime Minister of Canada hasn’t used it since 2007. Harper’s paranoia of the press bordered on absurd, but not using a room specifically designed for the purpose of communicating to the National Press Gallery is like saying you don’t want to eat in the mall food court despite your hunger because you don’t like the teenagers there. They may be loud, obnoxious, annoying, and they may look at you like you’re profoundly out of touch with anything to do with their reality, but their existence is a part of life you can’t ignore.
Now no one’s saying that a politician has to like the press. Indeed, there will come a day when Justin Trudeau will rather commit Harakiri than walk into that press room, but walk he will and walk he should. Much has been written about Harper’s press aversion: five questions a day on the campaign trail, no follow-ups leading to evasive answers than then have to become the soundbite, and if you wanted a one-on-one with Harper, TFB because not even his hometown newspaper has gotten a sit down with him in seven years. As for local candidates, they take the leader’s lead, if you should happen to have a line of communication to the Conservative campaign as a member of the press, you were far ahead of many of your colleagues.
Basically, this all adds up to secrecy. Too much of it. From the School of Karl Rove Campaign Tactics the media are the enemy, vanguard for the elite, and as left-wing as Joseph Stalin in a Karl Marx suit. Even Guelph’s own Conservative candidate Gloria Kovach threw shade on the media at the University of Guelph debate saying that former Justice Minister Peter MacKay had to explain the intricacies of Bill C-51 to her because she couldn’t get the “real story” from the media. In the end though, I’m not sure that jibes with the universal endorsement of the Conservatives by PostMedia, who also sold their front page to the governing party for ads that, at first glance, could be mistaken for Elections Canada rather than the Conservative Party. The Globe and Mail endorsed the Conservatives too, even if they quixotically did not endorse Stephen Harper as their leader.
But press bias is a good story, and it gives you a reason not to play ball with reporters. This short history of the Harper government relationship to the press though is just the long-winded version of one thing that Conservative politicians shouldn’t embrace again: absolute secrecy. From press relations, to the muzzling of scientists and civil servants, to the struggle to get Access to Information requests, Harper and his government seemed afraid of information, and what would happen if the people got their hands on it. It’s like the old British guy in a horror movie that tells you to beware of the curse.
The problem was so bad, that the civil service, long the whipping boy of governments trying to buck responsibility, actually protested. Scientists were out in the street demanding that they be given the courtesy of being able to talk about science when someone asks them a question on a matter of science. In many ways, this was worse than what politicians south of the border do where they blatantly refuse to believe the word of scientists, thus making it unnecessary to try and stifle them. It wasn’t always that way. Brian Mulroney, a Conservative PM, helped lead the charge against acid rain and the depleted ozone layer.
Ideology was a primary driver in changing all that. Why else would you close up a fresh water laboratory that is world-renowned and appreciated for the research it was doing? Or throwing out entire research libraries and forcing scientists to dumpster dive to save what they can? Or ending the long form census on which governments, businesses and planners depend on to get the complete demographic picture of the country? And if undermining actual research fails, you just blatantly tell lies, like many of Harper’s statements concerning marijuana, which he called more addictive and more dangerous than tobacco and alcohol despite all evidence to the contrary.
And that brings us to the niqab, the hill that Harper’s push for a fourth mandate died upon. That may be overly simplistic, but given the way that the Conservatives had so carefully and skillfully found ways to ingratiate themselves to the New Canadian community and build an alliance on mutual interests, it was the political equivalent of shooting themselves the foot. It wasn’t enough to demand that Muslim women show their face at citizenship ceremonies, and it wasn’t enough to seemingly proctor Syrian refugees for the non-Muslims, but an entire demographic of Canada’s population was demonized, and then literally attacked for political gain. I’d like to tell you how many that is, but you-know-who made that difficult.
In the end it was the whole bail-a-wick that turned the country against Harper so thoroughly. It was the secrecy, and the ideology, and the fear that people turned against. They saw these things in excess in the leader of this country and they didn’t like what that said to the world. It was a powerful moment today when Trudeau said that Canada was back. From being a climate evasive, to unilateral support for Israel, to being a founding partner in the War on ISIS, most of the country has felt that Canada just hasn’t been the same for about a decade now. Sadly, the next Conservative leader has to realize that too.
Typical Conservative principles like small government, low taxes, and security-minded defense hardly warrant science-denial and xenophobia. As we’re seeing in the United States, ideology is ruining the country’s ability to govern as a strong caucus of politicians driven solely on ideology have created an atmosphere where moderate politicians of the same party are hesitant to take up a role in party leadership. John Boehner, who retired because he could no longer deal with the “Hell No!” caucus, had to postpone his retirement when no wanted to step up and replace him.
It seems unlikely that the next leader of the Conservative Party will go for ideological purity in the same way as the Republicans. Harper’s gambit, which included the niqab argument and a last minute Hail Mary with the Fords, was doomed to failure because the people to whom those things mattered are always going to vote Conservative. There are people that like the idea of small government, but they also like the idea of smart government, and they also don’t like to be treated stupid.
Monday’s election wasn’t a rejection of conservatism so much as it was a rejection of a particular kind of conservatism. The thing that was holding Harper back since his first election in 2004 is the concern that he had a whole agenda that he wasn’t ever going to talk about. When people think you’re secretive, the only way to combat that is with openness, and really, Harper never learned to share. When he said that the responsibility for the election loss fell on him alone, he was right, and now looking to the future, would be well advised to not carry on his traditions if they want to return to power.