Review of Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper's New Conservative Agenda by

Book cover for Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper's New Conservative Agenda

Election time is just around the corner, and boy am I … not excited. I would dearly like to see a change in the party that forms the next government … but I am somewhat sceptical we will manage to bring that about. But this isn’t about how much I dislike what Stephen Harper has done to Canada. I wrote a blog post about that for Canada Day. This is a review of Dismantling Canada, by Brooke Jeffrey, and former Liberal policy adviser.

So let’s get our biases declared up front. Jeffrey, obviously sympathizes with the Liberal party and seems pretty liberal in her political leanings. Similarly, I tend to get placed quite left on the political spectrum, although I eschew associating myself with any particular party. There are elements of both the Liberal Party and the NDP I like, and there are elements of both parties I dislike. That’s one reason I love our Parliamentary system so much: the party in power, even in a majority, tends to have to work with the other parties in a somewhat collaborative way. Harper has worked very hard to change that and to poison the atmosphere on the Hill, one of many effects Jeffrey catalogues here.

If I’m already set against Harper, why bother reading this book? It’s not like I’m going to use the facts in here as fodder at dinner party conversations. I don’t go to dinner parties, and even if I did, I’m not the kind of person to stump for or against politicians in polite conversation. Instead, Dismantling Canada caught my eye because Jeffrey promised to explain Harper’s politics in the context of recent Canadian history. Although I was always somewhat aware of politics growing up, it wasn’t until Martin was on his way out that I was old enough to follow the political scene. I first voted in the 2008 federal election, so Harper has been Prime Minister for all of my voting life. (All seven long years of it.)

One point that Jeffrey makes clear is how Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada differs so much from the previous Conservative government led by Brian Mulroney. Those “Tories” where Progressive Conservatives and continued the conservative tradition that stretches back to Confederation. The current Conservative Party of Canada, on the other hand, is a result of the Reform Party (of which Harper was a founding member) merging with the Canadian Alliance. Both parties are far-right splinters of the former Progressive Conservatives; after they merged, they swallowed up the Progressive Conservatives to become our present-day Conservative Party. But somewhere along the way, there was a glitch in the matrix. Now former high-profile Progressive Conservatives have declared they’d rather have a Liberal government. That’s messed up. You know you’re Conserving … Conservating … whatever … wrong when Joe Clark tells you he’s voting Liberal.

And see, this was a cool detail that is probably obvious to people like my dad, who have lived through such regime changes, but was not so obvious to me. Harper’s Conservatives are, sadly, pretty much the only Conservatives I’ve ever known. So now I feel sorry for the people who have conservative or right-wing ideologies but don’t want to vote for Harper because of how he has managed the Conservative Party. Those people have even suckier options than liberals like myself who think even the NDP are too centrist for our taste….

So Jeffrey then takes Harper to task for not actually delivering on a lot of what typical conservatives would want from him. The Conservatives have always billed themselves as sound fiscal managers, yet there are numerous examples of how their fiscal policy doesn’t make sense. The government cut a lot of programs in an attempt to gut social welfare—and, OK, while I think that was a terrible move, I understand the ideology behind that. But there’s one example where the government announces, very abruptly, they are cancelling a program they themselves established a year previous, and then forcing the provinces to pay for a different program that fulfils somewhat the same purpose. Despite the fact that the original program was actually working and cost less. I won’t even get into how the Liberals left the next government with a surplus … which has somehow become a deficit on the Conservative watch, despite their constant trimming and slashing of government-funded agencies. Just where is all this money going, anyway?

We don’t know, because the party that campaigned against a corruption-riddled Liberal government on a platform of accountability and transparency is anything but. Harper is running a dark show, one where Access to Information is scarce and expensive, and the government routinely ignores and maligns the Parliamentary Budget Officer and other watchdogs it created. Ottawa is on the verge of tipping into a bizarre, Orwellian universe.

The other running theme throughout this book is an analysis of Harper’s ideology versus his pragmatism. Jeffrey points out that one reason he has been so successful is an evolving willingness to sideline his ideology if it’s more practical to do so. She illustrates how the earlier Harper didn’t do this, but as time went by and he rose to prominence again as a politician, he has changed his tune. He still isn’t quite willing to engage in diplomacy, as his deplorable treatment of the UN shows. Nevertheless, Harper seems content to pursue his agenda more slowly than he might like if he thinks it will win him some votes in the next election.

Dismantling Canada is really well written. Despite being very information dense, I had an easy time getting through it, at least until the very end, when I could see that the end was in sight and Jeffrey was reiterating a lot of what came before. As far as Jeffrey’s own biases go, she obviates them to a great extent simply through her use of facts. You can debate the merits of the Harper government, but you can’t deny they now run a massive deficit. (You can only try to hide the fact, or mislead the public….) And she’s quick to point out that Harper’s rise to power owes a great deal to incompetence and corruption within the Liberal ranks (though I suppose, in its own way, this is a backhanded compliment acknowledging the Liberals the “natural governing party”.) I think the only really jarring part comes at the very end. After a somewhat tedious chapter about the Conservative brand, Jeffrey launches into the conclusion, where she tries to determine whether Harper has succeeded with his agenda yet. She concludes he has made a lot of strides politically but has not yet succeeded in changing the culture of Canada. The last few sentences are an abrupt and optimistic change from the rest of the book, which quite frankly reads as incredibly depressing.

I’m not sure, then, how such wishful thinking can follow from everything else that comes before. We just don’t have the data to know if a majority of Canadians agree with Harper’s vision now—thanks for screwing up the census, Harper. Political polls are notoriously unreliable, as is our electoral system, which is first-past-the-post and now disenfranchises voters who are less likely to vote Conservative. So, you know, there’s that. Obviously both Jeffrey and myself would like it to be true that Canada remains a more liberal place, but confirmation bias is a bitch.

I guess we’ll see what October has in store for us. Dismantling Canada went to press well before the surprise NDP victory in Alberta. Jeffrey discounts the NDP, mentioning them here only a few times, and only in passing, as historical interest. She’s quite convinced the Liberals under Trudeau are Harper’s true competition (and that was probably the case up until a few months ago). Whether the NDP’s prominence means they could form the next government, or if they will split the vote and pave the way for another Conservative government, remains to be seen. I cannot be as sanguine as the conclusion of this book is, especially not after reading it.

This is full of details that will make a political junkie happy (although a Harperite who doesn’t want their convictions questioned won’t like it). It’s fairly well-written—predictably, somewhat on the dry side, but less so than I feared when I picked it up off the library shelf. And it provides a lot of good historical context, especially for younger people like myself who are only just getting into the whole election thing.

Engagement

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