A Little Dubya Up in Canada: 70 Ways Prime Minister Harper Has Assaulted Democracy
Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have racked up dozens of serious abuses of power since forming government in 2006. From scams to smears to monkey-wrenching opponents to intimidating public servants, some offences are criminal, others just offend human decency.
Last week we published 59 examples in two parts, and asked our readers to suggest any we may have missed. Among the many suggestions we gratefully received, we concluded that 11 more meet the criteria for "abuses of power." Today we compile all 70 items into one omnibus of abuse by the Stephen Harper government.
Thanks, once more, to friends of The Tyee who helped with this list.
SECTION I. ABUSING PARLIAMENT: SABOTAGE, SCANDALS, CORRUPTION AND CONTEMPT
This section includes examples of willful misgoverning by the PM and his team, 31 times they have lied, flouted rules and stymied democracy to achieve political and ideological ends.
1. PMO Tied to Senate Hush Money Scandal
An RCMP affidavit reported widespread involvement by PMO staffers in a secret payment to Senator Mike Duffy to try and make a political problem go away. The Senate expenses scandal brought on allegations of a cover-up, a breach of the public trust, and a whitewashing of a Senate report. The PMO was found to have hand in the altering of a damning Deloitte audit.
2. Harper Found in Contempt of Parliament
For refusing to disclose information on the costing of programs to Parliament, which Parliament was entitled to receive, the Harper government became the first in Canadian history to be foundin contempt of Parliament.
3. Against Court Order, Refusal to Share Budget Info
Even though it lost a court case and was ordered to comply, the Harper government nevertheless refused to share 170 times reasons and impacts for cuts with Canada's independent budget watchdog, mocking Parliament's right to control the public purse.
4. Conservative Cabinet Staffers Granted Immunity from Testimony
A PMO edict absolved political staffers from ever having to testify before parliamentary committees.
5. Conservatives Falsify Reports and Documents
Among documents deliberately altered in the writing or the quoting by the government: CIDA document by Bev Oda's office on Kairos; the Senate Committee Report on the Duffy affair; a report by former auditor general Sheila Fraser on financial management.
6. Repeated Duplicity in Afghan Detainees Controversy
Among the abuses: Parliament was misled and denied documents. An inquiry was shut down. Tories attempted to discredit diplomat Richard Colvin whose testimony diverted from the government's line.
7. Repeated Duplicity on Costing of F-35 Fighter Jets
8. Harper Minister Lies, Blames Statistics Canada for Killing Long Form Census
Under fire for Conservatives killing the long form census, Industry Minister Tony Clement falsely stated that StatsCan backed the idea and assured the voluntary substitute would yield valid statistical data. Neither was true, outraged StatsCan sources confirmed.
9. Conservative MP Admits He Lied to Parliament
As opposition members claimed the Harper government was out to rig election rules in its favour, Conservative MP Brad Butt rose in the House of Commons to say why the bill was needed -- all the voter fraud he had personally witnessed. Weeks later he rose again to say his statements were false. Delivering his strained apology, he failed to explain why he lied in the first place.
10. Conservative House Leader Admits to Mockery of Question Period
Criticized far and wide for farcical answers in question period, Paul Calandra, parliamentary secretary to Harper, made a tearful apology for abuse of the democratic process.
11. Harper Maligns the Supreme Court Chief Justice
12. Conservatives Engage in Abuse of Process with Omnibus Bills
Harper's party pushed legislation through Parliament via omnibus bills, the scale of which Parliament had never seen. Such bills are widely condemned as an abuse of the democratic process, because they blend and bury so many controversial laws within one dense package. Harper himself once railed against them, and his born again love for them made his own MPs queasy. Referencing such bills, former auditor general Sheila Fraser said that "Parliament has become so undermined that it is almost unable to do the job that people expect of it."
13. Harperites Deliberately Sabotage, Stymie Committee System
Conservatives used tactics such as barring witnesses, closure, time limitations, and in camera sessions to an extent rarely, if ever, witnessed in Canada. In their early days in power, top Conservatives prepared a handbook instructing committee chairpersons how to obstruct proceedings.
14. Harper's Own MPs Protest Muzzling
In a caucus known for his tight discipline, in 2014 some members finally rose up to contest being censored at question period by the Prime Minister's Office. Former Conservative backbencher Brent Rathgeber turned independent and published a book, Irresponsible Government, decrying anti-democratic practices.
15. Conservative Bill Rewrites History to Protect Mounties from Potential Criminal Charges
To protect the RCMP, the government retroactively made an old bill come into force before it was passed by Parliament.
16. Harper Minister Caught in Advertising Scam with Public Funds
The Globe and Mail revealed that Harper's chosen Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre commissioned a team of public servants for overtime work on a Sunday to film him glad-handing constituents. The vanity video on the taxpayer dime was to promote the government's benefits for families.
17. Corrupt Conservative Cronies
The Senate scandal is just the latest eruption of crony corruption in Harperite ranks. Take Bruce Carson. He was a convicted fraudster before Harper made him a key advisor in the PMO. There, Carson was lobbied for money for a new University of Calgary eco-think tank. He then left the PMO to run the same think tank, converting it to an oil industry booster with a $15-million grant from the Harper government. The complex saga added one more criminal charge to others Carson faces for allegedly illegally working his connections with the Harper government.
18. Access to Information System Impeded
Many new roadblocks have been put up by the Harper Conservatives. Former Information Commissioner Robert Marleau concluded that having obtained absolute power, the prime minister "has absolutely abused that power to the maximum."
19. The Silencing of the Public Service
The PMO took an unprecedented step in instituting a system wherein the bureaucracy has all its communications vetted by the political nerve centre. The policy contribution role of the public service is significantly reduced. Complaints from insiders allege that the Privy Council office has become increasingly politicized.
20. Loyalty Oaths Imposed on Public Servants
21. Harper Government Sued by Justice Department Whistleblower
Time and again the Harper government propose bills that end up being shot down by the courts, prompting critics to say such legislation is more about making political statements than lasting policy. The wasted efforts bothered senior justice department lawyer Edgar Schmidt so much he finally suedthe government for breaking the law by inadequately evaluating whether proposed bills violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He was promptly suspended without pay.
22. Conservatives Block Accreditation for Opposition MPs
In another example of partisanship taken to new heights, the PMO blocked opposition members from being accredited for international environment conferences and from visiting military bases.
23. Tactic Borrowed from North Korea's Dear Leader
Ostensibly neutral public servants were used as stooges, falsely posing as new citizens in a staged Citizenship Renewal public relations exercise by the Immigration Department. Media critics had a field day comparing the charade to practices undertaken by North Korean dictators.
24. Clampdown on Freedom of Speech of Diplomatic Corps
Ottawa's diplomats must get all communications approved from Conservative political operatives. Under Harper, the country's ambassadors are hardly heard from any more. In a recent speech, former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis said our political culture under the Conservatives has descended into "a nadir of indignity."
25. Marine Science Libraries Decimated
The Harper government's downsizing of federal libraries included sudden closing of seven world famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans archives. A leaked memo revealed the destruction and consolidation would save less than half a million dollars. Scientist patrons of the libraries, who witnessed chaotic chucking of rare literature, called it a "book burning" with no logical purpose other than to restrict environmental information. The Harper government claimed vital works would be digitally preserved, but never provided a plan or cost for doing so, nor any proof it had happened. No scientists interviewed by The Tyee believed digitizing would or could replace what was lost.
26. UN Blasts Canada's Treatment of Immigrants
Changes made to the Canada's immigration and refugee system under Harper were investigated by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, whose report blasted how thousands of migrants are detained indefinitely without due process, many for over a year or more, as well as poor mental health support for those incarcerated.
27. Harper Government Denies Khadr Basic Rights
Defying court rulings, the Conservative government refused to accord Omar Khadr basic rights such as access to media. Editorialists of right and left persuasion described the move as unbefitting a democratic government.
28. Illegitimate Prorogation of Parliament, Twice
Prorogations are a legitimate procedure that can be abused depending on motivations. The Harper government provoked 60 protests across Canada and beyond its borders in 2010 after shutting the legislature's doors to escape condemnation on the Afghan detainees' file. It was the second prorogation in a year's period.
29. Undue Interference with Independent Agencies
Command and control system was extended to meddling in bodies like National Energy Board and CRTC whose arms-length autonomy is significantly reduced. A special target was the Parliamentary Budget Office, which was hit with condemnations and budget cuts for its critical reports.
30. Billions Borrowed without Parliament's Permission
The auditor general sounded alarms about the "prodigious" growth and size of federal borrowing. Those billions in "non-budgetary" spending used to get Parliament's oversight, but no more. The finance minister can borrow what he wants without Parliament's permission. Why? A loophole buried in a 2007 Harper omnibus bill.
31. Lapdogs Appointed as Watchdogs
The most controversial was the case of former Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet. Her office reviewed more than 200 whistleblowing cases. Disciplinary action followed on none of them. Ouimet's own angry staffers blew the whistle on their boss. The auditor general foundOuimet intimidated her employees, took "retaliatory action" against them and may have breached their privacy, all part of the Harper appointee's "gross mismanagement." Ouimet was paid more than $500,000 to leave her post.
SECTION II: 'HARPER BRAND' ABUSES: LIES, SPIES, AND THIS PORK SMELLS REALLY BAD
This election began the minute the last one ended. Since his first day as PM, Stephen Harper has reinforced his party's 'brand' by rewarding cronies, slapping the Conservative logo on government cheques, perfecting the no questions photo-op, instructing bureaucrats to start calling Canada's government "the Harper Government." The flip side has been relentless monitoring, muzzling and attacks on anyone who might tarnish the image. Here are 22 instances of power abused to build the Harper brand.
32. PMO Attempts to Cover up Video Leak Putting Troops at Risk
On an Iraq visit, the PMO was caught lying to try and cover up the leak of a promo video, which constituted a security breach. The PMO, noted a National Post editorial, "stumbled from blunder to evasion and falsehood in the service of shamelessly manipulative partisanship, especially in using our troops as PR props."
33. The 'Harper Government' Labelling Deception
Public servants were told to use "Harper Government" instead of "Government of Canada" in publicity releases. The Conservatives denied it was happening -- until internal memos revealedby the Canadian Press revealed the denial to be without basis.
34. Conservatives Place Party Logos on Government of Canada Cheques
Once "caught red-handed," they backed off. The federal ethics commissioner, adopting the exasperated tone of an adult lecturing a child, noted: "Public spending announcements are government activities, not partisan political activities, and it is not appropriate to brand them with partisan or personal identifiers."
35. Record Amounts of Partisan Political Advertising, on the Public Purse
Several media reports told how the Conservatives used taxpayer money for partisan political advertising in record quantity, costing the public treasury $750 million since Harper became PM. In one instance, the Tories spent lavishly on ads for the promotion of a jobs grant program that had yet to be made public or presented to parliament or the provinces. Even more nakedly partisan, a mailed blast, charged to the taxpayers, targeting Justin Trudeau.
36. Conservatives Stack Their Own Ridings with Infrastructure Funds
In a display of brazen pork barreling, the Conservatives arranged for no less than 83 percent of infrastructure fund projects go to Conservative ridings.
37. $50 Million Spending Deception as Documented by the Auditor General
The auditor general ruled Conservatives diverted $50-million from spending slated for border infrastructure to political spending on projects in Tony Clement's riding at the time of the G-8 summit. Parliament was willfully misled.
38. Patronage Run Amok
After promising a new way, the prime minister dismantled his newly created Public Appointments Commission and reverted to old-styled patronage by the barrel. In June 2015, the PM made 98 patronage appointments. That included stocking the National Capital Commission with loyalists in advance of decisions on the controversial monument to the victims of communism.
39. Undermining Statistics Canada, Killing Data
40. Government Muzzles Science Community
Top scientists came under such heavy monitoring by the Conservatives that they staged "Death of Evidence" protests for being denied freedom of speech. The Conservatives sent out chaperones or "media minders" to track Environment Canada scientists and report on them.
41. Like Never Before, Limits Placed on Media Access
Journalists have been hard-pressed to recall another time when controls put on them were so tight. At the Conservatives' 2013 Calgary convention, reporters wrote of being harassed and penned in at every turn by the PMO's command and control system. In his book Killing The Messenger, journalist Mark Bourrie charts the many examples of new limits on freedom of speech introduced in the Harper era.
42. Harper's Team Tries to Ban Journalist for Asking Question
Veteran TV cameraman Dave Ellis covered a Harper speech about oil to a business audience. Though media had been instructed no questions allowed, Ellis posed one about charges laid against a Conservative MP. The PMO tried to punish Ellis and his network by kicking him off covering Harper's trip to Malaysia. After media hue and cry, Harper backed down and Ellis went.
43. Harper Minister Sucker Punches CBC Budget
After the 2011 federal election Heritage Minister James Moore assured Conservatives would "maintain or increase support for the CBC. That is our platform and we have said that before and we will commit to that." The next year, Harper's Cons delivered the biggest government cut to CBC since the mid-1990s, much deeper in proportion than overall trims to federal programs, defying public sentiment.
44. Suppression of Research
In the gun registration debate, incriminating research and documents such as a Firearms Report were deliberately withheld from the public. While ramping up their prison building, Conservatives suppressed related research and studies contradicting their political priorities.
45. The Vic Toews Porno Smear
In a vivid example of the browbeating of opponents, the minister of public safety said anyone who opposed federal plans to make electronic surveillance of Canadians easier for authorities was siding with child pornographers.
46. Harper's Fallen Soldiers Blackout
Emulating George W. Bush's optics tactics, Stephen Harper banned media coverage of fallen soldiers' caskets returning from Afghanistan. He also refused to lower the flag half-mast. Soldiers' family members expressed confusion and anger at the perceived show of disrespect.
47. Protesters Put under Blanket Surveillance
According to a leaked memo, as part of its command and control approach, the Conservatives have approved a system wherein all advocates, protesters and demonstrations can be monitoredby authorities. The Government Operations Centre has requested federal departments to assist it in compiling a comprehensive inventory of protesters. Security specialists have called it a breach of Canadians' Charter of Rights. Conservatives have moved to give CSIS even more powers than the spy agency wants.
48. Rights and Democracy, Other Groups, Dismantled
In a show of brute force, the Montreal-based group Rights and Democracy was pole-axed for its alleged political leanings and eventually disbanded. Organizations like the church group Kairoswere de-budgeted or dismantled for political leanings. Nuclear Safety Commission head Linda Keen was dumped. Among the complaints cited by the PM was that in her distant past, she had some Liberal ties.
49. Harper Government Spied on Aboriginal Critic, 'Retaliated'
Aboriginal child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock was spied on by the Harper government, and when she arrived for a meeting with other First Nations leaders at the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs only she was barred entry. Finding Blackstock had been "retaliated" against by a ministry official, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal awarded her $20,000 for pain and suffering.
50. Revenue Canada Loosed to Attack Charities
Not all charities, just the ones that don't seem adequately aligned with the Harper brand. Enough to include many environmental, aid, human rights and free speech charities that banded together to push back against what looks like a politically motivated witch hunt.
51. Conservatives Use Unheard of Tactic to Force through Anti-Union Bill
Conservative senators went to the unprecedented extent of overruling their own Speaker. What could be so important to break Senate rules? A bill pushed by Harper that is almost certainly unconstitutional for its privacy invading measures forced onto unions, unlike other groups. Latest in a steady stream of Conservative attacks on organized labour in Canada.
52. Harper Smears Liberal Sikh MP, Insinuating Tie to Terrorism
When Liberals opposed a 2007 Conservative plan to extend anti-terror legislation, Stephen Harper singled out Grit MP Navdeep Bains, seeming to suggest that Bains' party was motivated by a desire to protect Bains' father-in-law, Darshan Singh Saini. A recent news story had claimed Singh Saini was on a list of witnesses sought by the RCMP for its Air India investigation, but provided no proof he was involved. In the House, Liberals erupted with outrage and Bains asked, in vain, that Harper apologize.
53. Veterans' Advocates Smeared
Medical files of Sean Bruyea, a strong advocate for veterans' rights, were leaked in a case that privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart described as "alarming." Veterans Affairs Canada ombudsman Pat Stogran was dumped after criticizing the government.
SECTION III: ELECTION ABUSES: SCAMS, SLIMES, STINGS AND CROOKED SPENDING
Stephen Harper's Conservatives have made federal elections a gladiators' arena where anything goes -- unless and until you are caught, that is. Here are 17 times his team violated election laws or ethics.
54. Conservatives Run Undercover Sting Operations
Conservatives secretly recorded political opponents and also used agent provocateur techniques to try and entrap them. A sting operation against Marlo Raynolds, a Liberal candidate in Alberta, was backed by then employment minister Jason Kenney.
55. Conservative Convicted on Robocalls Scam
Tory operative Michael Sona was given jail time for his role in the robocalls scam. The judge indicated more than one person was likely involved. In another court judgment in a case brought by the Council of Canadians, the ruling said the robocalls operation was widespread, not just limited to the Guelph riding. Donald Segretti who did dirty tricks for the Nixon White House told a Canadian reporter his skullduggery didn't go so low as to run schemes sending voters to the wrong polling stations.
56. Harper's Ex-Parliamentary Secretary Jailed for Breaking Election Law
Dean Del Maestro was one of Harper's favourites. As his parliamentary secretary, the PM frequently used him as an attack dog to allege misdeeds by opposition members. Del Maestro was given a jail sentence in June for his own election spending violations.
57. 'Reprehensible' Dirty Tricks Campaign against Irwin Cotler
58. Conservatives Bar Crosbie Candidacy
In a clear-cut case of the party hierarchy's undercutting of democratic rights, Ches Crosbie, son of former Tory cabinet minister John Crosbie, was barred from running for the party in Newfoundland.
59. Election Violations Prompt Resignation of Cabinet Member
60. Conservatives Attempt Election Campaign Frame-up
In an attempted smear in the last week of the 2011 election campaign, a senior Harper strategist planted a false story in Sun Media that Michael Ignatieff was an Iraq war planner. (Neither Conservative operatives nor Sun Media opted to make hay with the true story that Stephen Harper had, while leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2003, published a letter in The Wall Street Journal itching to get Canada into that disastrous war and slamming then PM Jean Chretien for saying no.)
61. Harper's Office Deploys Interns for Dirty Tricks
In one instance that brought on allegations of Nixonian tactics, junior PMO staffers in the guise of normal citizens were sent out to disrupt a Justin Trudeau speech.
62. Citizens Ejected from Conservative Rallies
Tory operatives hauled out citizens from a Harper rally in the 2011 campaign because they had marginal ties to other parties. A spokesperson for the PM was compelled to apologize. Problem fixed this time around: Only fully vetted Harper supporters will be allowed, by invite only, to attend the PM's campaign stops. If they have a ticket.
63. Conservatives Make Campaign Event Attendees Sign Gag Order
64. Conservatives Unfix Their Own Fixed Date Election Law
In 2008, Harper pulled the plug on his own government, violating his own new law, which stipulated elections every four years.
65. Guilty Plea on In and Out Affair
The Conservative Party and its fundraising arm pled guilty to some Elections Act charges stemming from their exceeding spending limits in the 2006 campaign. The investigation cost taxpayers over $2 million.
66. Cons' Elections Bill Strips Power from Elections Canada
The Fair Elections Act also makes it harder for Canadians to vote as more ID is required. Nationwide protests in which more than 400 academics took part forced Pierre Poilievre to withdraw some measures in the bill because of their alleged anti-democratic bent.
67. Harper Minister Smears Head of Elections Canada
68. Copyright Grab for Attack Ads
CTV News found out Conservatives aimed to rewrite copyright law to let political parties grab any media content and use it for free in their ads. The impact, warned CTV's Don Martin, "will be to cast a chill on every broadcast appearance" by MPs, commentators and reporters, who "must now be aware their views could end up featured in a political attack ad." By asserting "unlimited access to the airwaves for propaganda purposes," Martin said, the Harper government "could be seen as flirting with fascism."
69. Conservatives Use Terrorists' Propaganda in Attack Ad
Harper's party created a political ad incorporating music and horrifying images of doomed captives pulled straight from the Islamic State's own promotional video. The target: Justin Trudeau, whose views on the risks and rewards of bombing ISIS differ from Harper's.
70. Record Use of Personal Attack Ads
Under Harper's leadership, Conservatives became the first to routinely use personal attacks ads outside an election writ period. Their ads often used quotes deliberately taken out of context. Incidence of attack ads by Harper Conservatives was heavier than by any other government.