‘Harperizing’ our minds

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Apr 19 2011.   John Meisel

Among the many reasons that attitudes toward public issues in Canada are moving to the political and economic right, one is particularly intriguing. It is that Canadians — who may have originally been indifferent to some government policies and even rejected them — change their views once these programs are in place.

The abolition of capital punishment is the most striking example, but there are others: acceptance of gay marriage; generous immigration policies; and tolerance toward cultural and religious traditions of newcomers at variance with the mainstream. Thus attitudes are insinuated from the top down in response to leadership provided by political elites.

Historically, these elites were for the most part a powerful faction within the traditional governing party, the Liberals — exemplified by progressive thinkers like Walter Gordon, Tom Kent, Keith Davey, Monique Begin, Judy LaMarsh and other centre-left politicians. In international affairs, the likes of Lester Pearson and Lloyd Axworthy steered us on a peace-oriented, internationalist, humanitarian course.

The era of progressive Liberal leadership atrophied with the advent of the Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin governments. Since then, the Liberal party’s ideological vacuum and haphazard post-Chrétien leadership has opened the door to the almost diametrically opposed preferences of the Harper Conservatives.

One need only look at their positions on law and order; downgrading the United Nations as a key tenet of Canadian foreign policy, and their lack of respect for Parliament, the public service and regulatory agencies

There is no reason to assume that when a new government succeeds an existing one the pattern of top-down influence diminishes. Thus the “Harperization” of our minds has already kicked in. We are moving toward a more punitive approach on law and order and, rather than being peacekeepers, engage in dubious military interventions.

Likewise, we appear to be steadfast in our worship of market forces, increasingly distrust public institutions and are inclined to favour strong individualism. Witness the seeming acceptance by so many of the Harper government’s rationale for no longer making the long census form mandatory because it allegedly infringes individual basic rights.

It is dangerous to generalize on the basis of isolated cases, but the election of Rob Ford in Toronto and the Conservative party’s embrace of the professional tough cop Julian Fantino — and his immediate inclusion in the Harper cabinet — are suggestive.

We are witnessing the partial North Americanization of our perceptions. One example is the “presidentialization” of our parliamentary system, as evidenced in the unprecedented increase in the power not only of the Prime Minister, but also that of the Prime Minister’s Office.

This process finds expression in a directive the government issued this year commanding all federal departments to replace the phrase “Government of Canada” in their communications with “the Harper Government.” The language and imagery of Canadian government is being altered and time-honoured practices and institutions are being weakened.

It is not only what governments do that alters our minds, but also how they do it. The top-down acquisition of values and criteria for behaviour threatens the tone of policy debate and lowers it to unacceptably mean and shoddy levels. The governmental demonization of certain ideas or words may drive them underground and prevent fruitful discussion. Take “coalition.” Given existing political realities, being in a state of denial about the need for finding new ways of party co-operation prevents us from confronting and debating decisions that will likely become inescapable.

It is a moot point whether the process of opinion formation from the top down is merely happenstance or the result of insidious scheming by parties in power. There is, however, no doubt that one widespread, consciously pursued governmental practice is meant to shape what we think: government advertising.

Some public expenditures describing official programs are essential and legitimate. But all recent governments have spent substantial sums of money — the Conservatives three times as much as their predecessors — on ostensibly advertising government programs while in fact promoting their partisan and electoral advantage. Taxpayers pay for advertisements designed obliquely to “buy” their votes.

The $26-million ad campaign promoting the Conservative government’s Economic Action Plan, now virtually completed, is an example. Extensive “feel good” propaganda for it continues to be spread during the election campaign.

It follows from the above that whatever the outcome of this election, Stephen Harper’s party has already shaped some of the ideological context in which we conduct our national business.

John Meisel is Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Queen’s University. The views expressed in this article are his own. meiselj@queensu.ca

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