Stephen Harper’s ‘enemies list’ a reason to worry
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – The PMO ‘enemies list’ is yet more evidence of the Stephen Harper government’s tendency towards paranoia, secretiveness and bullying.
Jul 18 2013.
At the risk of being added to the Harper government’s recently discovered “enemies list,” let’s consider why the existence of such a document should give us all pause.
As Susan Delacourt and Bruce Campion Smith reported this week , the Prime Minister’s Office is providing newly shuffled Conservative ministers with a rather unusual transition document. The binders reportedly include not only standard details such as “What to expect soon” and “Who to appoint,” but also “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders” and “What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects.” And originally, but later rescinded, staff were asked to enumerate “bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer.” In short, the PMO instructed ministerial aides to compile a list of enemies.
Incoming ministers clearly need to be briefed on their new portfolios, including the push-back and obstacles they’re likely to face. But the PMO’s derisive and adversarial tone is rightly ringing alarm bells.
Brent Rathgeber, the independent MP who resigned from the Conservative caucus in June, called the language “very, very troubling,” adding: “We can have respectful discussions and disagree with each other without resorting to name-calling or vilification.”
Even former environment minister Peter Kent, a long-time Harper toady,was unsettled by the “juvenile” with-us-or-against-us frame . “That was the nomenclature used by [former U.S. president Richard] Nixon,” he said. “His political horizon was divided very starkly into friends and enemies. The use of the word ‘enemies list,’ for those of us of a certain generation, it evokes nothing less than thoughts of Nixon and Watergate.”
The comparison to Nixon is unsettling. The disgraced former president was thought to view dissenters as adversaries to be destroyed rather than debated. The enemies list is just the latest piece of evidence that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a tendency to think the same way.
Those on the list have reason to worry. Much has been made of this government’s habit of defunding NGOs when they become critical of Conservative policies. The same has been done to independent government agencies, such as the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, which recommended a carbon tax despite the government’s opposition and was then killed. Were these long-respected bodies “enemy stakeholders”? Does the same fate await the people and organizations on the government’s enemies list as did these NGOs and agencies? A government doesn’t keep an enemies list for no reason.
And what about when, as so often happens, public servants come to the government with advice, based on the best science and evidence, that it doesn’t want to hear? Will the widely ignored evidence-based counsel in Justice, Environment Canada or Fisheries and Oceans be dismissed as “pet bureaucratic projects” to be avoided? And will parliamentarians who ask the tough questions they are intended to ask be added to the list?
During a week in which Harper likely hoped for headlines about his government’s reinvigorated, fresh-faced new cabinet, the shuffle was instead overshadowed by yet more evidence of some of the very political vulnerabilities it was meant to address : the government’s paranoia, secretiveness and bullying. Those qualities have often served the government well politically. But the fact that Harper was unable to suppress them even when it would have been politically expedient to do so suggests just how deep-seated they are.
That bodes badly. It’s precisely that black-and-white, loyalists-and-traitors worldview that has made enemies not just of particular public servants and parliamentarians, but also of public service and Parliament in general — of evidence and debate. The government’s enemies list is the consequence of the same attitude that led Nixon and so many leaders before him to transgress and then fall. If democracy itself had an enemies list, that attitude would be on it.
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