Article and art by Geoff Olson
I have a dream. A recurring nightmare, actually.
It always begins with me in a Tory re-education camp, sharing a bunk bed with Province cartoonist Dan Murphy. Without warning, I’m dragged from my mattress and frogmarched off to art class by a steroid-inflated Rex Murphy look-alike in camouflage pants. Sticking a brush in my hand, he points to a blank canvas and barks an order. I must paint a flattering portrait in oils of the Prime Minister-for-life. In a few dreamlike instants, I’m finished. Stephen Harper stands proudly in white military uniform decorated with glittering medals. His helmet hair is topped with a peaked cap, his rosebud lips pursed in concentration. His gun-metal grey eyes look off to the distance, an arm raised in salute to a sea of Canadians dressed in rags. A formation of F-35s hangs in the sky, with the Parliament buildings reduced to smoking rubble in the background. In the upper left corner, a bearded God looks down from the clouds and gives the thumbs-up signal.
The dream always ends the same way. Giddy with paint fumes, I sign the canvas “Leonardo di Squeegee” in a token act of resistance. I’m slapped and dragged off to solitary confinement, with nothing for company but a tin cup and the collected works of Mark Steyn.
I could say that Harper and his rebranded Conservative party have been a great gift to some political cartoonists – but not for me. Sure, his serial offences in Parliament make for great material at the drafting board (what’s bad for the public is usually good for the pen), but drawing the doughy, blank-faced occupant of 24 Sussex Drive is like trying to bottle fog.
Anyway, back to my dream. It’s in jest, but there’s a real political nightmare to inspire it. At this point, after all the news reports of deception and deceit by the Harper government, I have to wonder who would still vote for a member of Parliament who reports to this dude. The thought that some pro-Harper voters haven’t been paying attention is scary enough. What’s scarier is the thought that some have.
The other scary thing is the free ride given to the Prime Minister by the national press. When the House Speaker ruled the Conservative government in contempt of Parliament, there seemed to be a collective shrug among commentators and pundits. Radio and television news should have hammered on this historic first like the ‘Commonwealth Drum Festival.’ There should have been screaming, 72-point headlines in the newspapers for days and planes trailing banners in the sky, reading, “Harper in Contempt of Parliament,” “Canadian Leader Defecates on Democracy” and “Prime Minister Now Officially a Great Bejayus of a Puckered Anus.”
I don’t have the space or the stomach to list all the offences the Harper government crowbarred into six years. So here’s a brief recap of the most recent, starting with the PM’s romance with men in uniform. He’s ‘Best Subarctic Friend Forever’ to military lobbyists; in October 2010, Auditor General Sheila Fraser found the federal government had violated federal rules and regulations by earmarking $4.9 billion for 15 helicopters, an order placed without competition. Now dig deep into your pockets, you taxpaying schmucks, for $29 billion to buy 65 useless fighter jets. Actually, the real cost of those fighters is unknown. Harper won’t tell you. It’s part of that whole “contempt of Parliament” thing he’s got going on, but don’t bother protesting it. Under his reign, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms might as well be a shooting range target.
Arms, armoured vehicles, singing gigs at Tory functions and campaign stops, a big fat finger directed at voters paying for his publicly-pimped ride to the polls – what’s next, a rap video?
There is no end in sight to our mission-free mission in Afghanistan. Harper has reneged on a promise to withdraw all Canadian troops from the nation by 2011, without allowing the matter to go to a vote in the House. Then there’s his position on Israel – on bended knee. From the attacks in the occupied territories to Israel’s 2006 bombing raids in Lebanon, his friends in the Mideast can do no wrong. Harper saves the withdrawing of support for his own people: women’s groups, aboriginals and non-governmental organizations. Look hard enough at some recent domestic Canadian disasters and you often find Tory fingerprints near the crime scene. Some critics say even on lunchmeat. Three years ago, Luc Pomerleau, a biologist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency came across secret government plans to weaken regulations and allow the meat industry to conduct their own safety inspections. He leaked the news and was promptly fired in July 2008. The listeriosis meat outbreak followed, from August to December 2008, killing 17 Canadians.
It just goes on and on, an eye-glazing catalogue of nastiness, corruption and institutionalized idiocy: the transformation of Canada’s international image from peacekeeper to torture-enabler. The caging and physical abuse of demonstrators and other civilians at the G20 meeting, with the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history. The deceit about the money spent on that meeting. The surveillance and removal of schoolgirls from Tory campaign stops. The gagging of Environment Canada scientists. Mandatory minimum prison sentences for minor drug offences. Building more prisons in a time of lowered crime rates. The breaking of election spending laws.
The only positive thing you can say of the Harper reign is that it would make one hell of a Broadway musical by the guys behind South Park.
Harper himself is something of a black box. He plays his cards close to the chest and there’s good reason for that. For decades, he has belonged to the Alliance Church, a body that won’t ordain women, denounces homosexuality, strongly opposes abortion and divorce and believes Christ will return during the Apocalypse. Evangelical Christians recognize the PM as one of their own, but there’s no political capital to be made by admitting his religious beliefs explicitly since that would alienate the majority of voters.
If you want a peek into the man’s cobwebbed, pre-Enlightenment mind, look to the speech he gave in 1997 to a conservative American religious group, when Harper was with the far-right National Citizens Coalition. He told the crowd that Canada is “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” Prior to the emergence of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, he said the Progressive Conservatives “were in favour of gay rights officially, officially for abortion on demand. Officially? what else can I say about them? Officially for the entrenchment of our universal, collectivized, health-care system and multicultural policies in the constitution of the country.”
What scares me isn’t any one of the Tory policies. It’s the sum of them that show their leader aims to build a bridge to the nineteenth century. But ultimately Harper is a bobblehead, even if the Prime Minister’s Office has been sending out directives to change “The Government of Canada” to “The Harper Government” on federal communications. This is much bigger than personalities, although the corporate elite would prefer we keep thinking it isn’t. This is about the political culture that spawned the party that swept him into power and an associated network of right-wing think tanks, politically connected evangelical groups, American lobbyists and national media apparatchiks.
My true nightmare is this: the endgame is approaching for the Canada of Lester Pearson and Tommy Douglas. The process began in the late eighties with Preston Manning’s Reform party, which managed to become the Official Opposition in 1997, in part through its Bible Belt populism. In 2000, it voted itself out of existence and was replaced by the Canadian Alliance – essentially, a rebranding. In 2002 the Canadian Alliance elected Harper as leader.
There was still work to do. At the 2003 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, leadership candidate David Orchard brokered a deal with candidate Peter MacKay, sending delegates his way with the condition there would be no merger talks with the Alliance. It was a signed agreement. In October 2003, MacKay and Stephen Harper signed an agreement in principle to merge the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance to form the new Conservative Party of Canada.
No one talks about this simple fact: the rebranded Tory party was midwived by a broken promise. It was and is a legislative lie, born and raised in a political brothel. It has taken decades for far-right interests to get one of their own into the Prime Minister’s office and all they need now is just one thing to complete their public sector vanishing act: a Conservative majority in the House of Commons.
“All our options are terrible, that’s why I don’t vote; what’s the point if it’s between a giant douche and a turd sandwich?” an anonymous correspondent wrote me recently. I appreciate the sentiment, which is widespread, but I can’t abide the indifference. True, there is no guarantee this country is going to do a great deal better with Liberal leader Ignatieff at the helm. At a certain level, federal elections are sound-and-fury spectacles for the media owners and their customers. But given the stakes involved, it’s too risky to shrug and say the two leaders are the same, as well as their parties. Not only that, NDP leader Jack Layton and Green leader Elizabeth May are as different from the frontrunners as maple syrup is from overproof rum. Our menu of electoral options, while hardly inspiring, are still better than the prison grub offered US voters every four years.
Democracies, like houseplants, wither and die from neglect. I don’t know what else to say, other than to direct some final words to any younger readers who have miraculously reached the bottom of an1,800-word rant.
Hey, you. Yes, you. Your vote is critical this election. The ‘Tory Death Star’ wasn’t constructed just to troll through your Facebook accounts and triangulate camera-friendly mothers with narcotized babies. It’s preparing a giant tractor beam to hoover up schoolbooks, hospital beds, prescriptions, middle class paycheques and binding agreements. In other words, pretty much anything still left that makes this nation different from the United States. So if you are still feeling indifferent or undecided about the MPs running in your area, there’s plenty of info on the Internet to keep you informed. If that’s not enough, please access ‘The Force’ or a triple-shot designer coffee to get you down to a ballot booth Election Day, May 2nd. When you get that little wooden pencil in your hand, remember that’s your light sabre. For democracy’s sake, don’t go over to the ‘Dark Side’ when you scribble your X.
This whole democracy thing may seem so “last millennium,” but if you want to live in a country that isn’t a mashup of North Korea and West Virginia, you need to make your mark. If you won’t do it for yourself or your country, do it for a middle-aged political cartoonist so he can at least have an easier target to draw in the Prime Minister’s office.