Harper’s dog-whis­tle pol­i­tics

Toronto Star - - OPINION - ROBIN V. SEARS

Vet­eran Chré­tien po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Ed­die Goldenberg’s favourite joke these days is: “You know who Don­ald Trump is? He’s Harper mi­nus the code!” It’s un­fair, but con­tains a ker­nel of truth.

Stephen Harper has of­ten con­founded both lib­er­tar­ian con­ser­va­tives and pro­gres­sives, as he tacks un­pre­dictably be­tween po­si­tions nor­mally thought of as right and left. He’s adept at us­ing the lan­guage of eth­nic and re­li­gious di­vi­sion sub­tly and de­ni­ably, a skill that his ad­viser Lyn­ton Crosby de­vel­oped as a high art of dark pol­i­tics. But he can be also as an­tibig busi­ness as any tra­di­tional lefty, to the con­ster­na­tion of banks, tele­coms and rail­ways.

He is the most stri­dent Cold War­rior Canada has ever elected, rail­ing against Iran, Rus­sia and, early on, China. But he has also pushed Canada to the fore­front of the bat­tles against the sex trade, po­lio and vi­o­lence against women.

When you peer at this blurry record — this strange blend of pol­icy pledges and peeves — through the pop­ulist lens of a Jeremy Cor­byn, Bernie San­ders or a Don­ald Trump, the fog clears. Stephen Harper is merely a gar­den-va­ri­ety rightwing pop­ulist, but one with dis­tinctly Cana­dian fea­tures.

The rage run­ning through western elec­torates rose slowly at the turn of the mil­len­nium, spiked fol­low­ing the crash and is ris­ing rapidly once more in the face of refugee and ter­ror­ist trauma. At any Bri­tish Labour Party con­ven­tion, one could al­ways hear the most Trot­skyite “hate the rich” rhetoric of any se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal party in the G7. This week they heard those slo­gans from the stage, from their new leader.

Don­ald Trump may have slurred Mex­i­cans, Mus­lims and his own party, but his venom res­onates with a vast swath of an­gry Amer­i­cans. Pa­trick Cad­dell, the vet­eran poll­ster, says he has never seen such huge ma­jori­ties cit­ing “cor­rupt elites” as the big­gest prob­lem fac­ing the United States. The irony of a many times bank­rupt bil­lion­aire casino owner as their cham­pion has yet to dawn, ap­par­ently.

The rise of right and left pop­ulists in the EU is so per­va­sive that for­mer Pol­ish pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk said in an omi­nous speech this sum­mer that he could not ig­nore the echoes of the 1930s they rep­re­sent. He warned Euro­pean lead­ers to unite against their racist rhetoric be­fore it was too late. The EU’s sham­bolic re­sponse to the tidal wave of refugees is not, so far, en­cour­ag­ing.

Canada has been spared such voices, and as hard as it may be for pro­gres­sives to ac­knowl­edge, Harper must get some of the credit. By pro­cess­ing sim­i­lar anger and prej­u­dice through the fil­ter of Cana­dian val­ues, he has cre­ated a more ac­cept­able face of pop­ulism. Don­ald Trump would at­tack veiled Mus­lim women as ter­ror­ists in dis­guise, Harper’s code is that we need to en­sure that they ob­serve Cana­dian val­ues.

Re­fer­ring to his own cit­i­zens of Arab eth­nic­ity, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu sounded the alarm about Arabs be­ing fer­ried to the polls “by the bus­load.”

Harper­s­peak is to earnestly pro­claim that he gives refugee pref­er­ence to “the most needy” mi­nori­ties. To most Cana­di­ans that sounds rea­son­able. To Mus­lims from coun­tries where they are the ma­jor­ity, they know it’s meant to ex­clude them. To Harper’s Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ist base, it is code for “peo­ple like us.”

How you re­act to this dog-whis­tle pol­i­tics de­pends not only on your par­ti­san­ship and val­ues, but also how wor­ried you are about the strength of our com­mit­ment to a tol­er­ant in­clu­sive so­ci­ety. If you are a tra­di­tional Tory, you may wince at the whiff of Ge­orge Wal­lace in this rhetoric. In 21st-cen­tury Canada, “pro­tect­ing states’ rights” has be­come “en­sur­ing rea­son­able se­cu­rity pro­tec­tions.”

If you are a pro­gres­sive — of or­ange or red or green hue — you are prob­a­bly re­volted, even an­gered, not only by its de­ceit, but by its ef­fec­tive­ness with a dis­turbingly large slice of vot­ers.

If, as seems likely, Harper is no longer prime min­is­ter af­ter Oct. 20, he has said he will quit. Then a prob­a­bly bit­ter lead­er­ship con­test will fol­low, mir­ror­ing on the right the fool­ish­ness that Bri­tish Labour just demon­strated on the left. Party es­tab­lish­ments are al­ways prag­matic and more in­ter­ested in power than un­var­nished prin­ci­ple. In the Tory case, they will no doubt say we need a “more like­able” leader, a less cor­ro­sive per­son­al­ity.

Dis­gusted con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists may say, as the Cor­bynites did, “No way! We need more hon­esty, more courage and more plain speak­ing!” The left-wing ver­sion may yet split one of the world’s old­est and most suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal par­ties, for a sec­ond time.

To the hard right it means, drop the dog whis­tle and ramp up the pol­i­tics of di­vi­sion and re­li­gious wedges. If they were to pre­vail in Canada, they might split the Tories once more. Then even the staunch­est Harper haters might feel nos­tal­gic for the cold man with the care­ful code.

Canada has been spared such ven­omous voice as Don­ald Trump’s, and as hard as it may be for pro­gres­sives to ac­knowl­edge, Harper must get some of the credit

ers were pre­dom­i­nantly men. So for mostly rea­sons of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, pay and work­ing con­di­tions in ele­men­tary schools tended to be much poorer than those in high schools, a legacy that con­tin­ues to this day.

And while it was ar­gued at the time that teach­ing at the high school level was more com­plex and re­quired greater skill, we now know that the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences that stu­dents re­ceive in the ear­lier grades are far more con­se­quen­tial for their de­vel­op­ment and life out­comes. If any­thing, it prob­a­bly makes sense for pay and work­ing con­di­tions in ele­men­tary schools to be even bet­ter than those in high schools. So per­haps it is un­der­stand­able that ele­men­tary teach­ers are at­tempt­ing to ad­dress these in­equities.

Par­ents are un­der­stand­ably anx­ious and frus­trated by these dis­rup­tions, but it is im­por­tant to put them into con­text. In labour ne­go­ti­a­tions such as these, the gov­ern­ment holds all the power. If teach­ers strike, they can leg­is­late them back to work. Or in­stead of ne­go­ti­at­ing, they can just im­pose con­tracts di­rectly on teach­ers, which is what hap­pened back in 2012. So the re­al­ity is that job ac­tions such as these are one of the only ways that teacher unions can try to fight for im­proved work­ing con­di­tions in schools.

It is also im­por­tant for par­ents and mem­bers of the public to con­sider the al­ter­na­tive. And if you want to see what that looks like, just look south of the bor­der. In about a third of U.S. states, teach­ers pos­sess no col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights what­so­ever, and in many oth­ers they are so weak that teach­ers can­not ef­fec­tively take any job ac­tion. And what is the re­sult? A na­tion­wide teacher short­age. In the ab­sence of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, pay and work­ing con­di­tions in many parts of the U.S. are so poor that no­body wants to go into teach­ing.

So while par­ents here are frus­trated by the dis­rup­tions in our schools, par­ents in the U.S. face the prospect of their chil­dren be­ing taught by un­qual­i­fied teach­ers with lit­tle or no train­ing. But here in On­tario, teacher unions have been able to fight for good pay and work­ing con­di­tions, which is why we are con­tin­u­ally able to at­tract tal­ented peo­ple into the pro­fes­sion, which in turn has pro­duced one of the high­est per­form­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in the world. That’s worth keep­ing in mind.


Stephen Harper has of­ten con­founded both lib­er­tar­ian con­ser­va­tives and pro­gres­sives, as he tacks un­pre­dictably be­tween po­si­tions nor­mally thought of as right and left, Robin V. Sears writes.

Robin V. Sears, a prin­ci­pal at Earn­scliffe and a Broadbent In­sti­tute lead­er­ship fel­low, was an NDP party strate­gist for 20 years.

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