Harper’s dog-whistle politics
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.