Stephen Harper Condemns Stephen Harper

I’ve been writing a lot about the indefensible concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and for my troubles I have been called a Harper-hater, a Liberal shill, a hypocrite, and various other names that cannot be repeated here. In response, I will do something I generally avoid: I will quote myself.

“The operation of the government is more reliant on janitors than MPs, especially backbenchers, whose jobs have literally been reduced to standing and sitting on command…. More astoundingly, even cabinet ministers have been stripped of real authority. Political scientist Donald Savoie describes cabinet as little more than a focus group for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). That leaves all power in the person of the prime minister -and the handful of courtiers and jesters who have his ear. Law, regulation, appointment: All the acts of the federal government are subject to the whim of one man. L’état, c’est Jean.”

Yes, that was me writing about prime minister Jean Chrétien in December, 2000. I dropped a word or two to set up the punchline. The “backbenchers” I mentioned? In the original, they are “Liberal backbenchers.” I mentioned a few in the column. Remember John Nunziata? Banished for dissent. And who can forget the Liberal MP who cried after voting against her conscience? A great moment for democracy.

Loyal Chrétienites were quite comfortable with the status quo, naturally. But most of the rest of us spent a great deal of time complaining about the centralization of power. Conservatives were particularly incensed.

“In today’s democratic societies, organizations share power,” wrote two conservative intellectuals. “Corporations, churches, universities, hospitals, even public sector bureaucracies make decisions through consultation, committees, and consensus-building techniques. Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers. Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline, and expel subordinates. Among major democracies, only Great Britain so ruthlessly concentrates power.”

That’s a pretty good summary of what I’ve been writing lately about the Conservative government. Which is curious. Because the authors are Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper.

Flanagan is a conservative political scientist. And Stephen Harper, well, you know him.

As Postmedia’s Randy Boswell reported a few days ago, Flanagan and Harper published a long essay about the state of Canadian politics and governance in a conservative magazine. It was late 1996. And the authors were as unsparing in their criticism as they were daring in their proposals for reform.

“Although we like to think of ourselves as living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little better than a benign dictatorship, not under a strict one-party rule, but under a one-party-plus system beset by the factionalism, regionalism and cronyism that accompany any such system.” Its embodiment is the Liberal party. “It is a true centre party, comparable to the Christian Democrats in Italy, the Liberal Democrats in Japan, and Congress in India, standing for nothing very definite but prevailing against a splintered opposition,” Harper and Flanagan wrote. “It avoids ideological commitments and brings together people simply interested in exercising power and dispensing patronage.”

Hope lay in two changes. First, the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties should start working together, “leading to a system of sister parties.” Eventually, this “coalition of the right” may win government. “Outside the United States and the United Kingdom, such alliances are actually the norm in the democratic world.”

And how could such a thing be set into motion? “The two parties could begin by agreeing to advocate electoral reform.” Scrapping the first-past-the-post system is a realistic possibility, Harper and Flanagan wrote, because the NDP would support it, “allowing even a minority conservative government to pass the necessary legislation.”

It was an essential step. “Many of Canada’s problems stem from a winner-take-all style of politics that allows governments in Ottawa to impose measures abhorred by large areas of the country.”

Change a few details and the Harper/Flanagan essay could be published today. Word for word.

Hyper-centralization of power in the PMO? Even more than in Chrétien’s day. A meek and obedient ruling caucus? Just like Chrétien’s, but without a Martinite faction.

Hopeless opposition? Ruthless exploitation of advantage? Political expediency the only consistent feature of policy making? Three more checks.

Cronyism and patronage? Jean Chrétien wouldn’t have dared try what Harper just pulled in the Senate.

And the basis for all of this is the first-past-the-post electoral system, which turned the minority of a fraction who voted Conservative — 39 per cent of the 61 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot — into a mandate for four years of unchecked prime ministerial power unlike anything in the democratic world.

“Right now, if Harper wanted to, he could be a complete dictator, because there is no way to stop a majority government,” Conservative senator Bert Brown observed recently.

There was a time when conservatives found that appalling. But an awful lot of them seem quite comfortable with it today.

What they find appalling, what makes them quiver with indignation, is a journalist who makes the same arguments they once did about a prime minister who has become what he once opposed.