Harper v. Canada: 2011 election scandal brings scrutiny to PM's controversial past
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has, in recent years, branded himself as something of a super-patriot. He calls Canada "the best country in the world", describes the Conservative Party as a "party of patriotism" and has pushed for a new vision of Canadian pride tied to overseas battlefields, Arctic sovereignty and unparalleled resource extraction.
It seems ironic, then, that Harper spent years mired in a court case titled "Harper v. Canada" to challenge the country's election regulations -- or that he described the US right as "a light and an inspiration to people in this country" when its leader was facing unprecedented ethics and tax charges.
Harper is currently facing renewed scrutiny over his resistance to the country's election finance laws amidst unprecedented irregularities alleged in last year's election as well as his Conservative party pleading guilty to illegal campaign spending last November.
Now, as Elections Canada investigates who is behind tens of thousands of illegal phone calls in the "robocall scandal" – calls reported to have targeted non-Conservative voters in two-thirds of the country's ridings – Harper's repeated court challenges to the country's election spending and campaign laws when he was head of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) have come into focus.
- Harper's former lobbying group looks to US for thoughts and ideas
- Robocall scandal by the numbers: 200 ridings allege election fraud
“There is a pattern,” argued political commentator Murray Dobbin in an interview with the Vancouver Observer. “(Harper) has contempt for Parliament, for democratic rules, for electoral rules. He will do whatever he can get away with.
“When Harper was at the NCC, his main issue was opposing any efforts to stop corporate funding of political parties or any rules around funding of elections. In fact, he has opposed them for most of his political life. . . . It's extremely ironic that you have a Prime Minister of a country who does not believe in democratic government. When you have a visceral contempt for democracy and for governance, or an activist state, then anything goes.”
“Harper v. Canada”
One of Harper's achievements during his tenure at the NCC was his court case that meandered over four years through Canada's court system.
The series of lawsuits and appeals – officially titled “Harper v. Canada” – argued that all rules restricting election spending and banning anonymous donors and advertizing “breached his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association and his right to vote,” according to court records.
Harper won Round One of his legal battle in 2001, when he sued Canada through the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta. The judge ruled in his favour, striking down sections of the Canada Election Act which limited third-party expenses to $150,000 nationally – and $3,000 per riding – as well as provisions forcing groups like the NCC to reveal their identity in advertizements and report their large donors.
Harper's case wound its way up the legal system, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 – just two years before he became Prime Minister.
In its “Harper v. Canada” decision, the country's highest court overturned the Alberta judgement in a 6-3 ruling:
“The respondent (Harper) effectively equates the right to meaningful participation with the exercise of freedom of expression,” the Supreme Court found. “Respectfully, this cannot be.
“In the absence of spending limits, it is possible for the affluent or a number of persons pooling their resources and acting in concert to dominate the political discourse, depriving their opponents of a reasonable opportunity to speak and be heard, and undermining the voter’s ability to be adequately informed of all views. . . political advertising may manipulate or oppress the voter.”
But Harper's time at NCC was also marked by his strongly declared support for conservatives in the US. While he was head of the group, he gave a speech before a group of prominent American conservatives, meeting in Montreal in June 1997.
"Seriously," he declared, "your country, and particularly your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world."
That speech came a year after Republicans launched a historic 28-day government shut-down against President Bill Clinton, and at a time when then-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich was under investigation for an unprecedented 84 ethics and tax law violation charges and forced to pay a $300,000 fine.
"Either Mr. Gingrich's conduct . . . was intentional or it was reckless," the Senate Committee on Ethics declared in a Jan. 1997 report. "The violation does not represent only a single instance of reckless conduct.
"Rather, over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities."
In 1997, when the leaders of American conservatism were Gingrich and a host of Christian right televangelists, which conservative movement, exactly, was Harper praising?
The NDP is "proof that the Devil lives"
That audience for Harper's 1997 address was the Council for National Policy (CNP), a group which declares "the Founding Fathers created this nation based upon Judeo-Christian values and that our culture flourishes when we uphold them."
Although CNP is highly secretive, its alleged members include some of America's most controversial right-wing figures, who include:
- Late televangelist Jerry Falwell, who blamed the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Centre attacks on “abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians".
- Televangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian group Focus on the Family.
- Former Bush-administration Attorney General John Ashcroft, who authorized water-boarding, widely regarded as a form of torture.
- Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and former Vice Presidential running mate for Senator John McCain in 2008.
- Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was charged with a cover-up after funnelling arms to Iran and money to right-wing death squads in Nicaragua in the 1980s in the Iran-Contra scandal.
- Timothy LaHaye, the end-of-the-world preacher who authored the Left Behind Series and founded both the Moral Majority and the anti-evolution Institute for Creation Research.
Harper's words before CNP in June 1997 seem distant from his tone today, but his criticism of employment insurance and the New Democrats are echoed in today's Conservative policies.
“The NDP is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men,” Harper told the crowd. “This party believes not just in large government and in massive redistributive programs, it's explicitly socialist.”
He went further, to describe Canada's health care, employment insurance and welfare system disparagingly.
“Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it,” he said.
“The unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half . . . don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.”
But the current head of the NCC – who calls Harper a friend to this day – told the Vancouver Observer that Harper's more right-wing ideas have evolved since his time at the organization and shouldn't be held against him.
Harper's views: have they changed?
When asked about our current Prime Minister's remarks, Peter Coleman, the NCC's Chief Executive Officer, chalks them up to youthful idealism and bravado, essentially. Views change, he suggests, and we grow wiser.
“A lot of us in life, as we get older and mature, have certain views we might have held when we were a lot younger,” Coleman said. “It's not unusual for our views to change over time as you actually open your ears and your mind, and listen to different positions.
“You know, I don't think that Harper right now is spending a lot of time worrying about what the Americans are doing. What his views were in that speech he gave in '97, up to where he is now – that's a pretty long time for a politician.”
For Dobbin, however, the roots of Harper's opposition to electoral regulations goes back to his earliest political roots: conservative libertarianism, an ideology opposed to government and in favour of absolute individual freedom. In his view, Harper has not evolved since his time at NCC.
“That's completely nonsense,” he said. “I've been writing about him for 20 years – he hasn't changed one iota.
“If he shows any signs of what looks like maturity, it's simply tactical and strategic. He's not an idiot. This is a very smart man. . . He opposes any limits on corporate spending for the same reason Republicans do in the US: he's essentially a libertarian.”
Libertarians, argued Dobbin, generally oppose government regulations and programs – except, in most cases, the military or police. But because they view a large State as unjustified, there is a rationale for breaking the rules to achieve their goals. That, he believes, is the root of the current “robo-call” election scandal, as well as the Tories' guilty plea last year to breaking election spending laws in the previous election.
“If all these things we have are illegitimate, then it's legitimate to take any measures you can to reverse them,” Dobbin argued. “It gave Harper a carte blanche.”
In its ruling in “Harper v. Canada,” the Supreme Court concluded that strict limits on election spending by third parties – such as the NCC – is essential to a fair and democratic process. In particular, the rules prevent the entire system from being hijacked by moneyed interests.
“Electoral fairness . . . is consistent with the egalitarian model of elections adopted by Parliament as an essential component of our democratic society,” the judges noted. “Under this model, wealth is the main obstacle to equal participation.
“The egalitarian model promotes an electoral process that requires the wealthy to be prevented from controlling the electoral process to the detriment of others with less economic power.”