Stephen Harper – the very model of a modern politician (and rogue)

The Guardian, October 15 2015

An unkind cartoon this summer showed the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, kneeling before the statue of another politician, asking “What now, O Great One?” That in itself would not be unkind. The problem is that the statue is clearly labelled as that of Richard Nixon, famed above all for his attempts to corrupt democracy.

As Harper tries for a fourth term in office at the Canadian federal election next week, he finds himself trailed by an extraordinarily long list of allegations. In the Watergate scandal, all the president’s men were accused primarily of trying to fix the vote to get Nixon a second term in the White House. In Canada, some of the prime minister’s men and women have been accused not simply of cheating to win elections but of conspiring to jam the whole machinery of democratic government.

Some of these allegations have been proved. In the eleven years since he became leader of the country’s Conservatives, the party as a whole has been convicted of violating election law; and various members of Team Harper have been caught misleading parliament, gagging civil servants, subverting parliamentary committees, gagging scientists, harrassing the supreme court, gagging diplomats, lying to the public, concealing evidence of potential crime, spying on opponents, bullying and smearing. Harper personally has earned himself the rare rebuke of being found to be in contempt of his parliament.

He is massively unpopular. One of his many biographers, John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail newspaper, who is more sympathetic than most, concludes: “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party.” Yet this deeply unpopular politician has won three popular elections in the last nine years and may yet put a fourth in his trophy cabinet next week. That is what makes Harper’s politics interesting, that he has perfected the tactics of taking and holding power – in spite of the demands of democracy. And he is not so unusual.

His people may have been caught out more often than most. That may be because they are more brazen than most (and because they have some particularly feisty investigative reporters on their patch). But, at heart, Harper’s team are not that different from politicians across the developed world who have discovered that democracy is a pretty sweet theory but that, in reality, if you want to get hold of power and use it, there are all kinds of devious moves available which have very little to do with that antique idea for which men and women over the centuries were beaten, jailed, deported and killed.


Start with the business of winning an election. At the top end of the scale, this can follow Nixon down the path to crime. During Harper’s first successful run, back in January 2006, his party bumped up against the $18m limit which they were allowed to spend in their national campaign. But they still had money in the bank; and the election was very tight. So they channelled more than $1million down to 67 local candidates who had their own budgets and who then paid for a blitz of TV advertising during the final fortnight of the campaign. Harper squeaked home and managed to form a minority government. Some of the local Conservatives were worried that this was illegal, but Harper’s national director dismissed them with contempt. “What a bunch of turds,” he emailed.

The national officials evidently had persuaded themselves that they had the law on their side. Elections Canada, the official body which enforces polling law, disagreed. As one of their investigators put it to the Guardian: “You could argue that they stole the election.”

Team Harper duly suffered the embarrassment of police raiding their headquarters in Ottawa, seizing their computers and paperwork; and the further embarrassment of having four senior officials charged with criminal offences. The Conservatives fought Elections Canada to the last ditch, repeatedly challenging them in the courts. Finally, the prosecution accepted a plea bargain. The charges against the four officials were dropped while the party as an organisation pleaded guilty and paid $282,000 in fines and restitution. That was in March 2012, more than six years after the offence, by which time this particular scandal had cobwebs on it, and Harper had won two more elections, in November 2008 and May 2011.

If the path to electoral crime is rarely trodden, there is a close alternative in what President Nixon’s people called ‘rat-fucking’ – acts of sabotage to damage an opponent. Not exactly criminal. Not always. So, for example, when the current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau (son of the former prime minister, Pierre) held an open-air press conference in Ottawa, he found himself being heckled by a group of young protesters waving placards… who were then revealed by Huffington Post to be interns working for the Prime Minister’s Office. That’s not criminal. But the rat-fucking that went on during the May 2011 election was more serious. And not at all democratic.

In the fortnight before polling day, Liberal supporters started receiving nuisance calls from people who claimed to be Liberal party workers – calling Jewish voters on the Sabbath, waking up others in the middle of the night. Liberals said this was Conservatives trying to alienate their support. Then, in the final three days before the vote, Elections Canada received a series of complaints about ‘robocalls’ – recorded messages sent by automatic dialling – which told voters quite falsely that their polling station had been moved. By election day, anxiety was rising among officials, as internal emails recorded: “It seems that Conservative candidates are pretending that Elections Canada or returning officers have changed the polling stations… They have actually disrupted the voting process… It’s right across the country except Saskatchewan…. It appears it is getting worse.” This looked like a national campaign to suppress the Liberal vote by scattering it away from the polling booths.

Some of those voters recalled for the Guardian that they had first received a call from the Conservatives asking how they planned to vote. Sandra McEwing, a stage manager from Winnipeg, said: “My answer was unequivocal, like ‘Go fuck yourself’. I hung up after that.” Others say they gave similar replies, identifying themselves as hostile to the Conservatives. All say that they then received robocalls or live calls, sending them to a polling station which did not exist or to a distant one where they had no right to vote. Some of these voters were in ridings where the eventual margin of victory was tiny. Bill Hagborn, president of the Liberal association in a riding in Ontario, told us of a bus full of Aboriginal voters who were very unlikely to vote Conservative and who were misdirected by calls and ended up not voting at all. That riding – Nipissing-Timiskaming – went to the Conservatives with a majority of only 18.

With Team Harper back in power, a group of voters from six ridings went to federal court to challenge the results of the election. After a seven-day hearing, the trial judge, Mr Justice Mosley, issued a devastating verdict: “I am satisfied that it has been established that misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country and that the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their preference in response to earlier voter identification calls.”

The judge declined to order new elections – the evidence did not reveal whether the calls had actually swung the result – but the declaration of national fraud was powerful stuff. And perhaps even more serious, he found that ‘the most likely source’ of the phone numbers which had been used for the robocalls was the Conservative party’s central database, the Constituent Information Management System, known as CIMS, which is believed to hold the names and addresses of every voter in Canada together with profiling information which has been gathered over the years by party workers or bought from commercial data-gatherers.

The judge specifically avoided identifying the Conservative party as a whole or its candidates as having organised the fraud. However, he went on to complain that they had “engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on the merits” which had included “transparent attempts to derail this case”.

Meanwhile, Elections Canada had been investigating. Spurred on by news coverage, voters from 261 of the 308 ridings filed complaints about calls which either caused nuisance or misled them about their polling station. The investigators struggled. When they tried to get records of phone numbers which had called the complainants, they failed with 92.5% of them. With the 7.5% where they succeeded, they then failed to find the owners of 40% of the phone numbers they had identified, including all of the most suspicious ones, which were registered across the border in the US. “We were running into brick walls all over the place,” as one investigator put it. With one startling exception.

In relation to the riding of Guelph in Ontario, the Conservatives who had engaged in ‘trench warfare’ to impede the civil court, handed Elections Canada a group of witnesses who identified an ambitious young party worker, Michael Sona, as a culprit, adding crucially that he had acted without authority, as a ‘rogue activist’. Sona’s name was rapidly leaked to conservative newspapers. Investigators were able to follow a trail of electronic footprints from the local Conservative office, where Sona worked, to a telemarketing company which had sent out a robocall to more than 7,000 Liberal households, diverting them from their polling stations. Sona was arrested, prosecuted and duly jailed for nine months for interfering with an election. He says he is innocent, a decoy thrown out to protect the real culprits. Others say he is guilty but a maverick who set up his own relatively clumsy scheme without the blessing of his party.

But what about all the other ridings? Elections Canada in April 2014 published a report in which they acknowledged the difficulties they had encountered, and reported that – with the exception of Guelph – they had been unable to find any concrete evidence of dubious activity. This left open the possibility that voters in these ridings had been victims of something far more sophisticated than the clumsy operation for which Michael Sona was jailed. In Ottawa today, political insiders name a foreign businessman with a dodgy past who, they suspect, bankrolled the calls from outside Canada to win influence with the Conservatives. Some claim to have heard Conservative workers boasting of using call centres in the USA, India or the Phillipines.

However, they can prove nothing, and Elections Canada not only found no such clues but enraged Harper’s opponents by concluding that their inability to find evidence of activity outside Guelph amounted to positive evidence that there had been no such activity. This contradicted the finding of Mr Justice Mosley and implied that all of the complainants from outside Guelph had been tainted by confusion, delusion or dishonesty. No culprit other than Michael Sona has been brought to book.

Effectively cleared of responsibility, the Conservatives pushed back hard. When Elections Canada asked for more powers to help them investigate future fraud, the House of Commons backed them unanimously. The Harper government, however, denied them the powers they wanted and removed their entire investigations branch, transferring it to the office of the public prosecutor, where it is no longer answerable to parliament. Meanwhile, the Conservative MP who had acted as Harper’s spokesman on the robocalls affair – his parliamentary secretary, Dean del Mastro – was jailed for breaking spending limits in his own riding and submitting false records. The sentencing judge told him that he had indulged in ‘the antithesis of democracy’.


Stephen Harper has not been convicted of any crime. But his character appears to have had a high impact on the way that his team behaves.

Harper is a loner – a suburban boy who went train-spotting with his dad; whose asthma stopped him playing hockey but who knew more hockey stats than anybody else; who became an economist while his two brothers became accountants because, as he said, he didn’t have the personality to be an accountant. A loner who learned to scorn the happy crowd. One of his biographers, Lawrence Martin, found a source who remembered the young Harper at social events in his twenties as “the guy in the corner, pen and paper in pocket, looking at us in a condescending way. It was like ‘Those kids! There they are, drinking again.'”

That scorn appears to have interrupted the clever student’s journey through the top of the class. In his first term at university in Toronto, in 1978, he alarmed his family by dropping out, apparently because he couldn’t stand his classmates with their sense of entitlement. He went west to Alberta, which is like leaving New York to go to Texas – from the bright lights of the city to the oil and gas fields which keep those lights burning; from money and privilege to hard graft and resentment; from progressive to conservative and even red-neck.

He worked for three years as a clerk at Imperial Oil before returning to university, this time in Calgary in Alberta. It was 1981. The conservative university was infused with anger by the Liberal Pierre Trudeau’s plans to suppress the price of Alberta’s oil and to tax it for the benefit of the rest of Canada. That hostility to the progressive elite may have struck a personal chord with the young man who could not fit in to Toronto society. It found intellectual shape in Calgary in the right-wing economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which were already being turned into reality by the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Harper left university in 1984 and spent the next 20 years bouncing upwards and rightwards through Canadian politics, emerging in March 2004, aged 44, as the leader of a new and distinctly right-wing Conservative party. He had shown he was unusually clever, enormously hard working, relentess. He had also attracted the words which were to follow him: “Cold… aloof…. ruthless…” And angry. John Ibbitson records a story from an aide who saw Harper exploding on his campaign bus during the June 2004 election, which he lost: “It was ‘We are fucking going to do this, and you are fucking going to do that, and I want to see this fucking thing done right now.’ And then he paused and asked: ‘And why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?”

And then there were the tactics which were to attract such notoriety. They reflected the man’s character – clever and harsh – moves which turned a democractic election into a mere sequence of manoeuvres, in which the object was no longer to express the popular will but to manipulate it. Above all, to win. This was the world of Karl Rove capturing the White House for George W Bush; Phillip Gould and Peter Mandelson taking Tony Blair into Downing Street; Lynton Crosby working for John Howard in Australia and David Cameron in the UK. In Harper’s case, he learned from the master, Arthur Finkelstein, who had played the electoral game for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. One of Harper’s early allies from the 1990s, Gerry Nicholls, captured in his memoirs the special cynicism of Finkelstein’s will to manipulate the electorate in his dictum: “We have to convince Canadians to drink pig’s piss.”

This meant, first of all, spending very little time on the big questions about the economy or public services or the environment and turning instead to an arsenal of aggression: attack ads to smear the opposition, like the one which focussed on a Liberal leader’s slightly misformed mouth or which had a bird shitting on another Liberal leader’s head; and ‘wedge’ issues which aim to alienate a section of the opposition support, like pretending that Russian bombers are flying through Canadian airspace, or demanding the closure of the unit where heroin addicts in Vancouver can get safe injections.

It meant money – millions in private donations to fund the campaign, and millions more in state give-aways to encourage the voters. Just as Margaret Thatcher cut income tax to make Tory voting pay, so Harper gave his electorate a high-profile gift when he first took power in 2006, by cutting the Canadian sales tax, GST. It cost the exchequer some $12 billion, but it purchased popularity. At times, it meant descending into old-fashioned, US-style pork-barrel politics, pouring public money into ridings which were politically important. An investigation by the Globe and Mail this year found that 83% of the Harper government’s new infrastructure projects, worth some $375 million of tax payers’s money, had gone to the 52% of ridings which were in Conservative hands.

And it meant investing heavily in the politically profitable new science of micro-targetting. This was the original reason for the Conservatives creating their CIMS database, in which they stored every conceivable item of intelligence about voters. It allowed them to target the ‘market segments’ which they needed for victory – not just with policy, but with favours. A $500 tax break for children to do ballet or hockey was good for a middle-class segment. A break for tradespeople’s tools could buy another. The Canadian writer Susan Delacourt, who tracked this in her book, Shopping For Votes, told us of the finding in the CIMS database that people who owned snowmobiles were potential Conservative voters. The Harper government has pledged $35 million to create new trails for snowmobiles. Which looks like public money for political profit.

These tactics have proved particularly effective against the background across the developed world of voters becoming alienated from voting and from politics itself. In Canada, nearly 40% of the electorate did not bother to vote at the 2011 election. Among voters under 24, more than 60% stayed away. A survey this year by Samara found that 39% of Canadians had not had a single conversation about politics in the previous 12 months. A poll in Quebec province two months ago found that as the federal election campaign was launched, 20% of respondents could not name the political party which was running the country.

In Shopping for Votes, Susan Delacourt cites one of Stephen Harper’s political marketers, Patrick Muttart, saying that much of Conservative activity was aimed at voters who paid no attention to politics and who needed messages which were ‘brutally simple’. She concluded: “Political marketing, if not held in check, veers dangerously close to the view of consumers as morons. In its extreme form, it plays to people’s emotions, not their thoughts. It divides the country into ‘niche’ markets and abandons the hard political work of knitting together broad consensus or national vision… Instead of turning consumers into citizens, it has accomplished the reverse.”


In power as in elections, Harper’s rule has been to keep winning, whatever it takes. Even parliament – the embodiment of the popular will – is merely an obstacle to be dealt with.

Soon after the November 2008 election, as he began his second minority government, Harper launched an ‘omnibus bill’ which contained so many provocative proposals that he united the previously divided opposition parties who decided not just to vote against the bill but to form a co-alition which could replace his government. Harper didn’t want that. So he prorogued parliament. He needed the consent of the Queen’s representative, the governor general, to do so. He got it. And so the parliament which threatened him was simply suspended until the political storm passed.

A year later, Harper was in deep trouble again over press reports that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan had handed over Taliban prisoners to local security forces who had then tortured them. Harper’s government had denied the claims, which amounted to allegations of war crimes, but they were caught out badly in November 2009 when a Canadian diplomat and a general separately went public with evidence that parts of the government had known about this for more than three years. When the opposition united once more to demand the release of paperwork on the subject, Harper refused…. and then persuaded the governor general to prorogue parliament a second time. There was a chorus of protest, led by professors of law and politics, but Harper scorned them. The elected representives of the people were simply locked out for three months.

The following year, Harper clashed again with the rights of parliament. In July 2010, he announced that his government would buy 65 F-35 fighter jets, costing a total of $15 billion – the most expensive military purchase in Canadian history. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, reckoned the real price would be even higher and accused Harper of deliberately understating it. Harper refused to hand over the paperwork which would disclose the truth about the cost of the F-35s and about the cost of a clutch of other policies. In March 2011, the speaker of the House of Commons ruled that this was a contempt of parliament, and the House then passed a vote of no confidence in Harper’s government. A most unusual shaming of a sitting prime minister. There was an election (involving the robocalls). Harper won. Ignatieff quit. And eleven months later, it emerged that the true cost of the F-35s was nearly twice what Harper had claimed – and that his government had always known that their own price tag was wrong.

In his second year in office, 2007, the National Post disclosed that Team Harper had drawn up a guidebook for the Conservative chairs of parliamentary committees, advising them how to use delays, obstruction and confusion to block difficult inquiries. In opposition, Harper said he would reform the Senate so that its members would be elected. In office, he changed his mind, kept the power to select them himself and appointed 59 new senators so that he had a built-in majority in the upper house. The House of Commons found itself being swamped with omnibus bills which included dozens of contentious proposals which could not be properly debated in the time available. At the daily Question Period when ministers traditionally provide information, Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, gave answers which were so obstructive that, after a volley of complaint, he ended up apologising to the House in tears.

Harper clamped down hard on senior officials whose job was to monitor the behaviour of the state. Kevin Page, parliamentary budget officer, revealed that Harper had misled parliament over the cost of F-35 fighter jets: he reported experiencing ‘significant amounts of intimidation’ and had his office budget cut by 30%. Linda Keen, head of Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission, challenged Harper over the safety of the Chalk River nuclear site: she was denounced and sacked. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, attempted to investigate the torture of Taliban prisoners who had been detained by Canadian forces: he lost his job. Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court, blocked Harper’s choice for a new high court judge: she was denounced in terms which caused a wave of complaint that Harper was interfering in the independence of the judiciary.


As Harper launched his election campaign ten weeks ago, he faced the tricky co-incidence that one of his closest allies, Senator Mike Duffy, was sitting in court in Ottawa, charged with fraud. The trial is not yet finished, and Duffy has pleaded not guilty, but, whatever the outcome, the case has exposed in embarrassing detail the behaviour of the core of Team Harper – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which has been described eloquently by the Globe and Mail as “a 90-person juggernaut of political strategists, ‘issues managers’ and party enforcers who exercise strict control over cabinet, the houses of parliament and the bureaucracy.”

Mike Duffy has been an Ottawa character for years, famous as a TV journalist and notorious for his pro-Conservative bent, which paid off in January 2009 when Stephen Harper appointed him as a senator for the small eastern province of Prince Edward Island. This was controversial because senators have to live in the province which they represent and, although Duffy did own a cottage in Prince Edward Island, he appeared to be based in Ottawa, where he had owned a house since 1971. But that caused no great trouble. Not just then.

It was nearly four years later, in December 2012, when events suddenly started to spin out of control. A diligent journalist, Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen, reported that Duffy had told Senate authorities that his cottage in Prince Edward Island was his real home and had been claiming public money for the expense of living in Ottawa. The PMO circled the waggons around their senator, insisting that he had done no wrong. Then their control began to wobble when the Senate’s internal economy committee hired a firm of auditors, Deloitte, to check the housing claims of all senators, including Duffy. The wobble became more violent as the PMO realised that Duffy might be tempted to talk to his old friends in the press, so they aimed – as an internal email put it – “to prevent him from going squirrely in a bunch of weekend panel shows.”

Over the following weeks, the PMO moved in hard. Even though Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, emailed a colleague that he was ‘gravely concerned’ about Duffy’s right to his Senate seat, the PMO now by-passed the Senate leadership and tried to engineer the upper house’s approval for Duffy to keep the seat. The idea that senators might be there to represent the public, not the PMO, seemed to be absent. The PMO then persuaded a senior senator to use a contact at Deloitte to try to soften their conclusions about Duffy’s expenses and got two other senators to rewrite a section of their committee report to remove damning findings. Since this was an inquiry into what amounted to an allegation of fraud, this looks like an attempt to conceal evidence of potential crime.

Nigel Wright also persuaded the Conservative Party Fund, which is partly funded by the tax payer, to stump up $32,000 to pay off Duffy’s debt for him, although the troubled senator would be allowed to pretend that he was repaying the money himself. Since, as his own emails disclosed, Wright thought it was ‘morally wrong’ that the senator had taken the money, this looked rather like an attempt to use tax payers’ money to repay money that had been taken from the tax payer. In the event, it turned out that Duffy owed three times more than he had thought – a grand total of $90,100. The party fund said that was too much and agreed only to pay the $13,000 legal bill which Duffy had run up in trying to deal with the problem. With the troubled senator pleading poverty, Nigel Wright made an extraordinary move: he put his hand in his own pocket and paid the $90,100 himself. (He had made millions in the world of finance before joining Team Harper.)

The result was that on May 9 2013, three months after the story broke, the Prime Minister’s Office served up a two-part fiction for the Canadian people: that Duffy had repaid his expenses, and that he was entitled to keep his Senate seat. And all was well until a second diligent journalist, Robert Fife of CTV, disclosed that it was Wright who had paid Duffy’s debt and that the Senate’s report had been ‘sanitised’. In an avalanche of embarrassment, Mike Duffy was dumped by the Conservatives and charged by police; Nigel Wright resigned; and Stephen Harper denied knowing anything about the cover-up. At the end of May, an Ipsos-Reid poll suggested that only 13% of Canadians believed him.

It is all about control – of information and of people. Where previously civil servants and diplomats were more or less free to speak, in Harper’s regime, none of them can speak without the prior approval of his office – and that approval is rarely given. In 2010, Harper provoked fury by cancelling the national census and then scrapping a series of long-term surveys, thus effectively concealing the facts about significant trends in Canadian society including poverty, inequality, housing need and health. In a report in March, the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, complained that Canada’s freedom of information law “is applied to encourage a culture of delay… to deny disclosure. It acts as a shield against disclosure. The interests of the government trump the interests of the public.”


The Harper government’s obsession with control may look simply like a means to maintain power. But it can achieve something more important, to reverse the flow of influence: instead of government responding to people, the electorate become passive recipients of state decisions. Consider the case of climate change.

Harper has never made any secret of his support for the oil industry. Emerging from his formative years in Alberta, he was a founder member of the neo-conservative Reform party, which was baptised with a $100,000 cheque from the head of Gold Standard Oils. Soon after taking power in 2006, Harper started to clamp down on research into global warming. He got rid of his own science advisor and killed the climate change section of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He shut down the official website on climate change and tried to cut funding for the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory, which had been at the forefront of monitoring deterioration in the ozone layer as well as climate change.

But he opened his door to the other side of the argument. The Polaris Institute think tank reported in December 2012 that 45 oil lobbyists had been allowed to work inside Harper’s government and that during the previous four and a half years, officials and ministers had held some 2,700 meetings with the oil lobby. By contrast, the Climate Action Network had managed just six.

Having changed the flow of information into government, he then dramatically changed the flow outwards to his electorate. A new protocol required all government scientists to ask for clearance from the PMO before speaking publicly with the result that important research has been buried, stalled or misrepresented, including an analysis of changes in the amount of snowfall, an inquiry into the loss of ozone over the Artic, and research on the impact of a two-degree rising in global temperature. Meanwhile, the government department which overseas the oil and gas industries increased its advertising budget from less than $250,000 in 2010 to a massive $40 million only two years later.

Activists too felt the rough hand of government. Harper set aside $8 million to check the activity of charities including environmental groups to stop them campaigning politically. David Suzuki, the Gandalf-like founding father of the Canadian green movement, stepped down from his own charitable foundation so that he could speak freely without the organisation being attacked. In British Columbia, a green group called Dogwood Initiative, reported that material which they had obtained under the Access to Information law revealed that they had been under ‘illegal surveillance’ by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

Having distorted the flow of information, Harper then moulded the policy to fit. Ever since he first took power in February 2006, he has been promising action on climate change, particularly in relation to carbon which is released from Canada’s huge reserve of tar sands, now the third biggest source of oil on the planet.

After a false start in 2006 with a bill that was killed by parliament for being too weak, he launched a sleak new vehicle – ‘Turning the Corner’ – in March 2007, with new emissions targets for each sector of the economy, crucially including oil and gas. It could all come in to force as early as 2010, he said. But the sleek new vehicle was soon diverted into the oil lobby’s bog, where it stalled and stuck in endless negotiation. At one point, in February 2013, Harper’s environment secretary, Peter Kent, said they were ‘very close’ to finalising the rules. Four months later, Kent was out of the job, later reflecting ruefully that perhaps he had been ‘pushing too hard.’ To this day, Canada still has no emissions rules for its oil and gas sector.

In the background, Harper’s government announced a ‘cap and trade’ system to cut emissions in 2008 and then dropped the plan in 2011; failed to hit the targets which they had agreed at the Copenhagen summit in 2009; scrapped a raft of environmental rules; and in 2011 became the first government to back out of the Kyoto protocol which the Liberals had ratified in 2002. When the Centre for Global Development in 2013 ranked 27 developed nations according to their handling of the environment, they placed Canada at number 27.


Canada’s current election campaign has followed a path which is now familiar. The Conservatives have more money. Harper has stopped public funding for political parties, which yields a financial advantage to his own party, with its CIMS database full of potential private donors. In a neat symbol of their purchasing power, the Conservatives were caught buying ‘likes’ on Facebook. His team have tightened the flow of information to voters: the Prime Minister makes speeches and holds photo-calls but avoids questions from the press. With few exceptions, Conservative candidates have been told not to take part in public debates. Big issues are raised, but it is the small issues which dominate. Canada’s most idolised hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, may not be a political thinker, but his endorsement of Harper made big headlines. The collapse in the price of oil may have driven the Canadian economy into recession, but Harper is micro-targetting market segments by offering a new tax break for home renovations and for those who belong to organisations like the Rotary club.

At a point where his party was slipping backwards in the polls, Harper’s team came up with a brilliantly successful wedge issue, angrily insisting that no Muslim woman should be allowed to take the oath of Canadian citizenship while wearing a niqab. In the last four years, the number of women who wanted to wear the niqab while taking the oath has reached a grand total of two. But this became a big issue as it split off two sections of voters in Harper’s favour: the ‘old stock’ Canadians who fear Muslim migrants as intruders; and liberal feminists, to whom one of Harper’s ministers appealed by describing the niqab as “a mediaeval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people.” For speaking up in favour of a Muslim woman’s right to choose what she wears, the National Democrat Party leader, Tom Mulcaire, was punished with a disastrous collapse in his poll ratings, while Harper surged upwards.

Harper has the natural advantage of an opposition which currently is divided between Mulcaire’s NDP and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. He also has the advantage of what looks like a form of voter suppression which, unlike robocalls, is legal – a requirement that voters produce an official document in addition to their voter card to prove that they have a home in the riding. Harry Neufeld, who has been running elections in Canada since 1982, told us he estimated that 250,000 qualified electors would be denied a vote. These are likely to be people who would not vote Conservative – students, the poor, Aboriginal people. Neufeld added that he thought his estimate was low. “I believe the legal changes amount to systematic manipulation, and it saddens me to see this happening in Canada. It reduces the perceived integrity of our national elections. And it damages our reputation as a country with deep democratic values.”

Additional research by Mali Ilse Paquin

UPDATE 1: Harper lost the election as his support in Ontario crumbled and millions of voters acted tactically to unite opposition behind Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Harper immediately resigned as Conservative leader and later announced that he would resign his seat in the House of Commons in order to launch a new business as a political consultant.

UPDATE 2: In April 2016, six months after this story was published, an Ottawa court cleared Mike Duffy of all criminal charges. The judge in the case accused the Prime Minister’s Office of using ‘mind-boggling’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘shocking’ tactics in dealing with Duffy: “In the context of a democratic society, the plotting as revealed can only be described as unacceptable.”