Sheep Up or Sheep Out
For Stephen Harper, democracy is optional. He has demonstrated repeatedly his willingness to dispense with the conventions that open government to the people and enable their elected representatives to act on their behalf. A number of books have counted the ways he abuses power. Garth Turner’s memoir, Sheeple,* now a couple of years old, is just one more exemplar of this disheartening genre.
Turner is a journalist with a gift for self-promotion, the author of bestselling books offering financial advice, and a politician who served under both Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. He’s no stranger to politics. He has experienced both the highs and lows. He seems to have joined up with the Harper Conservatives in good faith, taking them at their word that they were leaving the worrying parts of the Reform Party behind. Turner told prospective constituents in Halton, west of Toronto, that the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) was “open, inclusive, mainstream, tolerant, and small ‘c’ fiscally conservative without obsessing over social issues.” He believed this. As a supporter of gay marriage and an advocate for action on climate change, he must have believed that the party was sufficiently broad-based to let him in. In any event, he persuaded a plurality of Halton’s voters that the Harper Tories were just like him and not a bit scary. And Halton’s voters made him their MP.
The election was held in January 2006. Before the year was over, the CPC had tossed him out.
Turner is an awkward cuss. It’s easy to imagine that he would be an irritant in any political party. He’s full of himself, though that’s hardly unusual among politicians. He’s also smart, forthright and anxious to make himself heard. He may be exactly the kind of guy you’d want as an MP.
He wasn’t, however, the kind of guy that Harper wanted. Harper, as we now know, is all about control. But it’s mainly because of books like Sheeple that we’ve gained this insight. It’s worth revisiting them to be reminded of the abuses that have come to seem routine.
Turner annoyed Harper when he denounced David Emerson, who had just been elected as a Liberal MP, for crossing the floor to join the Conservatives mere days after the polls had closed. It was one of the most shockingly opportunistic moves in Canadian politics, impossible to view as anything other than self-interested, and Turner was not alone in being affronted. Harper, however, didn’t quite see it that way. Turner was hauled into his office and given a humiliating dressing down.
Among Harper’s comments to Turner on this occasion was the following: “You’re a journalist and we all know journalists make bad politicians. Politicians know how to stick to a message. Journalists think they always have to tell the truth.”
Well, it’s the sort of thing that any public figure might say. Politicians, in particular, are wary of the press. Coming from anyone else, the sentiment wouldn’t be taken seriously. But this, perhaps, was different: Harper was chewing Turner out. He wasn’t making a joke. Still, it’s no big deal. After all, it’s not what people say, but what they do.
Turner’s really alarming revelations are about what Harper does to constrain the activities of Conservative MPs.
According to Turner:
- Tory MPs are given no opportunity in caucus to discuss the issues that lead to legislation. Think about this: the whole point of caucus, which is held behind closed doors, is for MPs to talk about policy. Not anymore, not in Harper’s party. Turner writes: “On all the substantive issues of 2006—from Afghanistan to same-sex marriage to the green plan to program spending cuts to budget initiatives to pension splitting to income trust taxation to the Quebecois nation to law and order measures—there were no national caucus debates. MPs were not consulted as policy was formulated and were told of decisions after they were made and normally after they had been announced to the media…”
- All Tory MPs require permission from the party whip to ask a question in parliament. Their questions and statements—even innocuous announcements about events in their constituencies—are read from an approved script. Ministers’ answers, too, are scripted and rehearsed in advance. Nothing is left to chance.
- No Tory MP can introduce a private member’s bill that has not been vetted and approved by the PMO. Again, think about this: the point of private member’s bills is to give MPs the opportunity to promote an independent initiative. These bills almost never get passed but they’re a mechanism for pursuing a local cause and generally sounding off. A mechanism unavailable to Tory MPs.
This is the kind of control that dictators exert over pretend-legislatures in third-world countries. In Harper’s party, all policy, all talking points, come from the executive. His MPs are mute. This is not what MPs are supposed to be.
The trouble with books like Turner’s is that once his revelations have been published, we get over it. We have become used to the idea that Harper exerts extraordinary control over his MPs. The revelations lose their power to shock. And that’s a shame.
* Garth Turner, Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa (Key Porter, $21.95)