Author Michael Harris’s new book is a takedown of Stephen Harper
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-21 21:01:55 UTC
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Star Oct 19 2014Author Michael Harris’s new book is a takedown of
Stephen HarperParty of One by Michael Harris argues that Prime Minister
Stephen Harper is destroying Parliament and Canada’s reputation in the
world.By Jim Coyle*

By the time author Michael Harris nears the end of his magisterial review
of the strife and times of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it is as if he
felt the need of a shower.

Almost 500 pages of *Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical
Makeover* have by then been devoted to chronicling the Harper government’s
bullying, abuse, duplicity, betrayal, affinity for crooks, public shaming
of individuals, diminishment of democratic institutions.

“It was hard every day getting up and working on this particular
government,” Harris told the Star in advance of the book’s publication this
week. “It made you feel poorly.”

So in the last chapter he seeks figurative respite. He takes readers on a
drive across the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton, N.S., and on to River
Bourgeois, there to meet a man worlds away from officialdom, backroomers,
talk show know-it-alls.

He goes to meet Farley Mowat, then 92, in the last months of his life, yet
sound of mind and opinion.

“Stephen Harper is probably the most dangerous human being ever elevated to
power in Canada,” Mowat tells the author.

“We took Parliament for granted, but, like the environment, it turns out
that it is an incredibly delicate and fragile structure. Harper has
smothered MPs and is destroying Parliament.”

Harris presents a meticulously researched, deeply reported case for why
Mowat was in all respects correct. “I think that (the Harper government)
badly needed a rational critique in detail and I hadn’t seen it,” he says.

Now we have one. And it may be that since Peter C. Newman’s landmark *Renegade
in Power* 50 years ago there has not been such a comprehensive account of a
Canadian government and critical eye cast on a prime minister’s poverty of
spirit. In fact, *Party of One* will likely stand as the definitive text on
the Harper government, the go-to reference on every Ottawa bookshelf.

Through his long career in journalism, Harris, now 66 and national affairs
columnist for iPolitics, has been drawn to stories — Mount Cashel, Donald
Marshall — of injustice and abuse of power. Again in this book, “that’s the
No. 1 impulse,” he says. “A lot of the things that (Harper) was doing
struck me as not only unjust but unjustifiable.

“In doing the research I found I was not the only person who thought so,
and people a lot smarter and more involved in the system understood the
nature of the threat that he presents.”

Harris believes the most important quote in the book is from former Commons
Speaker Peter Milliken that appears as the frontispiece:

“Parliament can hardly be weakened any more than it already is. Harper
can’t go much further without making the institution dysfunctional. He is
trying to control every aspect of House business. In fact, it will have to
be returned to its former state by someone if we are to have a democracy.”

It’s no accident that Harris opens the book with the account of a
22-year-old alarmed by the prime minister — former Senate page Brigette
DePape, who famously held up a “Stop Harper” sign in the chamber during the
2011 Throne Speech — and ends it with 92-year-old Mowat basically
expressing the same thing.

In the chapters between, Harris provides considerable evidence to support
their concern.

He reviews the robocalls scandal, the Senate scandal, the muzzling of
Canada’s scientists when their research posed obstacles to the government’s
agenda, the kneecapping of independent regulators and arm’s-length officers
of Parliament, the dismay of career diplomats to the makeover of Canada’s
international standing.

Some verdicts on the Harper government, coming as they do from those not
given to such public judgments, are beyond devastating.

“Canada’s diplomacy is hugely different under Harper,” veteran diplomat
Paul Heinbecker, former ambassador to Germany, tells the author. “It is a
reversal of our history.

“We have become outliers. We are seen as more American than the Americans,
more Israeli than Likud. Given what our foreign policy has become, I would
not have joined the service today if I were a young man.”

Harris lists the attacks on former Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
president Linda Keen, former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page,
former auditor general Sheila Fraser, the chief justice of the Supreme
Court of Canada.

“They wanted to do their duty and Stephen Harper wanted them to do what
they were told,” he writes.

In the case of Keen, a leader in her field who has never worked again in
Canada, the lesson was, Harris says, that “when (Harper) enters your life
and gets you in his sights, it’s not just to best you, it’s basically to
crush you.”

With his government, normal constraints do not apply.

As former information commissioner Robert Marleau told Harris, “when his
government was found in contempt (of Parliament), Harper treated it like a
minor, partisan irritation. Parliament is now a minor process obstacle.

“Canadians are sleepwalking through dramatic social, economic and political
changes surreptitiously being implemented by a government abusing omnibus
bills and stifling public and parliamentary debate,” Marleau continued.

“Mr. Harper has not played within the rules. Having attained absolute
power, he has absolutely abused that power to the maximum.”

Still, the most telling appraisals of Stephen Harper come, as is often the
case, not from his political enemies but those, like former Reform party
leader Preston Manning, who once admired and worked with him.

In the end, the most chilling vignette in *Party of One* might be that
provided by former cabinet minister Helena Guergis.

In the beginning, “everyone tried to please him,” she said. “I admit it,
for a time I was one of them. There is so much jealousy amongst caucus, so
pathetic. All hoping for some small recognition — recognition meaning
favour with the leader. He is the one who gives things out.”

In 2007, when Guergis and former MP Rahim Jaffer announced their engagement
to caucus, there was a thunderous ovation. With one exception.

Stephen Harper remained seated, staring.

“I noticed that he was twirling his foot,” Guergis told Harris. “The way he
does when he is angry and thinking of pouncing.”
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