Quite often when we talk about right-wing populist parties we think of Europe – of Ukip, the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats, Golden Dawn, or Donald Trump in the United States. Yet arguably the most successful right-wing populist leader in the 21st century was in Canada: the former prime minister Stephen Harper.
He was in power for almost ten years, so it’s easy to overlook that the leader of what many think of as a democratic, peaceful country was a prominent member of the right-wing populist Reform Party. A party that Harper himself said was modelled on the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the United States, what many today call the Tea Party.
The Reform Party’s first electoral win was a by-election in 1989. It went on to replace the Progressive Conservatives as the leading party on the right. Of course, the Reform Party no longer exists, but it was one of parties that merged to form the modern day Conservative Party of Canada. With Harper at the party’s head, the Reformers’ roots are still there today.
Is it fair to call the Conservatives a right-wing populist party? They don’t openly call themselves populist like the Reform Party once did. To clarify, populism is a thin-centred ideology that pits “the people” against dangerous “others” who are perceived as trying to strip the people of their identity, voice, or sovereignty. Right-wing populists therefore tend to use a hyperbolic and reactionary language to convey an anti-immigration, Islamophobic and, in Europe, a Eurosceptic agenda.
A look back at the last year of his mandate alone highlights how fear, designed to divide ‘good’ Canadians and a conflated group of terrorists, jihadists and Muslims, is the driving force behind a number of Harper’s key government policies.
On a rare occasion, Canada made front-page news abroad when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a soldier on Parliament Hill in October 2014. Without much information right after the attack, the media on both sides of the Atlantic speculated that this was “homegrown terrorism” and “radicalisation.” It turned out that, although the attacker claimed to be acting in the name of Islam, he was a homeless drug addict with mental health issues.
The majority of Canadians recognised that the tragic event was driven by a complex set of factors – marginalisation, mental illness and religion. The government’s response was populist in its over-simplification and divisiveness: Bill C-51, the “anti-terror” bill. When Harper unveiled it, his scare mongering tactics were in full force: “Violent jihadism is not just a danger somewhere else. It seeks to harm us here in Canada… through horrific acts like deliberately driving a car at a defenceless man, or shooting a soldier in the back as he stands guard at a War Memorial… They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents.”
The populist ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric couldn’t be clearer. There is no acknowledgement of the multiple, intricate driving forces behind this recent event. No recognition that perhaps the government’s inadequate programs for helping people with mental illness were part of the problem. Harper’s focus on jihad and terrorism was a blatant attempt to scare the Canadian public into accepting a dangerous new bill that severely limited Canadian civil liberties.
A bill that was criticised by the leader of the official opposition New Democratic Party Thomas Mulcair and Green Party leader Elizabeth May for converting “Canada’s spy agency into a secret police state with virtually unlimited powers.”
A formal letter attacking the bill for lack of oversight was signed by four former prime ministers, and 18 other Canadians who have served as Supreme Court of Canada justices, ministers of justice and public safety, solicitors-general, members of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee and commissioners responsible for overseeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and upholding privacy laws.
The Privacy Commissioner Daniel Thierren, who was blocked by Conservatives from appearing as a witness in committee discussions, says that the new powers granted to 17 federal agencies is “excessive” and could impact on ordinary Canadians.
Over 100 Canadian law professors have warned Stephen Harper that Bill C-51 is a “dangerous piece of legislation” that threatens Canadian democracy. They write that the bill would do little to achieve its stated aim of fighting terrorism, and opens the way for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) to target legitimate activists and protestors, criminalising environmentalists, Native people and other critical dissenters of the Conservative government.
Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy carried out an arguably McCarthyesque questioning in the House public safety committee “entirely based on innuendo and misinformation.”
Thousands of Canadians protested against Bill C-51 across the country.
Adding to the Harper government’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative about security, the controversy over unconstitutionally banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies further highlights the prime minister’s pandering to Islamophobia.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau rightly and eloquently voiced his opposition in a speech about liberty:
“[The Conservatives’] approach to politics might work in the short term, but it is corrosive over time, especially in a diverse country like Canada… Fear is a dangerous thing. Once it is sanctioned by the state, there is no telling where it might lead. It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty.”
These few examples highlight only a small fraction of the liberty-restricting policies the Harper government has justified by stoking anxiety and fomenting fear, trying to pit ‘good Canadians’ against ‘dangerous Muslims.’
The Reform Party started out by advocating decentralisation, a classic populist call to bring power back to the people. Ironically, Harper centralised power to such an extent that many, including Green Party leader Elizabeth May, called his rule an elected dictatorship as he silenced dissenting voices along the way.
Harper replaced the independent elections monitor with an individual responsible directly to himself (after the Conservatives committed electoral fraud in 2011). He prevented federal scientists from speaking to the media about research that contradicts the government’s ideological goals. He scrapped the long-form census to eliminate any shred of doubt that his government was engaged in evidence-based policy-making. Harper aggressively targeted auditing of progressive think tanks and charities for their supposedly ‘biased’ work, while he spoke at events and warmly praises the research of right-wing think tanks.
While he claimed his views on the niqab are because of its ‘anti-women culture,’ Harper’s socially conservative approach was mired in hypocrisy. His government refused to initiate a public inquiry into why there is an over-representation of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. Various policies emphasised this stance, from income-splitting, to refusing international aid to organisations that included abortion in family-planning strategies, and cutting funding to at least 31 women’s organisations.
The rise of Stephen Harper should be a warning to centrist politicians in Europe. Disillusionment with the traditional political parties fuelled the Reform Party’s initial growth in the 1990s. UKIP and other right-wing populist parties across Europe are flourishing due to a similar sense of political disaffection today.
Mainstream parties need a wake up call. In 1997, Stephen Harper was just a right-wing populist MP, part of a fringe in a first past the post system. Less than ten years later, he became Prime Minister. A post he kept for almost ten years by getting rid of institutional checks and balances, centralising power in the prime minister’s office. Stephen Harper shows it’s the long-term repercussions that are the most dangerous for democracy when populists are in power.