Saturday, August 22, 2015

Wherein John Ibbitson Explores the Darkness that Lurks Within Stephen Harper

Yeah, That's Shifty, Just Below the Second H

Let's be blunt. John Ibbitson is probably the most prominent journalist in Canada totally in the bag for Stephen Harper.  Note that I used the word "journalist," a noun that eliminates most of the hydrophobic scribes at PostMedia.

When it comes to Harper you can trust Ibbitson never to put the boot in. Which is why excerpts of Ibbitson's new Harper biography, "Stephen Harper, The Making of a Prime Minister," serve as a powerful yardstick for considering Harper's fiercely concealed role in the Wright-Duffy scandal.

There are disagreeable aspects to Stephen Harper’s personality. He is prone to mood swings. He can fly off the handle. He goes into funks, sometimes for long periods. He is suspicious of others. The public is aware of these traits mostly through what’s written and reported in the media. In public, Harper is almost invariably calm, measured, and careful in what he says and how he says it. Yet none of us, watching him, have any difficulty believing that this closed, repressed personality is capable of lashing out from time to time. We all get the vibe. His personality also comes out in the tactics that the Conservative Party uses against its enemies, both perceived and real – which are, in a word, ruthless.

As with most of us, Harper’s character flaws are the reverse side of his character strengths: One would not exist without the other. He has been Prime Minister for a decade not despite these qualities but because of them.

...He can descend into rages, sometimes over trivial things, at other times during moments of crisis. A former aide to Harper recalls a time during the 2004 election campaign when things suddenly started to go very badly for the Conservatives, for reasons we’ll examine later. Harper was on the campaign bus, in Quebec, leading a conference call with senior campaign staff back at headquarters in Ottawa. “He was very, very angry,” the former aide recalls. “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’? ”

Harper’s temper manifests itself in different ways. Some days, he just gets up on the wrong side of the bed. Other times, he flies off the handle when confronted with bad news. That’s when the decibel level goes through the roof and the f-bombs start flying. Harper’s reaction when he was told in April, 2008, that the RCMP had raided Conservative Party headquarters in connection with the in-and-out affair, carrying out boxes of material past the TV cameras, was wondrous to behold.

...Another of Harper’s less attractive qualities is a perceived lack of loyalty toward others. One-time political adviser Tom Flanagan points out that Harper has betrayed or estranged many in the conservative movement who were at one time senior to him – Joe Clark, Jim Hawkes, Brian Mulroney, Preston Manning. This, Flanagan believes, is the product of Harper’s need to dominate whatever environment he is in. “I think he has this very strong instinct to be in charge,” he said. “He really wants to be the alpha figure, and he’s achieved that. So part of that is to dispose of anyone who might be considered to be a rival in some sense or another.”

Flanagan also asserts that “there is a huge streak of paranoia in Stephen. And he attracts people who have a paranoid streak. And if you don’t have one to begin with, you develop it, because you’re constantly hearing theories.” At its root, “looking back, there’s a visceral reluctance to trust the motives of other people,” Flanagan concludes. “He often overcomes his initial suspicions and will sign on to other people’s ideas. But the initial response is always one of suspicion.” Flanagan believes Harper is prone to depression. “He can be suspicious, secretive, and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia,” he wrote in 2014, “at other times falling into week-long depressions in which he is incapable of making decisions.”

...Some leaders like to micro-manage; others prefer to delegate. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. But Harper’s determination to grasp all of the levers, and even the widgets, of the federal government is matched by an equal determination to control the flow – or rather, the trickle – of information coming out of the government. Bureaucrats are prohibited from speaking to reporters. Scientists are prohibited from releasing the results of their research. Ambassadors have been ordered to obtain permission from the Centre before representing Canada in meetings. (The mantra from the PMO, as diplomats bitterly put it, is: Do nothing without instructions. Do not expect instructions.) Access to Information requests are routinely held up for so long that by the time the information is released, it’s no longer of any use, and the pages are mostly blacked out in any case.

Although they are in fact separate issues, this general air of secretiveness gets mixed up with the Conservatives’ willingness to demonize opponents. In fact, the Tories don’t have opponents; they have enemies. The Leader of the Liberal Party is an enemy. Judges who strike down their legislation are enemies. Union leaders are enemies. Authors and other artists who criticize the Conservatives are enemies. Journalists who cast a more-than-occasional critical eye on the government are enemies. And toward his enemies Stephen Harper bars no holds.

The Conservatives’ autocracy, secretiveness, and cruelty, critics accuse, debase politics to a level that threatens the very foundations of Canadian democracy. “Hardly anything in this world hints of Putinism more than Harperism,” columnist Ralph Surette of the Halifax Chronicle Herald opined.

...From his boyhood in Leaside, Harper learned not to trust those beyond the inner circle of family and close friends. That circle is not much larger today. Relations with those outside the wall can be cordial, but they are rarely based on implicit trust, an emotional resource that Harper invests in only a very few. And his encyclopedic memory includes not only the history of maritime border disputes, or who starred in what film; it also includes every act by every person who has slighted, offended, or betrayed him. Such acts are never forgotten and only rarely forgiven. Stephen Harper holds grudges.

He has never successfully cultivated the social skill of pretending to connect. He has difficulty feigning interest. His associates talk of him sometimes simply turning his back and walking away from them while they are in mid-sentence. He rarely displays much ability or desire to be collegial, or even polite. This tendency toward abruptness gets worse when he is tired or under stress.

...because his suspicion of the intentions of others is so overt, those who serve under him inhabit an environment of suspicion, and are, or become, suspicious as well – the culture of paranoia that Tom Flanagan observed when he worked for Stephen Harper. The reservoir of goodwill in the Prime Minister’s Office is shallow and quickly drained.

That said, if Harper is suspicious about the world around him, he has reason to be. As Joseph Heller famously said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Harper sees himself as an outsider because he is an outsider. He is from the West, but most of the country lives near the Great Lakes or St. Lawrence River. He is from the suburbs, but the Laurentian elites generally live downtown. Harper is hostile toward these elites, and they are hostile toward him. He is contemptuous of progressive academics, and they reciprocate. He distrusts the judiciary, and the judiciary has vindicated that distrust by striking down parts of his law-and-order agenda. The gala-goers he derides spit out his name in the foyer at intermission. When Stephen Harper rejected the University of Toronto, when he rejected the life of a Tory political aide in Ottawa, when he embraced the West, he fled from the commanding heights of the Central Canadian academic, cultural, and political landscape. He is the embodiment of alienation. 

What comes through is that Ibbitson, while seeking to describe Harper's character, in actuality documents his psychopathy.  Ibbitson's "this is the way of great men" apology is fine if by great men he means the likes of Caligula. What he describes is more akin to a high-functioning psychopath.

Now, assuming that Ibbitson hasn't depicted Harper unfairly or inaccurately, how does this relate to the Wright-Duffy scandal and the already preposterous claim that Harper knew nothing despite what the documents indicate and despite the revelations that his entire staff of top aides were well and truly in on it?

Harper is this profound control freak determined "to grasp all of the levers and even the widgets" of government except, we're asked to believe, when it came to the blossoming scandal of Mike Duffy.  In this case, and this alone, Harper simply left it to his footmen to sort out.  In this one moment in time the cloud of suspicion, distrust and paranoia lifted off Harper's shoulders.  Harper was magically released from "his need to dominate whatever environment he is in."

Harper's smokescreen would be difficult, if not impossible, to accept even from an emotionally stable prime minister.  But emotionally stable is not Stephen Harper. He would have required sedation to the point of near unconsciousness to let Wright-Duffy, in its minutest details, escape his control.  And none of that happened, did it.


Owen Gray said...

Unfortunately, Ibbitson sees Harper's flaws as disagreeable, Mound, not dangerous. He says he admires Harper's "force of will." Another man might call it stupidity -- the kind of stupidity that would lead him to reject his lawyer's advice.

Anonymous said...

Ibbitson is Harper's Incitatus - a horse for a horse's ass.

Lorne said...

Reading those excerpts, Mound, reminded me of the remarkable similarity between Harper and a principal that I worked under. A vindictive and frequently man who never forgot a slight or criticism, he really had no place in education, just as Harper has no place as the country's prime minister.

Lorne said...

I left out a word in the above. I meant to say he was frequently morose.

Anonymous said...

Leave Karl Marx alone, Mound ;-)
bush jr. does not belong to the crowd either, he is too vacuous to be psychopath. Happy to see tony b. there...

Scotian said...

I've been watching Harper since the late 80s, which is why I've never accepted that he was out of the loop on this. I might have with just about any other PM, well at least been willing to consider it as possible anyway, but not with Harper for the reasons laid out yet again by you in this post. In some ways Harper is the fusion of GWB's and Cheney's worst aspects, he has the Straussian beliefs of Cheney, and the love of the tactical warfare game that GWB was so fond of and learned from first Lee Atwater and then with his own master, ol' turdblossom hisself, Karl Rove. GWB was good at that part of the political game down there from early on, especially in the willingness to use whatever it takes no matter how ugly to get the job done. Sound like any sitting PMs you know?

Then there is how close Duffy had been linked and identified with Harper from the moment he made him a Senator onward, especially from then through to the 2011 election night victory. I simply cannot believe that he would leave his fate that much in the hands of his staff on something this important when he has a long proven record of inability to do so on matters much less directly connected to him.

No, I am personally convinced Harper knew, and the evidence in that trial is getting nearer and nearer to proving it, or else proving that Harper is the most gullible, trusting and naive politician let alone PM in our history. At this stage only rank incompetence, massive willful blindness, or full awareness are viable answers given what is now in the public domain I would argue, and NONE of them are acceptable in a PM, let alone one that claims his is the only leadership one should trust.

The Mound of Sound said...

What I find disconcerting, Scotian, is how ill-formed Harper's personality is, to the point of being warped. A man with a volatile temper, suspicious of all to the point of paranoia, to whom those who reject his views are enemies, unable to form normal human relationships, contemptuous of anything that will not bend to his will, even the Supreme Court of Canada.

Cloak him in brocade and he could make a new character for Game of Thrones. What is he missing, the crown?

This all demonstrates how Canadians have come to be ruled rather than governed. He sees his role, emanating from his seizure of "all the levers, even the widgets" of power as magisterial, not prime ministerial. Constitutional democracy is an affront to creatures like this man.

Scotian said...

I know it is the blackest of heresy but I am neither a reader nor watcher of Game of Thrones, so all those comparisons people make using that series goes right over my head, sorry...:)

Seriously though, given the contexts most of them are made in I can guess well enough, and it is because of how obvious this man's worst traits were combined with his consistent agenda from the late 80s until post 2004 election that are why I have been so angry with anyone that could have stopped this nightmare before it started. It isn't like Harper kept it all under wraps until only after his majority after all. So those whose livelihoods involve national politics clearly should also have been as well aware as I as to this man's true nature even if the average citizen/voter was not, which is why the NDP leadership in particular holds my especially contempt and blame for the rise and retention of PM Harper for so long, as you well know.

I still think most Canadians have a had time moving past the notion that we are so nice a society, so endeared to good government that this sort of thing "can happen here". I think a lot of the reason so many disengaged was not just disgust with choices but also the belief that it would never really get all that bad, that Canadians are at base a decent people even in our worst sides. I think if nothing else Harper should hopefully wake at least some of those back up to reality, because human nature is human nature is human nature, and to not allow for that is folly without measure in my books.

Harper has always been for me one of the most disturbing political characters Canadian politics ever coughed up, and I thought so back when he was a Reform policy wonk disagreeing with Manning on the importance of listening to one' s base in shaping policy. Indeed it was his influence specifically which raised alarm bells for me about Reform when I was wondering whether I should consider it as a serious option for my vote and what ultimately made me reject them from those days onward.

Watching him since then was what caused me to be well aware of the problem and watching first the way the PCPC was murdered to advance his ambition and then as you know my belief that the Grewal recordings fraud showed just how little respect Harper had for the law and how far he would go to gain/hold power (we still do not know which CPC hands made those edits, nor has Harper ever taken any responsibility despite his personal guarantee those recordings were pristine, despite the edits reversing who was out for the Senate seat bribe and who was against it), with the Cadman bribe approval being the icing on that cake while he was still LOO. After all if someone is willing to go that far while only the LOO, imagine how much more dangerous and far they would go with the powers of a PM, minority bad enough but majority given our system...well here we are.

While you and I disagree on the best recourse at this point politically, we clearly do not on the true nature of Harper and Harperism itself.

The Mound of Sound said...

Modern politics leave little room for independent thought. The electorate is comprised of party faithful and the uncommitted voters. The latter, more often than not, are the disinterested or disaffected, people voting based on the last thing they heard or some ill-formed gut instinct often unburdened of fact. It doesn't make much difference which brand of pols you support - Cons,Libs or New Dems - the majority of their voters are party faithful dedicated to the brand. Cons support Harper because he delivered their party to power and backed that up by transforming a minority government into a majority. Policies are relatively insignificant. That's how a person like Harper rises to power and it is a powerful force in keeping him in power.