Friday, January 18, 2008


In defending his government's decision to sack Linda Keen, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Stephen Harper cast himself and his confreres as guardians of the public trust. "We had to intervene to stop a course of action from the president of the nuclear commission which would have needlessly jeopardized the health care system and the lives of Canadians and people around the world," he told reporters in Prince Albert this week.

Former Conservative (now Liberal) MP Garth Turner saw a pattern. "Stephen Harper dumped me," he wrote in his blog this week, "for being an MP who tried to speak for principle first and party second. Bill Casey was fired as an MP for speaking for his constituents first, and being a follower second. Michael Chong was outed for putting the concept of Canada ahead of vote pandering to Quebec. Now Stephen Harper has done it again, firing Linda Keen for doing her appointed job of making sure nuclear reactors are safe."

"The pattern is unmistakable," Turner wrote. "It reminds me of a famous Humphrey Bogart movie, 'The Caine Mutiny,' in which an insane naval commander abused his power after seeing imaginary threats all around him." Some might see Turner's take on things as nothing more than sour grapes. But the communitariate has been uniformly critical of Harper. In The Globe and Mail, Lawrence Martin wrote, "Since taking power two years ago this month, this type of behaviour has been a hall mark of this government. It confuses class with crass." Martin did not side automatically with the opposition parties, who "typically took their case way overboard, comparing the Keen affair to Communist witch hunts in the U.S. following the Second World War." And, Martin pointed out, the opposition parties voted for a bill to overule Keen and restart the Chalk River reactor-- which she had ordered shut down because Atomic Energy Canada had not installed required safety upgrades -- even though various medical experts did not see the shutdown as life threatening. There is more than enough blame to go around. But the blame should not rest on Keen's shoulders.

Harper is no Joe McCarthy. But his paranoia is reminiscent of Richard Nixon, whose penchant for vengeance was personal -- he had his staff draw up a list of "enemies" -- and whose establishment of a "plumbers" operation in the basement of the White House led to his downfall.

Writing in The Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert focused on Harper's paranoia. "Two years [after Harper's election] is seems that Canada has traded a government with a short attention span for one whose policy focus is so narrow that it often borders on fixation. The latter goes hand in hand with an unprecedented degree of micro-management from the top, an obsessive preoccupation with iron clad control over even the most fact based communications." The result, wrote Hebert, is that, "according to government insiders, that combination is well in the process of rendering parts of the federal policy apparatus inoperative."

As Nixon's paranoia became full blown, his government ceased to function. No one is suggesting that Harper has reached the point where, like Nixon, he is strolling down the corridors of 24 Sussex Drive having drunken conversations with the portraits of his predecessors. But his two year tenure has given Canadians enough time to take the measure of the man. And, before long, he will be seeking a majority government. Clearly, the principle of caveat emptor applies. A secure Harper administration would expose Canadian democracy to a lot of unhealthy fallout.

This is a government which has been conceived in one man's image. And, therefore, it should remain a minority institution -- until such time as Canadians choose a man in their own image.

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