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Harper v. Canada: 2011 election scandal brings scrutiny to PM's controversial past

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  • Late televangelist Jerry Falwell, who blamed the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Centre attacks on “abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians". 
  • Televangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian group Focus on the Family.
  • Former Bush-administration Attorney General John Ashcroft, who authorized water-boarding, widely regarded as a form of torture.
  • Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and former Vice Presidential running mate for Senator John McCain in 2008.
  • Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was charged with a cover-up after funnelling arms to Iran and money to right-wing death squads in Nicaragua in the 1980s in the Iran-Contra scandal.
  • Timothy LaHaye, the end-of-the-world preacher who authored the Left Behind Series and founded both the Moral Majority and the anti-evolution Institute for Creation Research.

Harper's words before CNP in June 1997 seem distant from his tone today, but his criticism of employment insurance and the New Democrats are echoed in today's Conservative policies.

“The NDP is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men,” Harper told the crowd. “This party believes not just in large government and in massive redistributive programs, it's explicitly socialist.”

He went further, to describe Canada's health care, employment insurance and welfare system disparagingly.

“Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it,” he said.

“The unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half . . . don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.”

But the current head of the NCC – who calls Harper a friend to this day – told the Vancouver Observer that Harper's more right-wing ideas have evolved since his time at the organization and shouldn't be held against him.

Harper's views: have they changed?

When asked about our current Prime Minister's remarks, Peter Coleman, the NCC's Chief Executive Officer, chalks them up to youthful idealism and bravado, essentially. Views change, he suggests, and we grow wiser.

“A lot of us in life, as we get older and mature, have certain views we might have held when we were a lot younger,” Coleman said. “It's not unusual for our views to change over time as you actually open your ears and your mind, and listen to different positions.

“You know, I don't think that Harper right now is spending a lot of time worrying about what the Americans are doing. What his views were in that speech he gave in '97, up to where he is now – that's a pretty long time for a politician.”

For Dobbin, however, the roots of Harper's opposition to electoral regulations goes back to his earliest political roots: conservative libertarianism, an ideology opposed to government and in favour of absolute individual freedom. In his view, Harper has not evolved since his time at NCC.

“That's completely nonsense,” he said. “I've been writing about him for 20 years – he hasn't changed one iota.

“If he shows any signs of what looks like maturity, it's simply tactical and strategic. He's not an idiot. This is a very smart man. . . He opposes any limits on corporate spending for the same reason Republicans do in the US: he's essentially a libertarian.”

Libertarians, argued Dobbin, generally oppose government regulations and programs – except, in most cases, the military or police. But because they view a large State as unjustified, there is a rationale for breaking the rules to achieve their goals. That, he believes, is the root of the current “robo-call” election scandal, as well as the Tories' guilty plea last year to breaking election spending laws in the previous election.

“If all these things we have are illegitimate, then it's legitimate to take any measures you can to reverse them,” Dobbin argued. “It gave Harper a carte blanche.”

In its ruling in “Harper v. Canada,” the Supreme Court concluded that strict limits on election spending by third parties – such as the NCC – is essential to a fair and democratic process. In particular, the rules prevent the entire system from being hijacked by moneyed interests.

“Electoral fairness . . . is consistent with the egalitarian model of elections adopted by Parliament as an essential component of our democratic society,” the judges noted. “Under this model, wealth is the main obstacle to equal participation.

“The egalitarian model promotes an electoral process that requires the wealthy to be prevented from controlling the electoral process to the detriment of others with less economic power.”

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