Why Stephen Harper hides from critics on Saskatchewan’s prairies

PROVINCE by Paul Dechene


Stephen Harper brought his travelling election side-show by Regina on Aug. 13. I wouldn’t be surprised if you missed it. It was an invite-only affair for the Conservative Party’s most loyal southern Saskatchewan troops.

In fact, the event was so exclusive that local media only caught wind of it the day before it was going to happen. And according to the CBC’s online coverage, our national broadcaster wasn’t told where Harper would be speaking until a few hours before he was scheduled to start on the morning of the event.

And Prairie Dog? We weren’t even invited.

That means we weren’t there to see Harper address his ardent and extremely Caucasian admirers.¹ He opted to take to the podium far from where we could’ve biked to, west of the city on a private family farm in the new riding of Moose Jaw–Lake Centre–Lanigan (which polling suggests will become a new Con Party stronghold). Picturesque? Sure. Showing some country pride? Great!

But still, it was closed to outsiders and undecided voters.

And as for media scrutiny, when it came time for Harper to field one Saskatchewan-specific question on the subject of equalization payments, Harper simply dismissed it, saying, “That is not really the central question I think [Premier Wall] and, frankly for that matter, the people of Saskatchewan, should be concerned about.”

Well, thank goodness. We wouldn’t want to worry our pretty little heads over nothing.

But contrast the PM’s high-handed manner with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s morning visit a day earlier on Aug. 12. He wandered through the Regina Farmers’ Market, posed for photos. Literally kissed a baby. And he took eight questions from local media. Hell, Prairie Dog was even invited to this event and if we’d been awake, we could’ve grilled the Trudes about his hair product or, you know, the Liberal economic policies in the ’90s and early aughts that vastly increased inequality in this country.

You have to look at these two very different events and wonder, what is wrong with Harper? Why is he being such an imperious dink? Shouldn’t he be courting new supporters and staying on the press’ good side? Is it really sound strategy to storm around the country like some God Emperor of your own Cana-Dune, heedlessly crushing the media under your great Shai-hulud tail?²

Is that really how you win votes?

Well… maybe. And according to Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto–Mississauga, at the very least, these powerfully controlled media events probably aren’t going to hurt Harper come election day.

“I think we are at the point — nine years into this government — where we can safely conclude that not that many people really care about how the Prime Minister treats the media. Those who do long since stopped voting for the Conservatives,” says Loewen by e-mail.

“I think these events serve at least a few functions,” he adds. “First, the news cycle demands near-daily events. The visuals of these events fill newscasts which rarely broadcast much of what leaders say anyways. So, even when journalists can’t actually ask many questions, they will still make use of the event. Second, these events give local partisans a chance to see the leader in person, which is itself a sort of motivator over the course of a long campaign. Third, the events signal to voters their region is important.”

Fair enough. These events involve the media but aren’t about them. And sure, politicians like to control their message.

But Harper’s hostility to the media is becoming something of a legend across the country — before the election he almost never took questions from the press, preferring instead to pose for staged photo opportunities. And now, on the campaign trail, he becomes obviously testy when confronted with questions designed to move him off his message track.

He’s not just appearing autocratic. He’s looking rude.

But according to Robert Hackett, a professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Communications, Harper isn’t likely to face much of a press backlash.

“I think that’s somewhat unlikely given that most of the journalists working for most of the corporate media in Canada, their bosses [and] their employers tend to support the Harper agenda, and many of them editorially endorsed the Conservatives last time,” says Hackett. “I think it’s not too likely that journalists’ frustration with packaged events is going to spill over into heavily negative coverage given the contrary pressures on them from most of the media corporations in this country.”

If, however, the press is somehow roused from its assigned role as stenographers for Harper’s talking points and start calling him to account for his dictatorial ways, Hackett would like to see them investigate what lurks behind the strategy.

“I think we in the media should look at what was the game plan, what was the ideology all along. This fits. It’s very much an incrementalist strategy to change Canada. [Harper] was very open at certain points early in his career that that was his game plan. He wanted to change Canada beyond recognition. But he knew he couldn’t do it all at once,” says Hackett.

“[His strategy] relies upon Canadians’ political cynicism and ignorance to work. And I think the level of political literacy in this country is not high. Most Canadians probably haven’t even heard the term neoliberalism, but I think that’s an accurate description of the ideology he’s pursuing and was pursuing as head of [the National Citizens’ Coalition], and that he learned at the seat of the Fraser Institute and the corporate funded free market think tanks like that.”

Of course, beyond the larger ideological agenda, Hackett notes a more humdrum explanation for Harper wanting to be among Conservative true-believers at his Regina event.

“Harper must be figuring that he had some negative news to deal with [that] week with the Duffy trial so that obviously has to be affecting his strategy as well,” says Hackett. “I suspect he’s hiding.”

After his visit to a south Saskatchewan farm, Harper headed north to Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. You can’t get much farther away from the senate scandal.

Hiding indeed.

¹ Based on all the pics and video of the event that we’ve seen online, Harper’s Aug. 13 event was remarkably lacking in diversity.

² Actual quote from Emperor Harper’s Aug. 13 event: “House Mulcair says leave the spice in the ground.” ³

³ Okay, that isn’t a real quote. It’s another reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune. What Harper actually did was accuse the NDP of having a hidden agenda to leave “the resources in the ground” — that being a reference to something NDP candidate Linda McQuaig said on an Aug. 9 episode of Power & Politics. And actually, Harper was misrepresenting McQuaig as what she actually said was, “A lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets.” Which is, you know, just factually true. Even under Harper’s plan to phase out fossil fuel use in Canada by the end of the century, the tarsands wouldn’t end up being fully exploited. So, by his own logic, you could argue Harper has a secret agenda to leave our oil resources in the ground. Except it’s way more likely his secret agenda is to carry on ignoring every and all climate change targets and burn up our resources as fast as possible.

Which, if you don’t believe in science, seems a not unreasonable position.