Our PM’s siege mentality is rooted in Alberta politics

by Gillian Steward

nation2Stephen Harper’s political style — combative, suspicious and isolated — has been compared to Richard Nixon’s way of doing politics or the U.S. Tea Party’s relentless anger about everything.

But if you have lived in Alberta for any length of time, there’s something about Harper’s style that is quite familiar and rooted much closer to home.

Western Canada — but especially Alberta — has a long tradition of politics that could be described as “circling the wagons” against the powers that be in central Canada. The federal government, the governing Liberals, the bankers, the railroads, the Supreme Court have at one time or another all been regarded by Alberta conservative politicians as the enemy that thwarts the province’s ambitions and self-determination.

Circling the wagons is one way that settlers protected their territory from forces beyond their control. It causes many of our politicians to act like besieged pioneers who must huddle together to protect themselves.

Circling the wagons is also very useful during elections. Many an election has been fought and won in Alberta by conservatives vowing to protect the province from the dastardly federal government, usually a Liberal government.

Vivid examples of this style of politics can be found during the first years of the Social Credit era in the 1930s when “Bible Bill” Aberhart was premier. Aberhart was elected after he promised to distribute government-backed scrip worth $25 a month to Albertans (social credit). But the legislation necessary to establish this form of currency was overruled as “unconstitutional by the lieutenant-governor, then by the Governor General, then by the Supreme Court, and then by the Privy Council,” writes Aritha van Herk in Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.

Government MLAs were so furious at the lieutenant-governor, who had been appointed by the federal government, that they evicted him from his official residence, which was paid for by the Alberta government.

Harper’s visceral animosity toward Liberals and opposition parties in general also has roots in Alberta politics. As the long-standing governing party in Ottawa, Liberals were seen as condescending, exploitative and greedy.

As well, Albertans’ habit of voting in huge majority governments left opposition parties weak and ineffective.

Former premier Ralph Klein treated opposition MLAs as if they had no legitimate right to be in the legislature. He once called a Liberal MLA a “communist.”

Harper’s penchant for complete control is not unlike former premier Ernest Manning’s iron grip on government. And his loathing for the news media is reminiscent of Aberhart, who passed legislation that forced the press to print government press releases word for word and allowed the Social Credit party to ban anything it didn’t want published.

The act was eventually withdrawn because it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

“I think it is fair to say that Harper’s political style has significant precedents in western Canadian conservatism (especially Alberta conservatism) though his personality no doubt plays a big role too,” says Alvin Finkel, an Alberta historian who wrote the definitive book on Social Credit.

Of course, Harper isn’t originally from Alberta; he went there after finishing high school in Ontario and eventually became a leading light in the Reform Party.

But the original Reformers were in many ways direct descendants of the Aberhart and Manning school of politics.

And let’s not forget the famous firewall letter that Harper and several of his Alberta-based colleagues sent to Klein after the Chrétien Liberals won the 2000 election. “It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction,” they wrote.

Harper eventually made his way into the corridors of power and seems firmly entrenched. But he still acts like a besieged outsider who has to fend off powerful institutions and people — the head of the Supreme Court, the chief electoral officer, the auditor general, Via Rail — to maintain credibility.

There are exceptions, of course, to this distinctly Alberta leadership style. Peter Lougheed took on the federal government many times, but he never questioned the legitimacy of federal institutions. Joe Clark never engaged in “us and them” politics.

Harper, on the other hand, has barricaded himself behind a firewall that seems to get thicker by the day.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.