Ever since Stephen Harper was first elected in 2006, there has been an endless conversation going on in Canada’s media and academic institutions about the ideological predispositions of his government. Is he a genuine fundamentalist, or is he just playing one to appease his base? How are his policies rooted in the traditions of Albertan conservatism? Does he oppose action on climate change because he rejects the science or because he is hostile to the idea of government intervention in the economy? And so on.
Presumably, the people who engage in such speculation are doing so in the hopes that, if they can pin down his intellectual history, it can help to create a narrative for how his government operates. But I have come to believe that all of this speculation is ultimately worthless, in that it assumes that there is a coherent, ideological rationale behind his policies.
What all such discussions overlook is one key fact: Stephen Harper (and by extension his government) is–first, last, and only–a creature of the oil and gas industry. A spiteful, petty, resentful creature–but a creature nonetheless. Once you just accept this fact, all discussion of his ideology becomes immaterial; everything he claims he believes in is nothing more than a smokescreen*.
Take, for example, two news items in the last week.
In the first, Harper’s Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, has criticized the government of Nova Scotia for banning fracking in its territory. Now, of course, natural resources are a matter of provincial jurisdiction in Canada, and Joe Oliver isn’t a citizen of Nova Scotia, so this can’t even be said to affect him personally. So why would a high-ranking federal minister be making a public statement about something which is so blatantly none of his business? Especially considering that when the Harper regime was first elected in 2006, it ran on opposition to the Kyoto protocol on the grounds that it “touches on provincial jurisdiction, without consulting the provinces.”
Now, as you can see, in one case, Harper’s Conservatives think provincial jurisdiction is sacrosanct (when it helps the oil industry); in the other case, Harper’s Conservatives feel like telling the provinces what to do (when their actions hurt the oil industry). Clearly, no hemming-and-hawing about Harper’s opinion on federalism is going to be helpful here: the government will spin on a dime when the oil industry’s profits are at stake.
In the second, more critical item, Harper has, without consultation, signed a “free trade” deal with the People’s Republic of China. Among other things, this deal serves to lock-in Harper’s environmental deregulations for the next 31 years, by allowing state-owned Chinese companies to sue for lost revenue. In other words, Harper, a right-wing Conservative Prime Minister, has abrogated Canadian sovereignty to China, a Communist state, to the benefit (surprise, surprise) of the oil patch. There is simply no way to justify such behaviour in terms of any sort of coherent ideology–especially not those generally ascribed to Harper: nationalism and economic libertarianism.
But it’s not just Harper’s hypocrisies which make sense when you adopt this model: it, and it alone, explains virtually everything that his government has done for the last eight years, from the constant drive for more free trade deals, to the harassment of environmentalists, to the gutting of scientific research, to the rollback of First Nations’ sovereignty, even to his obsessive quest to strengthen the Canadian claim to the arctic by means of ridiculous photo-ops of him searching for the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror**.
So why isn’t this the dominant narrative behind Harper’s actions? Well, I believe that when you’re an intellectual, there’s always the temptation to perceive everything in terms of intellectual history unfolding itself before your eyes. But if you do this, you run the risk of taking bullshit at face value and ignoring baser, more materialistic considerations. So it has been in the case of Harper. Commentators trying to puzzle out some grand system of beliefs which drive the man and his government are giving him way too much credit; he’s a shill, and nothing more.
**To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea, as it were.