Dec 20 2009

When a Dictator Isn’t a Dictator

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is accused of acting like a dictator. The real issue is why an experienced editorialist can’t act like a professional.

It is a well-understood principle in most editorial and blogging circles that when you compare your opponent to Hitler, you’ve automatically lost the argument. Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments say far more about the one making the accusation than the target of the attack.

This rule also applies to an only slightly lesser extent when one compares their opponent to a dictator, particularly in a country like Canada. Let’s face it, when you use the word “dictator”, the face that most often comes to mind is Austria’s most notorious firebrand. Unless you’re talking about Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, labeling someone a dictator, or more cautiously using the phrase “acting like a dictator”, is not just wrong — it’s stupid.

So it’s disappointing when I see this sort of accusation leveled against our Prime Minister in a publication like the Toronto Star. Haroon Siddiqui’s clownish piece, Harper acting like an elected dictator, is a perfect example of the genre.

Not to delve too deeply into this muck, but one would at least expect such an outlandish assertion to be backed up by some sort of, well, evidence. An excerpt of Siddiqui’s piece:

Stephen Harper is centralizing power in the PMO on an unprecedented scale; defying Parliament (by refusing to comply with a Commons vote demanding the files on Afghan prisoner abuse); derailing public inquiries (by a parliamentary committee and the Military Police Complaints Commission); muzzling/firing civil servants; demonizing critics; and dragging the military into the line of partisan political fire.

Let’s see. Harper has “centralized” power within the PMO. So what? The PMO doesn’t make laws. The House of Commons does. The Conservatives are still hamstrung by their minority status. It makes little difference whether Harper keeps a firm leash on his closest cronies, so long as their leader and party must answer to the people in parliament.

Harper has not defied parliament on the Afghan file. He has defied a select number of MPs who are doing all they can to sap the morale of our citizenry and military for short-term partisan gain. There’s no question which political parties have actually tried to bring our soldiers into disrepute; apparently for the high crime of turning over our captured common enemy combatants to our Afghan allies to deal with before they’ve reached a civilized enough state where terrorists’ rights take precedence over those of their victims.

As for muzzling civil servants, Harper has done no such thing. Bureaucrats have always been subject to privacy rules and confidentiality considerations determined by their elected masters. This is hardly something unique to the Conservatives. And civil servants certainly don’t have any right to lifetime job security.

Extreme language and partisan rhetoric have ruined public discourse. I expect more from an editorialist in one of our nation’s most well-read newspapers.

Is this really how Canadian PM Stephen Harper starts his day?

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16 responses so far

16 Responses to “When a Dictator Isn’t a Dictator”

  1. Bull Calleron 21 Dec 2009 at 3:29 am

    The conservative government, tightly controlled and run by the PMO is now in contempt of Parliament. Look it up. Technically they can be jailed for this according to the law.

    Your comment is myopic, and that is being generous. It is now abundantly clear that the conservatives have lied on the detainee issue and have conducted a smear campaign against Mr. Colvin, and unbelievably, against the Red Cross – who will they pick next? Santa?

    This isn’t about a bunch of blue meanies affecting ‘morale of the country and troops’, it has DIRECTLY to do with Canada’s obligations under international laws and treaties, and, further to that, the obligations that government officials have to act when they are compelled to by Parliament.

    To ignore it, is to consider yourself above democracy. That is what Harper has done and he will pay dearly for it.

  2. Terryon 21 Dec 2009 at 3:59 am

    You really expect more from the Red Star?
    Between this Siddiqui goof and that Travers knob, do you actually think you would read anything but partisan crap posing as journalism in that rag?
    If they were honest at all, they would include “OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE LIBERAL PARTY OF CANADA” in their masthead!

  3. langmannon 21 Dec 2009 at 7:19 am

    Ya, the fact that Haroon Siddiqui has never said anything good about any Conservative should be the tip off that he is really another one of the Lame Stream Media’s unofficial advertising donation to the Liberal party.

    His articles are predictable, such and such Conservative is “uneducated, blind, overreaching, dictatorial, confused, pig headed etc.” Its always the same so why read his articles?

  4. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 7:20 am

    “It is a well-understood principle in most editorial and blogging circles that when you compare your opponent to Hitler, you’ve automatically lost the argument. Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments say far more about the one making the accusation than the target of the attack.”

    It is also a well-understood principle that when you have to lie and make things up, you’ve automatically lost the argument. Outright fabrication and ignoring of indisputable facts say far more about the one making the argument than the target of the attack.

    Where did Siddiqui say anything about Hitler? To accuse someone of “Reductio ad Hitlerum”, one would think a pre-requisite would be to have, actually referred to Hitler. In fact, he prefaces his argument by saying what he is accusing Harper of is being just more dictatorial than conservatives always accused Trudeau and Chretien of being.

    While as a rule I never read Siddiqui because, well, he’s an idiot and usually has no idea what he’s talking about, I was curious this time because a number of people have commented on his article and, more to the point, a great deal of people are saying more or less the same thing: Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells, etc. have all raised serious concerns about how Harper is undermining our democratic institutions.

    As for ignoring how Harper is undermining our democracy:

    – he has systematically shut down the Justice Committee, the Ethics Committee, the Environment Committee, the Procedure and House Affairs committee and now the Special Committee on Afghanistan. Whenever a committee has attempted to do its job and hold the government accountable, or merely ask questions, he has cut it off. He has done this by: fillibustering and not letting the committee meet or pass motions, having the chair simply walk away from votes preventing meetings from proceeding, or simply have all Conservative members not show up to work. More here.

    – he has shut down promised confidence votes when he thought he would lose and then in an unprecedented move shut down Parliament just to avoid a vote.

    – he has broken the law by ignoring the Access to Information Act like no Prime Minister or Premier before him. So much so that the Information Commissioner has had to write report after report about his failings and then he was forced out.

    – breaking the law under the Access to Information Act has led to more standing orders than is precedented. These are Parliamentary requests for information and are binding. But Harper ignores these. More of this undermining of democracy and Parliament here.

    – he has fired civil servants for doing their job, like Linda Keen, or cut their funding, like the Budget Office, if they dare to do their job and thereby show Harper to be an ideological liar.

    – the whole detainee issue was a pretty minor issue and could have and should have been dealt with by the MPCC. It would never have gone anywhere if it had. Instead, what has become apparent is that the real issue here is one of democracy and how far a government can go in avoiding accountability to Parliament and the people. Andrew Coyne’s excellent analysis of what the real issue is in this week’s Maclean’s is not online yet but when it is it will be here:

    “So we need to see the documents, in unedited form. Or rather, Parliament has demanded to see the documents. With that, and with the government’s brusque rejection of its demands, the dispute has entered an entirely new stage. It is difficult to overstate the importance of what is at stake. It is no less fundamental than whether the government is answerable to Parliament – the bedrock principle of our system of government.”

  5. Canadiansenseon 21 Dec 2009 at 8:03 am

    Great post. The fear mongering, the Hidden Agenda, losing our democracy by references to “the dictator” has been a pattern for several years by some in the media and to a large extent in the blogosphere.

    We have only had a minority parliament(s) since 2004 and the media forget to hold the opposition accountable in our parliamentary democracy.

    The opposition voted non-confidence against the Martin led government and we have had Harper led minority since 2006.

    The opposition are free to remove confidence in this minority parliament if they are unhappy and return to another General Election.

    The opposition could amend/pass legislation that are confidence matters and require the government to act or fail.

    Why is the media unable or unwilling to hold the opposition parties to that simple FACT.

    Susan Delacourt in her Pack Journalism

  6. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 8:40 am

    Shorter CanadianSense: Siddiqui is right – unaccountable government dictatorship between elections is fine.

  7. harebellon 21 Dec 2009 at 9:10 am

    You said:
    “Harper has not defied parliament on the Afghan file. He has defied a select number of MPs who are doing all they can to sap the morale of our citizenry and military for short-term partisan gain.”

    He has defied a parliament. He has refused to obey the order that parliament made for him to hand over the documents. In much the same way that you claim Harper doesn’t make laws, parliament does; parliament voted and passed this order by a majority making it legally binding, not the small number of members you claim.

    The only civilians and military he is demoralising is the generals and politicos that are using our brave fighting men and women as a shield to hide behind. Our fighting people are heros, their leaders not so much.

  8. Calgary Junkieon 21 Dec 2009 at 9:20 am

    The mistake the Opps are making is that they are over-playing their “process” argument–i.e. get rid of Harper because of the WAY he is governing.

    Let’s look at another process argument, the one around Adscam–get rid of Paul Martin because of the way his Party stole taxpayer money to help them retain power. That argument was a lot more powerful than this “dictator” argument. Voters grasp brown envelopes full of cash, a lot easier than they understand Parliamentary procedures.

    So flashback to November, 2005. The Libs started that campaign, polling at around 38 % !. Everyone expected Harper to campaign by hammering away on Adscam. Instead, he campaigned on a “policy-a-day”, and only mentioned Adscam in passing (eg “Quebecers no longer have to choose between corruption and seperation …”). It was Harper’s platform that closed the deal for voters to give him a shot at governing, IMHO.

    So I’m not worried about this line of attack on Harper. What will doom Iggy in a campagin, is when he is pressed to be a lot more specific on his policy alternatives. Most recently he made a fool of himself, when unable to specify what ghg reduction targets he would put in place, instead of our 20 % by 2020 plan.

  9. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 9:52 am

    The mistake the government is making is that they are over-playing their “process” argument–i.e. they think that the Opps are saying get rid of Harper because of the WAY he is governing – and under-playing the “constitutional democracy” and “accountability” argument.

    Democracy and accountability are not mere “process” issues.

    Canadians don’t like being lied to, over and over and over, by the government to protect itself. And we really don’t like it when the government, over and over and over, undermines basic Parliamentary democracy.

  10. Calgary Junkieon 21 Dec 2009 at 10:14 am

    Ted, my point is, that Harper had the mother of all “process” arguments to use against Martin–Adscam–yet Harper barely touched it. He instead campaigned on policies. “Theft of taxpayer money for political advantage” looked to all the pundits like a winning gift horse, yet Harper largely rejected it.
    Instead, he rode the policy horse to victory.

    As to “Canadians don’t like being lied to, …”. Have you noticed that McGuinty won two back to back majorities ?

    Anyway, you guys have your “Harper is a lieing, scheming, hardball-playing, democracy destroying dictator” narrative. Good luck with playing that throughout a 36 day campaign. On about day 3, the media will get bored with it, and force you guys to give details on whatever policies Iggy dares to put out there.

  11. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 10:23 am

    “Instead, he rode the policy horse to victory. “

    Are you kidding me?

    Harper won because of accountability and Adscam. Not his little “policiettes” as Andrew Coyne called them.

    His major and only talking point for 18 months before the election was accountability and Adscam. From the election on, his primary focus was accountability.

    He provided just enough policiettes to hoodwink Canadians into believing he was going to be different than Martin, his priorities were not too conservative, and he seemed to know what he was doing so was not going to be worse.

    That’s usually how the newcomer wins – just enough of a sense of having it together that the voter is willing to jettison the devil they know. But it is not why they elect them: Ernie Eves, Martin, etc. defeated themselves and the opposition rode into power on populations that were fed up with the status quo.

  12. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 10:28 am

    Or to put it another way Calgary Junkie, and this is actually not inconsistent with what you say come to think about it, Adscam was so ingrained in Canadian consciousness and made us so angry, especially in Quebec, because of Harper’s 18 month Adscam campaign and the election campaigns of Duceppe and Layton and the media against the Liberals, that Harper did not need to make as much his sole focus during the election. Had he made it his sole focus, he quite possibly would not have won.

    Like I said, he gave enough “policiettes” to get him the final few centimetres for the touchdown, after Adscam got him the first 99.5 metres down the field. (Even then, all he could manage was a field goal and not a touchdown, to extend the metaphor.)

  13. Calgary Junkieon 21 Dec 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Well Ted, we are obviously going to disagree on how the 2006 election was won, and what might work for the Opps in the next election.

    So far, it looks like you guys are going to run on:
    “Harper is a dictator, while Iggy is a kinder, gentler brainiac who has a big vision for making Canada the bestest place in the world by 2017”

    Good luck with that. I’m not going to lie awake, worrying about it. What you guys SHOULD be doing in preparation is to unite the Left.

  14. Tedon 21 Dec 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I agree that, if that was it, you shouldn’t lose any sleep. Just because the opposition aren’t convincing anyone yet, doesn’t mean Harper’s doing a decent job. His job approval and voter support numbers have plummetted in the last month.

    But how many of Harper’s “Five Priorities” (TM) had been announced before the 2006 election had started? How much of the platform? Virtually none.

    Certainly, the Liberals need to be doing a whole heck of a lot more. It is very frustrating sometimes/oftentimes.

    But one of the things we should not be doing and I hope we are not doing, at least not mearly for electoral strategy reasons, is to unite the left.

    The Liberals are always most successful when they own the middle with, to paraphrase the song, wackos to the left of them and jokers to the right, stuck in the middle with us Canadians.

  15. Randyon 23 Dec 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Canadians largely are proving to be very pragmatic in how they view being governed. The opposition groups appear mostly in disarray, operating in a near policy void and are being tuned out.

    The regularity of pulling often very infantile pranks or visual props to attempt to derail or embarrass the Conservatives has wounded any credibility that may have been available to Liberals and NDP.

    It often seems that the less than attentive electorate cannot or will not decipher the difference between what might be valid expose and what is a childish gotcha that many of the all too friendly media are willing to trumpet far and wide in papers and on TV.

    Given that many of us who owned equities during the global meltdown, lost about 50% of the value of our holdings, often held within RRSP’s, we mostly are relieved at how Canada has fared.

    The stimulus balloon spending unfortunately was unavoidable according to most who analyize both finance and politics. Canadians seem to feel we weathered the storm reasonably well. We got a new tax free savings vehicle (TFSA) and virtually every Canadian has utilized the new home renovation credit.

    Ted makes a lot of points which may or may not prove to have some lesser truth once the hyperbole is extracted. Ted’s points may sadly suggest that the points have become just so much noise.

    It is just through this noise that I am starting to wonder whether Canadians are liking, no enjoying the strength of this PM Harper. The pragmatic unhurried solid approach to each cascading daily crisis is gaining him deserved respect. The “noise” is akin to school yard screeching but is more and more being perceived solely as an absolute assault of craven political posturing by the Liberals and NDP. We generally do not find it attractive when a party is baldly trying to grab power for powers sake.

    Harper now owns the centre and this has created no end to the catfights on the left. Even when the cats pick a fight with SH.

  16. Miss Pon 27 Dec 2009 at 8:18 pm

    I know what you mean. It is really disappointing to see people to the left of conservatives accuse Harper of being a dictator. They really lose all credibility. They’re either liars or don’t know the first thing about a true dictatorship.

    If Harper is a dictator, I wonder what that makes any other Canadian prime minister or candidate over the past couple of years?

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