Binders full of enemies

Lana Payne
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Molly Ivins once wrote that being slightly paranoid is like being slightly pregnant - it tends to get worse.
Ivins was an American political commentator, journalist and humourist. She skewered her share of politicians, especially those of the right-wing variety.

Her wicked satire was most often used to afflict the comfortable and the powerful.

She likely would have had a ball of a time with Stephen Harper.

The prime minister's latest trip down the road of paranoia - those binders full of enemies for his new cabinet - was so typical of his reign of power that Canadians barely raised an eyebrow of surprise or shock.

The list of "enemy stakeholders" (which encompasses pretty much anyone who disagrees with or has disagreed with the Harper government) did serve to highlight once again this government's colossal insecurity and bullying personality.

But for most political watchers the fact that the Prime Minister's Office would keep a running list of enemies merely confirmed what they already knew.

This is a government that has taken divisive politics to new and dizzying heights. This is a government that lacks the will and, perhaps, the ability to seek compromise and consensus.

Instead, it prefers to create enemies and then abuse its power in an effort to punish those so-called enemies.

And the list is long. Long enough to fill binders.

Feminists. Environmentalists. Doctors who care about refugees. Academics and scientists for giving a darn about things like evidence and data and real research. Unions. Civil society organizations. Self-identified progressives. The Parliamentary budget officer, or specifically, Kevin Page. The premiers. Senators who don't toe the line and rubber stamp bad laws. Federal civil servants who blow the whistle when their government lies about government policy, as was the case with an EI fraud investigator recently. Bureaucrats with an informed opinion trying to offer good policy advice, rather than us-vs-them warnings.

On some level Canadians have become rather immune to the nastiness, the lies, the contempt for democracy and democratic institutions and the paranoid, intense dislike for those who disagree with the ruling Conservative party.

This immunity can work, and has worked, in the government's favour. Living down to expectations while keeping his political base content hasn't hurt Harper and his crew too much.

What does that say about just how successful the Harper government has become at suppressing democracy and engagement?

As Alex Himelfarb - the director of the Glendon School of International and Public Affairs and former clerk of the Privy Council - wrote recently in The Toronto Star, social trust has been abused so badly that people are turning off politics, especially party politics.

He eloquently argues that only by bringing humanity back into public policy can we hope to bring people back to politics.

The tide for the federal Conservatives does appear to be turning. It is turning because of scandal, secrecy and lies. Because political trust has taken such a beating.

To take up from Himelfarb's argument, the question becomes will those who replace the current regime do so by rebuilding social and political trust?

As we know, every government runs it course. They get old and tired. The Harper government is looking like that now, despite the attempt to put a new face on cabinet.

Capitalizing on the unpopularity of the federal Conservatives without acting to rebuild both social and political trust with Canadians might result in short-term political success for those who displace them, but what will it really mean for the country?

As Himelfarb points out, social trust is quite different from political trust. Both are needed, but it is the loss of the first that is the bigger concern.

"Even when governments perform so badly as to make political trust impossible, where social trust is high, citizens still participate, still try to make things better.

"Because they trust the future and their ability to influence it, they are still capable of outrage rather than the indifference or fatalism of the jaded," he writes.

It is this participation of citizens that truly makes for a stronger, healthier democracy.

Quite often the way we participate (or volunteer) in our communities, in political life, in our society is through groups and organizations, and by working as a collective.

It is by working in those collectives that we build social trust. Consider the things we collectively consider important as Canadians, our shared values, such as universal health care.

Medicare was built with political will, leadership and a collective of citizens and groups who believed it was critical to our nation's success.

When those collectives and the commonwealth and community they built come under attack, as they have done under the Harper Conservatives, it is easy to see how social trust can be broken or eroded.

Conversely, it can be rebuilt. And that is the hope.

Organizations: Harper Conservatives, Glendon School of International and Public Affairs, Privy Council

Geographic location: The Toronto Star

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