Systems are always bigger and more complex than the individuals who try to control them. So political systems, like ecological ones, can be influenced and guided for a while by the stringent and obsessive management of details, but the intricate convolutions within their countless interacting parts eventually expose the futility of such effort. This is now becoming apparent in the present Conservative government in Canada under the authoritative — some say autocratic — leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Prime Minister is known for his propensity to control, a predilection that includes his caucus, parliament and the research studies from every scientist in the employ of the federal government. All information is vetted through his office, the PMO, to be certain it conforms to the message and the image he wants to portray of himself as a rational and competent manager of the nation’s business. But this strategy ultimately fails because even the most fastidious control can never match the complexity of systems. Like trying to prevent water from flowing downhill, pressures build, leaks occur, the ground saturates, and the whole containment effort finally collapses.
An extremely revealing leak occurred at the Salt Spring Forum on December 2, 2012, where Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper’s former professor, mentor, advisor and campaign manager, was invited as the featured guest — “former” because Flanagan’s 2009 book, Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, ended their communication (Jane Petch in Island Tides, Dec. 13/12, p.9-10).
But Flanagan certainly communicated to his Salt Spring Island audience about someone he knows extremely well. “Stephen is very intelligent,” he said. “He’s an abstract strategic thinker who translates ideas into action. He is an unusual package of characteristics. He can be charismatic in small groups, morose, secretive, suspicious and vindictive. These may not be traits you want in your next door neighbour, but they are very useful in politics.”
“He develops strategies for himself,” Flanagan confided. “He listens to his Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, and a small group of men he has come to trust: Baird, Clements and Flaherty. He doesn’t consult widely before decisions are made, and this has created problems for him.” Amazingly, Flanagan declared that he was unaware of any vision the Prime Minister had for Canada. “Stephen’s allergic to laying out a vision. He’s more concerned with the specifics.”
When asked about the Prime Minister’s dismantling of environmental regulations, Flanagan said that “Stephen sees through an economic lens, not an environmental one.” As for ignoring the scientific evidence of climate change, Flanagan explained that, “Everyone sees evidence through different binoculars. …It depends on what evidence you look at.” He added that he agreed with Stephen Harper’s policy of “appearing to make a difference without actually changing anything.”
Such a policy reveals a noteworthy fallacy. If the Prime Minister is attending only to details without being guided by a larger strategy, then how can he control outcomes? All his decisions and legislation suggest he is having a profound effect on Canadian politics. His efforts to spend Canada out of the Great Recession of 2008 have committed the treasury’s finances to massive deficits. His prorogation of parliament to avoid a vote of non-confidence has left an indelible scar on the country’s democratic psyche. His citation for contempt of parliament has created unprecedented cynicism in the House of Commons. His disregard of overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change and environmental deterioration now appears like petulant, stubborn and abject denial — an international embarrassment and a neglect tantamount to criminality. His omnibus budget bills, C-38 and C-45 that avoided parliamentary debate on a host of new laws, have created a bitter electorate.
Perhaps the Canadian public has become accustomed to the shock of the Prime Minister’s political tactics. But environmentalists and scientists have reacted with incredulity and dismay. And First Nations across the country, already extremely tense and enormously frustrated by the lack of respect for their rights and interests, have been unwilling to tolerate the trespasses included in C-38 and C-45.
First Nations, mythologically and traditionally, have always lived close to nature. It is the foundation of their history, culture, security prosperity and future. So they duly interpreted the wholesale relaxation of regulations in the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, the National Energy Board Act and the Indian Act as assaults on their interests. These measures also violated Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act (Island Tides, Jan. 17/13). The pending investment agreement with China, FIPA, and a proposed free trade agreement with Europe, CETA, also challenge First Nations’ rights. Their response was “Idle No More”, a diverse and amorphous uprising against an authoritarian government that failed to consult with them — just as it failed to consult with parliament.
The Idle No More activists are correct in claiming that their protests are not just for themselves but for all Canadians. The omnibus measures in C-38 and C-45 that show a contemptuous and autocratic disregard for legally binding treaty obligations parallel the Prime Minister’s disregard for Canada’s democratic and parliamentary traditions, a matter that should be of concern to every citizen of this country.
The Idle No More movement is so diverse and amorphous that it will be difficult to control by the Prime Minister and his powerful PMO. Such a vague and unfocused opponent will be an elusive target for Stephen Harper’s vindictiveness. A restless and evolving movement with a wide range of demands will be impossible to manipulate with his secretive strategies. So Stephen Harper’s suspicious nature will be forced to confront a dilemma of his own making. Charisma is not going to solve this problem. And if frustration should activate the morose streak in his character, he can stew in it until the end of First Nations’ patience — which could be a very long time.