Stephen Harper vs. Canada

Monday, August 8, 2005


Written by Scott Piatkowski

You're probably thinking that I made that headline up as some sort of cheap rhetorical device, designed to make a point about my utter disdain for the politics of Stephen Harper. While I won't try to deny that I have disdain for Harper's views, the fact is that I didn't have to make up the phrase "Stephen Harper vs. Canada". It's taken directly from the case files of the Supreme Court of Canada and refers to a constitutional challenge launched by Harper when he was President of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC).

Harper and the NCC were outraged by a law that limits what outside groups can spend to try to influence the outcome of election campaigns. They argued (ultimately unsuccessfully) that their rights to free speech were being violated. This is the same Stephen Harper who complained at length about courts undermining "the supremacy of Parliament" when same-sex couples successfully used the Charter of Rights to have courts strike down the old, discriminatory definition of marriage. Using the Charter in an attempt to overturn legislation is a problem for Harper, unless the "oppressed minority" happens to be a fringe right wing lobby group like the NCC (which, for beginners, was set up in the 1960s in order to oppose medicare).

Harper resigned as President of the NCC in December 2001, when he announced his intention to seek the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. I'm willing to bet that you can't remember the name of the current President of the NCC. In fact, that's probably the safest bet I could ever make because the current President of the National Citizens Coalition is… well, no one. After nearly four years, it seems that the NCC simply hasn't got around to replacing Stephen Harper as President. You'd think all of those "citizens" who belong to the "coalition" (and, since it's "national", there must be a lot of them, right?) would be strongly demanding that someone - anyone - assume the helm, but the organization has managed to sputter along with only Vice-President Gerry Nicholls to speak for it (last week, he was ominously warning Paul Martin that, should he be inclined to accept Carolyn Parrish back into the Liberal caucus, the NCC "may" have to launch a campaign). Moreover, shouldn't poor Mr. Nicholls be due for a promotion by now?

I've come up with three possible explanations for this curious vacuum at the head of the NCC:

First off, it's possible that the National Citizens Coalition isn't really much more than a paper organization, so it hasn't suffered from Harper's departure and the failure to replace him. Yes, it has an office, a letterhead and a website (and, of course, scads of money), but the lack of President since late 2001 hasn't made an appreciable difference in the organization's ability to do what it does: issue press releases (such as the one to which I refer above), place newspaper ads, and buy billboards in prominent locations.

On the other hand, perhaps it is only when the NCC has successfully installed someone like Stephen Harper as leader of the Conservative Party that it has no need for a President. As the Reform Party's policy chair in the early 1990s, Harper said that "the agenda of the NCC was a guide to me", while then NCC President David Somerville crowed that Reform "cribbed probably two-thirds of our policy book."

In 1997, when Harper announced his intention to abandon his role as an MP to take over the NCC, he called himself "a longtime supporter of the NCC… I'm a strong supporter of the things that it stands for - political and economic freedoms." When ran for and won the Alliance leadership in 2002, he said he had done so because he "feared that if I did not do this, the NCC would find itself again alone or at least without any allies in the Parliament of Canada."

The NCC was so proud of Harper that it soon awarded him with its "Freedom Medal". NCC chair Colin T. Brown bragged at the time that Harper's election as Alliance leader was "a proud day for all the NCC's 40,000 supporters [sic]. Stephen's convincing victory ensures that all Canadians who believe in the NCC's values of more freedom and less government will now have a champion in Ottawa." Given the fact that Harper is clearly still representing the NCC's views in Ottawa, why would the organization need a President?

Lastly, I suppose that it's also possible that the leadership of the NCC (Nicholls, Brown and a handful of others who are rarely if ever named) possessed a rare insight into Canadian politics. Perhaps they knew in advance what a spectacular failure Harper would be as a contender for Prime Minister, given that he was selling a set of policies which few Canadians were interested in buying (the kind of policies that they had been advancing themselves for decades with little success).

I'm seriously starting to wonder if they haven't bothered to fill his position because they needed to hold it open for him. After all, how much of a future can he have as Conservative leader if he continues to be unable to capitalize on the corruption, lack of direction and general organizational incompetence of the Martin Liberals? In other words, maybe his "resignation" in 2001 was more of an extended leave of absence.


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