Pollster, political advisor and pundit provocateur Allan Gregg believes Canadians have yet to grasp just how radical Harper and his Conservatives really are. In a recent interview he told me the Prime Minister should be thought of as a “revolutionary realist.”
Radicalism might not be the first thing we associate with the Harper government, especially when the administration has been known to throw around the label ‘radical’ like a scarlet letter, using the term to blacklist environmental groups and First Nations across the country.
Yet, despite how jarring the description, Gregg says Harper Conservatives are “radical to the extent that [they] aren’t incrementalists.”
“Harper is a realist and knows he can't get to where he wants to go in one fell swoop, and so he’ll try to get there by tacking,” said Gregg.
This is Conservatism of a whole new kind, Gregg adds, and Canadians don’t really seem to know what they’re dealing with.
Harper, says Gregg, “has a clear agenda” and at its core is a strong “anti-elite bias. “He and many other Conservatives believe that public discourse in this country has been dominated by elites: largely urban, small “L” liberal elites. University professors, symphony conductors, environmentalists and even bank presidents fall into this group. [The Harper Conservatives] believe this group does not reflect the views of the people, their constituency, that they want to represent.”
The ‘people’ of Harper are the average Canadians taking their kids to hockey on a Saturday morning, says Gregg, They shop at Canadian Tire and drink Tim Horton’s coffee.
Harper’s efforts to find strong support with his constituency have a worrisome downside for those who don’t fall into that target audience, according to Gregg. As a consequence of Harper’s fidelity to his chosen people, his government “mean[s] to basically silence those traditional elites.”
What is difficult, when dealing with this particular brand of conservatives, is trying to understand their motivation.
“A lot of their actions,” Gregg says, “seem incomprehensible against a template or a yardstick that we’d normally use to judge our government.”
Gregg uses the Harper government’s recent cuts to science positions to illustrate his point:
“Why would they make such massive cuts to Parks Canada? And then within Parks Canada, why would 70 percent of all employees cut be … social scientists, and natural scientists?
To the average bystander, Harper’s dramatic cuts to science positions and programs look like overreach.
And yet, says Gregg, to understand it you’ve got to get into Harper’s worldview. For Harper and his constituency parks are meant for human recreation, for camping and hunting. To the “natural scientists and those traditional elites,” however “parks are part of our natural ecosystem that is connected to everything, that is part of the planet, and that we must do everything in order to preserve.”
In this sense, scientists and elites represent an obstacle to the average person’s ability to enjoy parks. “You have to get rid of the scientists who might otherwise stand in their way and say this kind of camping, this kind of hunting is bad.”
But for Gregg, dismissing the Conservatives as “ crazy, right wing ideologues” is a mistake.
“They are very, very revolutionary. They are radicals … but their agenda is actually rooted in thinking that makes sense - at least to them - and if you don't understand that as a starting point, it's very, very hard to deal with them,” he noted.
When I interviewed Gregg I explained one of the things that really surprised me was that this government seems to be attacking environmental and First Nations groups in the very areas that they are vulnerable.
We hear the Prime Minister, the Minister of Natural Resources, senators and representatives of industry talking about “foreign funded radicals” who oppose the Northern Gateway Pipeline, yet many of the companies involved in the pipeline are foreign owned.
Another example is the government’s praise of Canada’s “ethical oil,” when Chinese oil companies - that have some of the worst human rights records on the planet — are part of Canada’s oil production and export.
As someone with years of public relations experience, it seems very strange for one party to attack in an area were they are vulnerable. Is the government simply not aware of how this might backfire on them?
According to Gregg, who is an expert in public opinion and the founder of Decima Research, the Harper government is not concerned with these kinds of inconsistencies and how they might play out publicly.
“Quite frankly, these guys do not care what the media says because they start from the impression that the media are part of those elites. So, they don't care if that very fact is thrown back against them.”
They believe that “Political discourse in this country, public policy discourse in this country, is at such a low level that they can get away with [it].”
“First of all, says Gregg, “they want to go over the heads of the elites.” Secondly, “they believe the average person isn't tuned-in anyway, doesn't care, and isn't going to react in any kind of negative way.”
Harper’s attitude towards environmentalists and First Nations is akin to his apparent disdain for Parliament.
Just consider Harper’s willingness to prorogue Parliament when under pressure, Gregg says.
“That's something that Robert Mugabe does, Gregg laughs, “not something that Canadian Prime Ministers have done. We prorogue Parliament as an administrative procedure, not as a means of avoiding getting defeated in the House of Commons.”
Gregg sees Harper’s behavior in Parliament as part of this government’s pattern of “assumption that the Canadian population is unthinking and ignorant.”
He added this “the friend of tyranny is ignorance, and the enemy of tyranny is reason and thinking” and said the government is working on the assumption that the Canadian population is unthinking and ignorant, and that gives them full license. “
I suggested that the public has come to expect this kind of behavior from politicians, so they let it pass.
He agreed, saying, “The byproduct of partisanship and attack ads and everything else is that you have this cascading kind of cynicism among the population. If you believe that all politicians are crooks, what difference does it make if you find one stealing?”
And so, he concluded, when it comes to public cynicism there are two things working in tandem. On the one hand we have “a political class” – the Conservatives – “that is systematically destroying” the character of politics. On the other we have “a general electorate that is so cynical that they aren’t holding [the government] to account.”
Though the Harper government is losing face with a portion of the population, this matters little their constituency, which still, by and large, supports the Prime Minister.
“These guys don't care about that. They are quite happy to be in the minority of public opinion. As long as they've got 35%, they can split the other 65% between more than two alternatives. That leaves them in a position of plurality support.”
That’s another thing that makes this government unique. Most political parties seek popularity, to gain more supporters. Not the Harper government, says Gregg.
The Harper government – knowing conservative votes will not come from the elites, is “not afraid of alienating people who they believe that, left to their own instincts, aren’t their supporters anyway,” Gregg says.
The result is an increasingly divided population: “I don’t know what you’d call it – culture wars? But it really is a much more polarized electorate than we have ever seen in the past.”
Gregg doesn’t think this necessarily has to be a permanent condition. Solutions are possible, he says, but they might not be simple. The answer lies in the middle ground, and the way you find that is by using science, facts and reason.
“That has been the cornerstone of progress” and “reason, at the end of the day, reason will march us forward.”