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George Orwell’s Guide to Canadian Politics

By: | May 2, 2013

A critical analysis of the Harper government’s behavioural patterns reveals two possibilities: it’s either an enormous coincidence or the Conservative Party of Canada is staging its own production of 1984.

Robin Whitaker
Gadfly asks pesky political and social questions, on the principle that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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Read around the commentary on the current government’s approach to public debate and references to George Orwell’s 1984 appear repeatedly. My favourite is the riff on Stephen Harper’s posthumous defamation suit: “When asked to elaborate on this extraordinary claim, Harper said, ‘Read it for yourself, it’s all there: the crack-down on legitimate dissent, internet monitoring, censorship, determents to free love, all hidden in hollow euphemisms. The only thing Orwell got wrong is the date.’”

Of course, you hardly need to satirize the Conservatives. They tend to do the work themselves. Observing that Canada, like Oceania, is ruled by a “shadowy figure” whose Party traffics in Newspeak – language crafted to make dissent literally unthinkable – Warren Bell quotes the parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs characterising Chief Theresa Spence’s  hunger strike as an “exercise in limited calorie intake.” Likewise, illustrating Ministry of Truth style information control, Kathy English cites a “media relations spokesperson” on border policy: “[t]he Action Plan sets ambitious, but achievable, goals that will advance economic activities and lead to greater security.…”

This might be funny were it not so serious. Recent pieces by former Progressive Conservative pollster Allan Gregg and investigative journalist Michael Harris suggest the federal Conservatives come close to seeing 1984 as a user’s manual. Both identify a pattern in which research and evidence is being “vaporized”, along with anyone who might use them to challenge the government’s agenda.

“Ignorance is Strength”

Casualties of the Conservatives’ assault on science – now international news – include, among others: the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory; the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE); and the Environment Canada research network that developed the life-saving UV index along with the gold-standard tool for ozone monitoring. Despite recent news of a possible stay of execution, the Experimental Lakes Area is still at risk – one part of the generalized shredding of scientific capacity in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), with all its implications for human and environmental health.

But it’s not only natural science that Conservatives approach through the Orwellian slogan “Ignorance is Strength”. Sure, ecological science was decimated at Parks Canada last year, but 80% of archaeologists and conservators were fired too. The 2012 budget reduced Libraries and Archives Canada (LAC) staff by a fifth and closed entire collections. Statistics Canada lost the mandatory long form census and suffered massive staff cuts.

Restrictions on natural and social science research are compounded by policies that restrict its dissemination, whether in the popular or scholarly press. At conferences, scientists are shadowed by “media relations contacts”. Things are so bad that Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is investigating whether these gags contravene freedom of information laws.

Last summer, Parks Canada employees received a “duty of loyalty” memo that made it clear that the Harper government sees researchers as beholden to power holders, not some wider idea of the public good. In the context of “streamlining measures” – Harperspeak for job cuts – survivors were instructed: “our duty is to support the elected government. … [This] includes the duty to refrain from public criticism of the Government of Canada when speaking as an employee of the agency. Breaching the duty of loyalty may lead to disciplinary action.” LAC’s new “Code of Conduct” lists teaching and conference presentation as “high risk” in relation to the “duty of loyalty” to the elected government.

This approach gains particular traction in a time of austerity, where people legitimately fear for their livelihoods. It also turns public sector researchers into actual or potential enemies of state.

Nowhere is this attitude clearer than in the government’s antagonism to Kevin Page, outgoing Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), who ended his term in court, fighting for information about how federal job cuts would affect public services. Page described his determination as career suicide.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives have made it clear they want their next PBO to be more tractable.

Harperthink: Ignorance really is strength

To critics, this kind of muzzling and message management is both bad government and anti-democratic (Legault’s investigation originated with a joint Environmental Law Centre/Democracy Watch complaint). But Gregg explains that the disdain for evidence-based government makes sense in light of Harper’s conviction that “ordinary Canadians” want policy to be driven by common sense and moral conviction, not wishy-washy appeals to rationality and research. From that perspective, the Tories are the true democrats, giving the people what they want.

So: Canadians want jobs. Government should clear away obstacles to economic growth. Environment Minister Peter Kent indicated exactly as much when he reiterated Canada’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird explained the elimination of NRTEE likewise: “Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected? … It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government.” Similarly, in 2006, Baird was unapologetic that the Tories were cutting the Law Commission of Canada (LCC) and Court Challenges Program (CCP) because they ran against the kind of country the Conservatives say Canadians want. The CCP supported cases that would test equality and language law under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In keeping with its mandate to advise government on reforms that would make the law better fit Canada’s social and economic context, the LCC provided research on such issues as electoral reform, marriage law and institutional child abuse.

The idea that knowledge should be driven by policy not the other way around is reflected in the Conservative approach to Canada’s research councils. Last year, government announced that the National Research Council would become a “one-stop” service centre for the needs of business. Similarly, the 2009 increase to SSHRC graduate scholarships was earmarked for business degrees. Meanwhile, as I discussed here last year, support for hypothesis-driven no (industry)-strings-attached research is increasingly elusive. Requirements to provide applied “milestones” for funded research may be more subtle than auto-industry “partnerships”, but building them in is not just about taking stock along the way; it works to structure research and its outcomes.

A further Orwellian twist

Antipathy to environmental science fits the Conservatives’ vision for economic growth, just as their “tough on crime” approach reflects their ideological agenda, even if the evidence does not support its effectiveness. Ditto for Harper’s summary rejection of social science research into political violence – “now is not the time to commit sociology” – and Pierre Polievre’s elaboration that all the Conservatives need to know is that “the root cause of terrorism is terrorists”. But it is harder to understand the cuts to LAC and to heritage staff at Parks Canada. After all, judging by their love of expensive commemorations and controversial plans to replace the Museum of Civilization (CMC) with a Museum of Canadian History, the Conservatives are all for history.

Without going too far, there is another way the Harperesque approach echoes 1984. The novel’s main character, Winston Smith, is employed by the Ministry of Truth to “rectify” previously published news reports that conflict with the Party’s current orthodoxy. The original record was destroyed. “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

The Canadian history offered in the Conservatives’ new guide for immigrants might be an attempt to control the future by controlling the past. But it is hard to believe that a Canadian government would “rectify” original records. Nevertheless, data from the long gun registry has been destroyed; LAC no longer runs a national lending program; seven DFO libraries have been closed, including two that extend back over a century; and Peter Kent is hampering access to the quarter-century of NRTEE research. As for the long form census, the Conservatives launched a pre-emptive strike.

Regarding Harper’s War of 1812 obsession, Thomas Peace recently remarked that, whatever the merits of this or that event, the real issue is that “the government is paying for these commemorative projects while shutting down the research institutions that allow [historians] to do our work …. This is not a debate over what approach to history is better; it is a debate about whether the study and teaching of history is more important than its celebration.”

In this regard, two key changes to the mandate of the reconstituted CMC/CMH stand out. First, it removes a reference to critical understanding. Second, it replaces an emphasis on human cultural achievements with a tighter focus on Canadian history and identity. As Michel Bouchard argues, the new museum is part of a project of promoting “myths tied to a new national discourse that the Prime Minister is clearly trying to cultivate.” For Bouchard, the worry is less that the Conservatives will get Canadian history wrong than that “they will get it right, in that they will successfully curate a new form of Canadian nationalism that will be more aggressively imperial and colonial.”

Some concluding thoughts

Working as an anthropologist of the Northern Ireland peace process taught me how much politics is never simply a struggle for control over resources or territory. It is a struggle for people’s imaginations, a struggle for reality. In a similar vein, in his book Envisioning Power, Eric Wolf quotes Lamont Lindstrom: “Control of the questions – even more than control of the answers – maintains social inequalities in that such control helps frame and make sense of felt desire.… the powerful set the conversational agenda and, by this means, establish inequalities [that are] more difficult to perceive or challenge.”

Those who would challenge Harper’s regime face exactly this danger. Thus, Lawrence Martin advised the Liberals to prepare counter attack ads for the Tories’ next smear campaign. Michael Harris remarks that Martin may be right, but asks: “Is fact by decree, and the two minutes of hate, any way to run a country?”

Similarly, it’s tempting to counter Harper’s new nationalism with a kinder, gentler, but equally nationalistic, logic when perhaps what we should be doing is questioning the very adequacy of a nation-state system to the problems humanity faces – massive inequality and climate change among them. Environmental science and the ethos of human civilization both challenge the ideology of boundedness, which may help explain why ecologists and the CMC sit in the Conservatives’ crosshairs.

One problem for dissidents is that, while 2+2 may not yet equal 5 in Canada as it did in Oceania, 35% can make a parliamentary majority. But perhaps more importantly, when “knowledge” is pitted against “orthodoxy”, room for debate shrinks. The biggest challenge may be figuring out how to fight back effectively without capitulating to a circumscribed political terrain.

Robin Whitaker is a political anthropologist who teaches at Memorial University.

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