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The Harper method

Führerprinzip: Harper’s word is above Canadian law

Stephen Harper has introduced a nasty brand of politics into Canada. What I’ll call the Harper method consists partly of the typical neoconservative taste for authoritarianism, which includes things like encouraging people to be apathetic about federal politics, and also treating democracy as a game in which you cheat as much as possible.

And while such things are reprehensible, Harper has made it all a hell of a lot more sinister. The prime minister’s office is now more controlling than anything Canada has seen before. There is a disdain for Canadian law, which plays second fiddle to the will of the prime minister. In a certain undemocratic period of German history, a word was invented to identify this behaviour: Führerprinzip.

Führerprinzip, which translates loosely as ‘leader principle,’ was the word used to describe Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian grip on the Nazi party and over Germany. In the first case, one can take the “Night of the Long Knives” as an example. Hitler and his acolytes assassinated the leadership of the Sturmabteilung, commonly known as the SA, a powerful paramilitary group whose leader had a political view that differed from the ‘best’ Nazi practices – best in this case meaning the policies supported by industrial backers of the Nazi party. This death grip quickly clasped the whole nation. Führerprinzip came to describe the power scheme where the leader governs by his word, and his word is above law.

 The prime minister’s office is now more controlling than anything Canada has seen before. There is a disdain for Canadian law, which plays second fiddle to the will of the prime minister.

Modern Canada is not Nazi Germany, but the way Harper runs it falls in line with Führerprinzip. In March 2013, the Globe and Mail described Harper’s relationship with dissenting party members as “a brewing revolt […] concerning the grip his office exerts on their conduct, a rebellion that was triggered by Mr. Harper’s refusal to allow a vote on a member of parliament (MP) from British Columbia’s motion condemning sex-selective abortions and then escalated into a bigger fight over how much autonomy Tory members of Parliament should have in the Commons.” Since then, Harper’s relationship with his MPs has not changed; he’s as authoritarian as ever.

The signing of a new bilateral trade agreement between China and Canada, the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA), due to come into force on October 1, is another example that illustrates how aggressively Harper wields his power.

The agreement has all the hallmarks of politics under the Harper regime: redacted in utter secrecy, and signed hastily on a Friday afternoon, away from the gaze of the press.

Harper has darted around the constitution: Führerprinzip in action.

Cabinet signed FIPA behind closed doors, and the agreement submits Canadian law to Chinese capitalist caprice. It authorizes Chinese companies to take Canada to “arbitration” when Canadian law favours Canadian companies, or simply when Canadian law is deemed bad for profit. FIPA, in effect, allows trade tribunals to operate without being subject to Parliament. Harper has darted around the constitution: Führerprinzip in action.

In this particular case, democracy will be mourned because the agreement was ratified by Cabinet with barely a token effort to put it up for discussion in Parliament. The Canadian executive has the right to sign trade deals of its own accord, but barely even introducing FIPA to MPs completely neglects the principle that constituents should be aware of what their government is doing, or be aware of the consequences of the government’s actions. Even if introduced, the treaty would probably have been ratified, but opposition parties could still have spoken out about it, and citizens could have used their representatives in Parliament to influence the debate.

Despite the many opponents to FIPA, and Harper’s other authoritarian actions, there is no outlet to make opposition a political reality. Economists, lawyers, and professors have decried its duration (Canada is locked into the harmful treaty for 31 years), while Gus Van Harten, a law professor at the Osgoode Hall law school, has vehemently opposed the agreement with a searing open letter in the Tyee. This is without considering dissenters who aren’t from elite groups, those who are ideologically opposed to the current state of Canadian politics – an alliance between business and an authoritarian, exploitative state. Of course, in accordance with the Führerprinzip, the leader’s ideology is the only one that can be heard.

Whether Harper runs or not in the next election, he will have left an indelible stain on Canadian politics.

Harper’s autocratic tendencies were also revealed in 2011, when voters received automated phone calls falsely informing them that their polling stations had changed location. An investigation by Elections Canada and the RCMP found that Conservative party staffers were the culprits, and Harper’s government was fined $52,000. Harper also tried to change electoral rules with the Fair Elections Act in 2014, a controversial bill would have restricted voting conditions, and was widely interpreted as favourable to the Tories. He is the first prime minister to blatantly try to modify electoral rules in a manner that would suit him. Luckily, opposition caused the Conservatives to back away from the most troubling aspects of the Fair Elections Act.

One constant here is the fact that impartial observers are avoided at all costs: law professors in the case of FIPA, and Elections Canada during the 2011 federal elections; not to mention the flagrant disregard for popular opinion. Harper’s government reflexively rejects informed criticism, especially when this criticism is at odds with Harper’s ideological outlook.

Canadian citizens are all faced with this Führerprinzip. It’s more than a little disconcerting that his manner of running the country and his party can be so easily compared to totalitarianism. Whether Harper runs or not in the next election, he will have left an indelible stain on Canadian politics. Under Harper, the law is dictated from above.

Gavin Boutroy is a U2 Political Science and Philosophy student. To contact the writer, please email