Canadians pay the high costs of Stephen Harper’s Conservative propaganda machine

BY: Joan Baxter

Former Senate Page, Brigette DePape in 2011

Former Senate Page, Brigette DePape in 2011

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is spending immense amounts of taxpayers’ money to promote himself, his government, the oil and gas industry, his neoconservative ideology and his neoliberal big-dog-devour-little-dog economic dogma – and this kind of propaganda machine does not bode well for Canada’s or any country’s democracy…

One of the very first things I noticed when, in the 1980s, I lived and travelled in some decidedly non-democratic countries in West and Central Africa, was the over-the-top narcissism of some of the dictators and their obsession with absolute control of their political messages, which were almost exclusively about themselves and what great leaders they were.

It was relentless. Their portraits and political propaganda were ubiquitous, filling billboards, plastered all over the front pages of newspapers, and even their most insignificant comings and goings monopolized radio and television newscasts (and caused massive traffic jams). There were no such things as genuine press conferences; rather there were staged events with fawning reporters recording the great leader’s every word while political partisans applauded.

As a young, impressionable Canadian woman who had come of age during the “just society” years in Canada, never experienced first-hand conflict or the political turmoil, excesses and human rights abuses that abound in the absence of democracy, I remember how terrifying it all seemed.

Fast forward to 2015.

Most of those African countries I lived in are now democracies, not perfect ones, but far more democratic than they were two or three decades ago. And while there is still a long way to go in many of these young democracies, at least most of the signs are pointing in the right direction.

Full speed backwards in Canada

Not so Canada, where we’ve been moving in the wrong direction, full speed backwards. The campaign to dismantle the democratic nation of Canada as we knew it was launched in 2006, when Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party came to power. Things went into overdrive after the federal election in 2011, in which just 6201 votes (of 14,720,580) in 14 swing ridings gave Mr. Harper’s Conservatives the margin of seats in parliament they needed to form a majority government.

With the absolute power that this unrepresentative “majority” – obtained with less than 40% of the popular vote – affords the ruling party, Mr. Harper and his henchmen then took the wrecking ball to Canada’s democracy and international reputation, laying the groundwork for a secret police force more suited to a police state than a democracy, and unleashing on the country their own megalomania and still growing narcissism.

Narcissism comes in different forms. It can be physical, if one is prone to obsessive vanity, conceit, self-regard, smugness and egocentrism. It can be psychological, characterized by extreme selfishness, a grandiose view of one’s own talents.

Sound familiar? Well, it would for anyone who has been keeping track of Mr. Harper’s self-aggrandizing and self-promoting record since he moved into the Prime Minister’s office in 2006.

An epidemic of vanity

Take his apparent obsession with his image on video and in photos, and his desire to share it with the world. The immodest photo gallery on the PM’s website boasts 55 pages, each with an average of 15 galleries, and then dozens of photos and videos per gallery, which adds up to a monstrous ego-trip of many thousands of carefully orchestrated and doctored images of Stephen Harper. All of which, of course, Canadians have paid for.

Mr. Harper has turned the Conservative lobby room in the House of Commons into a national portrait gallery – of himself. The usual collection of former Conservative (and Progressive Conservative) prime ministers is gone. Instead, every image in the room is Mr. Harper’s . The room is now All Harper All The Time. In the words of Green Party leader Elizabeth May after she visited the room in 2008, “between every window, in every available space of the wall, at eye level, every available space has a photo of Stephen Harper…in different costumes, in different settings, dressed as a fireman, in Hudson Bay looking for polar bears, meeting the Dalai Lama, even the portrait of the Queen had to have Stephen Harper, but in a candid, behind her.”

Stephen Harper’s very own unreal reality TV show

Then there’s Stephen Harper TV, a special video service called 24 SEVEN, devoted to, well, Stephen Harper. The videos offer viewers a front seat view of what a chirpy female voice – perfect for a kindergarten teacher talking to a bunch of mentally challenged toddlers – says is “a week in the life of the Prime Minister of Canada, and more”. Perhaps Stephen Harper’s 24 SEVEN video service is effective propaganda for people with weak intellects, but it is not recommended for anyone with a weak stomach.

But the epidemic of vanity isn’t limited to Mr. Harper himself. Since coming to power, his government has spent more than $2.3 million on photos of Conservative cabinet ministers.

“Perhaps Stephen Harper’s 24 SEVEN video is effective propaganda for people with weak intellects, but it is not recommended for anyone with a weak stomach.”

Big bills for spin-doctoring

It turns out that despite Mr. Harper’s steely resolve to balance the budget on the backs of Canada’s veterans and on its public servants that provide the Canadian people with important services expected in a developed country like ours, the belt-tightening measures do not extend to his bloated PR machine. In 2014, the Conservative government spent $263 million on 3,325 spin doctors. That rivals the cost of the House of Commons itself.

Just what all these communications people do is impossible to say. But it could well be some are among those that the government has admitted it employs as shills, PR agents and Internet trolls to “correct misinformation”.

So next time you tread into the murky waters of the comment sections of online articles, and notice a few omnipresent and repetitive commentators with obviously fake profiles who monopolize the long threads and often derail conversations with vicious attacks on “lefties” and “liberals”, you have every right to suspect that you’re paying that person to sit at his or her keyboard all day to defend Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, while spewing hatred on anyone that does not fall into step behind them – in other words, the majority of Canadians.

Ottawa, under Stephen Harper, has gone into the advertising business big time. In 2013-2014, The Harper Government (as he decided to re-brand the Government of Canada) signed or amended $93.2 million worth of advertising contracts. For the five years leading up to that, the figure spent on advertising was half a billion dollars.

In 2014, Harper’s Conservative government spent $22 million on advertising to try to sell Canada’s tar sands to the world. The painfully pedantic and ubiquitous advertising of the government’s “Economic Action Plan” alone cost close to $15 million, while its PR to promote “Responsible Resource Development” [sic] cost Canadians $8.2 million, and its campaign to promote tax cuts cost $7 million.

Most of the costs were for television ads, which in 2012-13 cost $33 million, while Internet ads cost nearly $11 million. This may explain why it is now impossible to check a government weather forecast online without being subjected to government ads for itself and its Conservative policies and a direct link to Mr. Harper’s very own unreal TV show at 24/SEVEN.

Expensive disguises for the PM

Strange then, given Mr. Harper’s and his government’s obsession with showy spin and self-indulgent self-promotion in this orgy of narcissistic propaganda, that the prime minister himself seems to feel the need for disguises. Over the years, he’s tried it on as a loveable uncle in a fuzzy powder-blue sweater vest, a big game hunter next to the casually-dressed presidents of the US and Mexico in the Mayan ruins, as a Canadian Forces pilot, and a ludicrously attired cowpoke.

Perhaps he’s desperate to try to make himself look likeable, like something he’s not?

Why else would he have engaged a full time personal stylist and image-maker, who chooses his clothes, tames his cowlick to create his helmet of hair, plasters him with mascara, lipstick and cake make-up? Since when does a Canadian prime minister need a personal groomer who flies around the world with him, her travel expenses covered by the Canadian people? A remarkable feat of hypocrisy from a man who, as a Reform MP, publicly attacked Preston Manning for not fessing up that the Reform Party was paying $31,000 for his wardrobe.

Then again, what can one really expect from a government that has also managed to “misplace” $3.1 billion and avoided any sanctions for gross negligence or malfeasance, while bringing shame on our nation by pulling Canada out of the UN Treaty to Combat Desertification (the only country of 194 to do such a thing) pretending that by save a piddling $350,000 it was showing it was “fiscally prudent”? Or from a prime minister whose government spends so much of our money to create and bombard us with mail-outs loaded with poisonous messages carefully crafted to instil fear and hate-monger, and fanciful ones trying hard to make us believe that the man behind all this propaganda is not a narcissistic and dangerous ideologue?

What kind of leader would launch an all-out assault on democratic principles and unity in his country, employ a massive propaganda machine to try to cover it all up and sell himself to his people as something he’s not, and then smugly and quietly make them pay the costs for these insults on their intelligence and injuries to their country?

Oh, right, I remember now what kind of leader does that – I’ve seen it before in other countries – a dictator.

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