Notes for Remarks to Carleton University – September 5, 2012
By Allan R. Gregg

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire

In his novel 1984, George Orwell paints a portrait of a nightmarish future where rights that we now take for granted – the freedom of assembly, speech and to trial – have all been suspended. Acceptance of this totalitarian state is justified by the interests of stability and order, and by the needs a perpetual war. But what makes 1984 endure where other dystopian novels have been forgotten is that Orwell removed one more right that is even more unimaginable in a modern context – the right to think.

Instead of reason and rational discourse, Oceania is ruled by doublethink – “to know and not to know. To be conscious of complete truthfulness, while telling carefully construed lies … to use logic against logic: to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”. As Orwell summarizes…. “In Oceania the heresy of heresy was common sense”.

Emblematic of the regime is Big Brother’s slogan, repeated constantly as a means of thought control….

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

Even by the standards of the time in which he was writing, the juxtaposition of these concepts is so ludicrous, many believe that Orwell was using satire to wage his war against authoritarianism and the assault on reason. Anyone who has been to war knows it is anything but peaceful. Anyone who has been enslaved is more than aware that they are not free. But what about those who are ignorant? Do they feel weak … or strong?

The 2011 Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture
by Allan R. Gregg

“That above all – to thine own self be true; And it must follow as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man”

Polonius’ advice to his son, Laertes in Hamlet

A Short History of the Erosion of Trust

Even someone with only a passing interest in current affairs would know our political leaders are in big trouble.

A few years ago, Seth Meyers of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live developed a routine where he lampooned politicians by simply asking “Really!” …. no narrative; not even a snappy punch-line; simply a run a clip of a politician followed by an incredulous “Really!” Jon Stewart has taken this vein of comedy one step further where the joke doesn’t even require speech … just show the politician speaking; pause for a moment; and arch an eye brow. Both routines are invariably followed by gales of laughter. Not only is the joke on our elected leaders, it seems they are the only ones left on the planet who don’t get it.

And you also would not have to be a student of Canadian history to know that this condition is very different from the Canadian political culture of the past.

1) It’s time: I have been in the public eye for over 30 years. My children have left home and I want to be free to pursue interests in travel, writing and teaching. The panel is the only thing left in my schedule that tethers me to a place and time. At this stage in life I also feel an increasing burden to “make a difference”. I worked in politics for 18 years and while I’m not proud of everything I did during that time, I’d like to believe I was drawn to the process by a belief in the duty and intrinsic reward of public service. While I have no desire to re-enter the partisan arena, I want the latitude to get involved in issues and causes and express my views freely and unfettered of “journalistic objectivity”.

2) I still have lots to say, but now I need more than 30 seconds to say them: I don’t know if it’s because I’m slowing down or that, with age, I’ve become more reflective but increasingly, I find it difficult to express my views in “sound bites”. I’ve become significantly more aware of the complexity of issues, personalities, events and our country and feel I need more time and space to reflect on these things. Unfortunately television isn’t the best medium for this (not to mention the fact that I am starting to look like the crypt keeper, which also suggests that I would be better off in a non-visual medium).

3) At the end of the day, it’s really not “my thing”: While politics and current affairs have always been a central part of my adult life, they have never been my sole interest or focus. I’ve produced music, television and videos, chaired film festivals, started businesses, written extensively on societal trends, hosted my own television show and delivered countless speeches on an array of subjects from demography, to business and culture. While it might sound vain, throughout my career I have tried to establish a reputation for eclecticism and not allow myself to be pigeon-holed. In the very same way that the panel has unquestionably raised my profile, I also think it has narrowed my band-width. Instead of striving to have a more Hitchens-like perspective on society and I the world, I fear I am being reduced to just another “talking head” yammering about todays headlines.

At the end of the day, it’s been a great ride. I will be eternally grateful that I have been part of the At Issue panel and in particular, I owe a tremendous thanks to my pal, Peter Mansbridge for the central role he played in making that happen… but it’s time to move on.

Review of Harperland: The Politics of Control by Lawrence Martin published by Viking Canada

Stephen Harper may end up being known for what he does not do more than for what he does.

For decades, academics such as Donald Savoie and journalists such as Jeffery Simpson have been documenting the concentration of power in the central structures of government around the prime minister. Some have attributed this centralization to political ambition, while others cite the more benign necessity of managing an increasingly fragmented and continuous news cycle. Invariably, however, this analysis has been accompanied by warnings that this trend poses a direct threat to our traditions of parliamentary democracy.

Now, with the publication of Harperland: The Politics of Control, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin has entered this fray and one-upped past observers by claiming that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has taken “the politics of control” to an entirely new level—and in this case, the intent is most emphatically personal. For Martin, this tendency is no mere response to a more fractured and frenzied media, but a studied, long-term strategy designed “to break the [Liberal] brand.” The result has become “a Soviet-style monitoring maze” and “a vetting operation unlike any ever seen in the capital” that demands all aspects of government pay unwavering obedience to the Prime Minister’s Office.

It is surprising that Martin has been able to get this many insiders on the record.

Even though it has become a cliché to refer to Stephen Harper as a control freak, the power of Martin’s argument hits you like a jackhammer. Those of us who follow these things quite closely remember a number of occasions when the Conservatives have found themselves in hot water because of allegations of abuse of power, but we tend to forget just how frequently this has occurred and the myriad forms this malfeasance has taken over the last four and a half years. Crammed into a compact 301 pages, Martin’s book itemizes an endless series of occasions where Harper exercises his “Control Fixation”—obsessive secrecy often around inconsequential matters (like black bear mating habits), “clampdown strategies” aimed at squelching unwanted announcements (including a failed attempt to muzzle the auditor general), a “permanent campaign” of pre-writ advertising and ad hominem attacks on “enemies everywhere,” ignoring his own election laws and disregarding judicial and court rulings, dumping or refusing to appoint numerous heads of arm’s-length agencies and commissions who fail to “toe the government line,” defending policies and record not with facts or reason but by a constant refrain of “attack and obstruct,” and the imperious proroguing of Parliament—not once, but twice—for no reason greater than a desire to save his own political skin.

In total, Martin cites some 70-odd cases of these types of abuse and the combined effect is almost dizzying.

As if to make Martin’s case, the day Harperland was released (and before anyone could have read it in full), Harper’s mouthpiece, Dimitri Soudas, offered this reaction to The Globe and Mail: “the book should be read through the prism of Mr. Martin being a big-L Liberal sympathizer and columnist.”

But in Harperland, it is not just the quantity of abuse that sets the prime minister apart from his predecessors; it is the nature of his obsession for control that is qualitatively different as well. In other words, not only has Harper gone further than previous prime ministers in his efforts to centralize power, but the reason he is doing it is much different too.

In what is arguably the strongest part of the book, Martin sets out to describe Harper as “A Different Conservative.” Drawing upon numerous quotes from past advisors and intimates (given Harper’s reputed vindictiveness and disdain for insider tell-alls, it is surprising that Martin has been able to get as many insiders on the record as appear here), Martin endeavours to give real context and understanding to why the prime minister behaves as he does. He paraphrases a close friend who offers that “to understand Harper … it was necessary to understand that he’s an outsider.” Former chief of staff Tom Flanagan (who is now on the outs with Harper for his outspokenness) chimes in—“His first reaction to anything new is almost always negative. It’s a personality trait.” A former university colleague relates an evening of youthful revelry, where Harper would “be the guy in the corner, pen and paper in pocket, looking at us in a kind of condescending way.”

We are being led by an outsider who has always seen himself on the periphery.

In sum, Martin provides a not particularly flattering (or totally unfamiliar) portrait of a man who is awkward, introverted, cerebral, vindictive and controlling and who entered politics with a “drive to dominate.”

Martin also taps into David Emerson, Scott Brison and Keith Martin, each of whom sat on both Conservative and Liberal benches. All of them commented how, compared to others in public life, Harper and his brethren harbour “hate.”

While Martin does not put Harper on the psychiatrist’s couch or attempt a Laswellian study of power and personality, to his credit he does try to explore where this anger comes from and astutely concludes that it is an “anger born of a sense of exclusion.” Again, we see Harper the outsider: not merely an outsider lashing out without purpose, but one who is intent on “slowly [shaping] the country into something more Conservative.” And it is not just ideology that drives this ambition or fuels his hatred. Rather, Harper’s goal of reshaping the country is rooted in a desire to right and rebalance long-standing wrongs that have been perpetrated by Liberals and other insiders—the same people who looked down their noses at people like Stephen Harper and (as quoted by another chief of staff, Ian Brodie) “treated Conservatives as if we were un-Canadian” for believing the things they do. Draconian measures therefore are justified as necessary because these wrongs have become embedded in our political institutions and culture. As a consequence of this pervasive culture, the voice and wishes of all those Canadians who sip Tim’s coffee or take their kids to the rink on Saturday have been either unheard or unheeded by Liberal elites who have run Canada forever.

For Martin, this is what makes Harper a truly “Different Conservative,” because Canadians have never seen a (successful) politician like him. Rather than an elite from the mainstream, attempting to increase his base of support by appealing to the broadest common denominator, we are being led by an outsider who has always seen himself on the periphery and is now intent on giving voice to (what he sees as) a silenced minority.

As if to anticipate Dimitri Soudas’s allegation of the author’s partisan leanings, Martin seems to go out of his way to add balance, nuance and multi-dimensionality to his character sketch of Stephen Harper. For example, in addition to quoting David Emerson’s bewilderment at his new-found colleague’s anger and visceral hated for Liberals, Martin also relates the former trade minister’s preference for Harper’s “efficient” way of running Cabinet compared to the chaos marked by Paul Martin’s chairmanship. The author also discovers that Harper resisted advice to call an election in 2007 over Afghanistan because “he didn’t want a campaign that would be so divisive for the country.” (That is hardly the thinking of a vengeful ultra-partisan intent on winning at all costs.)

Harper has cowed the Liberals into a quivering shadow of their former selves.

Harper’s self-penned apology on the floor of the House of Commons to First Nations people for their shameful treatment at residential schools is described by Martin as “one of the most moving ceremonies in years.” And in foreign policy, the prime minister is credited with having “matured” in his views on China and India. Martin then quotes an unnamed senior bureaucrat in the Privy Council Office as saying that Harper is “the best-informed prime minister [he] had ever worked with.”

If covering the news amounts to creating the first draft of history, Lawrence Martin has given us a very good second draft of the four and a half years (so far) of Stephen Harper’s rule.

He has applied real journalistic rigour by digging deeper into the chronology of the Harper years than we could have ever hoped to get from a mere rereading of the news of the day. He shines light in places where few journalists are either allowed or choose to go. “A Day in a Life” gives us a real sense of the remarkable workload placed on our leaders. Martin has also sussed out a wide array of bureaucratic, political and backroom sources who normally are faceless and voiceless, even to followers of current affairs. And most importantly, he has attempted to provide context and understanding of Stephen Harper’s behaviour, which he readily admits “confounded analysts, who wondered how the prime minister thought he could profit from appearing so mean-spirited.”

As good a record as this is, however, Martin need not sit by the phone waiting for Bob Woodward or Mark Halperin to call and compare notes.

Whenever books are rushed to press to be as timely as possible, errors are bound to occur and Harperland is no exception to this rule. Probably the biggest gaffe is on page 93 where the Reform Party is credited (disgraced?) with producing and airing the “Chrétien Face” ad in the 1993 election campaign, when it has been clearly documented that this was a Progressive Conservative initiative. To say, as Martin does, that Harper’s first Cabinet contained “barely a single soul of distinguished pedigree” is to ignore that its membership included six former Cabinet ministers, hugely successful lawyers from both the West and Quebec (the likes of Jim Prentice and Michael Fortier), a former leader of a national party and a decorated member of the Armed Forces. He sometimes also sees dark (most often, wedge) strategies where simple blundering and miscommunication were a more likely cause of blow-ups—the abortion side-bar to Harper’s maternal health initiative being but one case in point. And for someone who is intent on building a comprehensive and seamless case for Harper’s politics of control, the book offers nary a mention of the hapless Helena Guergis, who together with her husband, was banished, vilified and humiliated by the prime minister for what now appears to be nothing more than a lifestyle that is frowned upon in Harperland.

But probably what makes this a good but not great book is that Martin raises the many riddles that make up Stephen Harper, but often provides either meek or contradictory answers to what they mean for Canada and the future. For example, he seems to feel that the Harper Conservatives rationalize their tactics by believing they are pursuing a greater good. After reading Harperland, you know everything you ever wanted to know about these tactics, but it still is not clear what exactly this greater good they are pursuing is supposed to look like. Similarly, while Martin’s character portrait of Harper, the man and politician, is without question the best on record, the reader is still left not fully understanding what, as Prime Minister, his end game is.

Harper has revealed a vision that is no less clear than Diefenbaker’s un-hyphenated Canadianism, or Trudeau’s Just Society.

So, help me here. Are these a bunch of wild-eyed radicals who believe (as Harper has often been misquoted as declaring) that “when they get finished with Canada, we won’t recognize it” or are they merely a bunch of cynical nerds who, having finally bested the school bully, will now stoop to almost anything to stay in power? I am still not sure.

Martin does concede that Harper has been much more successful as a “basher than a builder.” In the same way that Margaret Thatcher claimed her greatest accomplishment was how she changed the Labour Party, there is not much doubt that Harper has successfully cowed the Liberals into a quivering shadow of their former selves. There is also little question that Harper’s legislative record is pretty skinny and pathetic for someone who has grandiose plans to redefine Canada. But how much of his Liberal bashing, as well as his anemic legislative accomplishments, is a function of operating a minority Parliament without any allies (a pretty fundamental difference from the Pearson and Trudeau minorities to which the Conservatives are so often inappropriately compared)? Even more tantalizingly, if Harper ever received a majority, would a different and more substantive agenda appear from the one we have witnessed so far, or would he continue to muddle along, making changes around the edges? Again, Martin resists the question, let alone a bold prediction.

Martin does offer some hints though. For him, Harper is an incrementalist, with an agenda. His accomplishments may be modest but his destination is distant, and he is a marathoner, not a sprinter. I suspect, however, it is the journalist in Martin that has brought him to this (albeit hesitant) conclusion. Because the Conservatives have only taken baby steps in most policy areas (the exceptions being the Arctic and the military), the journalist’s natural tendency is to report what can be observed. In Harper’s case, if there is a grand agenda (something Martin never really makes clear), it is tempered by political necessity and therefore, by definition, is incremental. As valid as this approach is, what it fails to consider are the things that do not happen and that therefore do not qualify as news.

Upon assuming power—and without a moment’s hesitation—Harper abolished an already-negotiated national daycare program and the landmark First Nations Kelowna Accord. Since then, not only has he refused to resurrect or replace these initiatives, but he has also made it clear that he has absolutely no plans for any significant reforms in health care or the environment. In his tenure, he has roundly turned his back on the tradition of federal-provincial decision making and has never bothered to call a single First Ministers’ Conference. In all these cases, Harper did not do anything. But in not doing, he has revealed a vision that is no less clear—and arguably more radical—than Diefenbaker’s un-hyphenated Canadianism, or Trudeau’s Just Society. Harper’s refusal to use his spending power to enter provincial jurisdiction suggests he is a BNA purist who sees little, if any, role for the federal government in social policy. He has no desire to sit cheek by jowl with provincial premiers because he has no intention of entertaining any act of national enterprise that would see governments actively intervene in the economy. In fact, it seems to me that this refusal to use government as a proactive tool of nation building is the central core of his vision. What makes Harper truly different, therefore, is not just his temperament or personality or even what he has done, but what he has not done—and will not do—majority or no.

The pollsters and the pundits were doing a lot of back peddling following the results of the New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday. At least eight polls released in the days before the vote showed Democratic candidate Barack Obama leading Hilary Clinton by anywhere between seven to thirteen points – all well above the published margin of error.

The cognoscenti not running for cover immediately began trotting out their theories to explain away these numbers. Principal among these was “the Bradley effect” – a notion first broached in 1982 when Tom Bradley, a former black Los Angeles Mayor, was given a nine to 22 point over lead in the run-up to the California Governor’s race, only to end up losing to (white) Republican George Deukmejian. The theory held that voters, responding to telephone surveys, offered a “politically correct” answer that they were going to vote for an African American candidate when in fact, that was not their intention at all.

Twenty-five years ago this theory was simply that – an unknowable and improvable supposition. Today, as pollsters begin to explore the differences between results obtained by telephone surveys, compared to those administered over the internet, we have empirical evidence to suggest that telephone research may systematically overstate “socially desirable” outcomes. Whether the question explores church attendance, extra-marital affairs, smoking pot or virtually any other behaviour or belief that carries a social stigma, these comparison have shown that voters contacted by telephone consistently offer a more socially desirable response than those answering the same questions (without the intermediary of another person being party to their views), via the Internet.

The confluence of American attitudes towards race and the social desirability bias of telephone interviewing therefore could account for some of the difference between the published polls and the actual results. But the very fact that this social interaction bias is inherent in telephone interviewing, means that these same polls cannot give us a precise measure of this effect, before election day.

Less frequently offered as an explanation for these “bad polls” is the very nature of small-state, US primary contests themselves. Notwithstanding headlines declaring record-breaking turnout, only about 250,000 voters cast their ballot in the Democratic race in New Hampshire – equal to what we might expect of a mayoralty contest in a mid-size Canadian City. Unlike the race for mayor — say in Ottawa — however, voters in New Hampshire are registered and their political affiliation is known, in advance, by the respective campaign organizations. Also, unlike municipal politics in Canada, Democratic candidates in the Granite State spent tens of millions – on mere, hundreds of thousands of voters – to identify and make direct contact with those individuals known to be most likely to support their candidates.

While we may try, polling cannot predict who will actually turnout and vote and who will not. In other words, voters might tell us they are going to go to the polls but if their babysitter doesn’t show up or if there is a massive snow storm or even if their favourite television program is on, the pollster has no ability to factor these circumstances into their findings.

Normally we don’t worry much about this and tend to ignore our own admonishments about the discipline’s limits when it comes to predicting turnout rates. And normally we can get away with this because, in general elections, no one Party’s supporters are more or less likely to turn out than supporters of the other Parties. In small population, big money campaigns however, where the spending and organization of one candidate can be superior to the other’s, differences – undetectable by the polls — in turnout can effect the actual vote result and make the polls look like they are in error.

Race and the idiosyncrasies of small state US primaries aside, the additional fact remains that, while rooted in scientific random probability theory, polling is, by definition, imprecise (ergo, the margin of error) and unable to replicate the very thing it purports to measure. Typically, pollsters will ask “how would you vote for if the election was held tomorrow” or “which candidate are you most likely to support in the election to be held on Date X”?

As if it needs to be said, these are hypothetical questions that are not asked to voters as they stand over their ballot, preparing to cast their vote. Yet we know (from post-election research conducted in Canada, the US and virtually every other jurisdiction in the Western world) that between 8 and 13 percent of voters claim this is exactly where and when they made up their minds. In fact, exit polling conducted by the New York Times when New Hampshire voters leaving the polling stations showed that among those who claimed to have made up their minds “in the last week”, Obama had a 15 point lead, but among those who decided “today”, Clinton was ahead by three percent. Clearly there was a significant shift towards the New York Senator at the last moment that went undetected by the polls conducted in the days – and even the day – before the actual vote.

What went on in those voter’s minds as they stood in the ballot box? Were they thinking about Hillary’s emotional outburst in a restaurant the day before? Were they balancing the merits and demerits of race versus gender politics? Or were they thinking about their favourite television program that was going to be over if they didn’t hurry up and make up their mind?

Over my career, I have conducted surveys in over 50 election campaigns in three continents and I have never – and as far as I know, nor has anyone else – conducted surveys while voters were in the polling booth. So the honest answer to the question of what goes through the minds of voters in this private moment is that we do not have a clue….and in this regard, I am 100% confident of the pollster’s inability to absolutely predict election outcomes, 20 times out of 20, with zero margin of error.

New Hampshire should remind us all of us in the prognostication business that we are not god-like clairvoyants, but in the words of The Godfather of modern-day polling, George Gallup, merely taking a “snaphot in a particular point in time”.

In 1905, from his small cubicle in a patent office in Zurich, Albert Einstein issues four papers that forever change our understanding of theoretical physics and the functioning of the cosmos. In the same year, Henri Matisse launches an exhibition of garish colours that shocks Paris and spurs Pablo Picasso to move into cubism. Meanwhile, sent by the Royal Geographic Society, Robert Falcon Scott sets off to explore the most remote and formidable corner of the planet – Antarctica.

It was called a “miracle year;” but in many ways, these world-altering feats did not happen miraculously, but as part of a pattern that has been repeated throughout modern history.

A continued presence in Afghanistan is very unlikely to win the federal Conservative government new converts, but it could very well cause the Conservatives to lose the next election. So the status quo is probably not an option for the government.

A cynic – or a student of public opinion – might have predicted that Canada’s Afghanistan mission was politically doomed from the start.

Since Lester Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, Canadians have had a 50-year love affair with their self-image as “honest brokers,” “a middle power,” and (the most prized and emotionally charged of all) “peacekeepers.” Launching a combat mission in a country that posed neither a tangible threat nor opportunity for Canada and Canadians simply did not resonate with that self-image – indeed, the very act of fighting affronts our notion of Canada as “the peaceable kingdom.”

Allan Gregg returns to CBC News At Issue Panel from openflows on Vimeo

The People We Are
By Andrew Cohen
McClelland & Stewart,
270 pages, $29.99

As the title suggests, journalist turned academic Andrew Cohen sees Canadians as “unfinished,” a species whose insularity and self-satisfaction have prevented us from achieving our full national potential.

So that we can “become a more confident, more accomplished people,” he offers a plan. To become “future Canadians,” we need to rediscover our past by establishing national standards for teaching history and celebrating historic occasions. A more “mature” relationship with the United States, in which we would no longer fear absorption but harness our mutual interests to our mutual benefit is also prescribed. Our sense of civic-mindedness and creed could be strengthened by placing a higher value on citizenship: making it harder to come by, setting more rigorous standards for its attainment and doing more to integrate new Canadians into our host culture.

Some of Cohen’s medicine would be easy for Canadians to swallow and relatively simple for inspired governments to implement: Honour past and present achievement and achievers; create a culture (and presumably a tax regime) that encourages charity; restore historic buildings, monuments and sites.

Others might be greeted with more controversy and cultural resistance: Become more accepting of both the foibles and importance of our politicians; call on all taxpayers to invest in the national capital region; launch a 21st-century project of national enterprise to spark the collective imagination, as did the building of the railway.

If guiding us to be a better people and a more enriched nation was Cohen’s sole purpose – and if he were prepared to take the time and space to catalogue how we might reach this destination – this would be a laudable and worthy journey. For example, instituting a national historical curriculum would be a worthwhile and appealing initiative, though education is squarely in provincial jurisdiction.

In the same way, the evidence of increasing isolation from the mainstream among Canada’s foreign-born is alarming, and any bold, new thoughts on how to reverse this trend would certainly get my attention.

Sadly, though, Cohen has chosen not to turn his keen mind to these challenges; indeed, re-imagining “the future Canadian,” and offering how we might get there, warrants a scant 19 pages. He dedicates the vast majority of his analysis to tilting at the windmills of Canadian myths and lecturing us about “the people we are.”

A few years ago, as part of my TV Ontario program, I interviewed Naomi Klein and I asked her how it could be that her contemporaries and generation, who were so obviously connected to the world they lived in, showed no interest – in fact actively eschewed –politics, parties and parliament. Her answer rocked me on my heels. She replied that in her entire adult life, she could not think of one, single initiative that had emanated from government for which she was proud.

My generation associated government with grand initiatives of national enterprise — adopting Medicare, introducing pension and income security reform, repatriating the constitution and enshrining a Charter of Rights and Freedoms or debating the possibilities of guaranteed annual income or using tri-partism to vitalize democracy.

I realized that her generation had no such touchstones and therefore no frame of reference to consider government as our central agent of societal advancement. And they had no such frame of reference not because they were disinterested, anomic slackers, but because there weren’t any.

Right there and then, it dawned on me that public cynicism towards politics and politicians may actually be rational.…that the population has been persuaded that government is bad because for a generation we have been receiving bad government. That by lowering their performance to correspond to the public’s cynical expectations, we have offered ample and concrete evidence that governments are unable (or, as I will argue later, unwilling) to be productive agents of the public good.


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