The Scary Harper Government

In his article about Stephen Harper and the “Calgary school,” Gregory Ryan (2006) tries to present Harper and his political associates as fairly harmless by using “the straw man” technique. Ryan proposes that his neighbour’s view of the Harper government as scary is simply due to a misconceived view of the Straussian philosophy that supposedly underlies the Conservatives’ political agenda. Ryan does this by drawing heavily from an Ottawa Citizen editorial written by Robert Sibley (2006) that uses a similar technique (although at much greater length) purporting to show that critics of Harper and the Calgary school are misguided and misinformed.

However, Ryan’s and Sibley’s arguments do little to allay my scary impressions of the Harper government, since my fears are far more solidly based on what Harper and his cohorts say and do, as well as the philosophy underlying their actions. In the House of Commons on Oct. 28, 2002 Harper said, “A government monopoly is not the only way to deliver health care to Canadians. Monopolies in the public sector are just as objectionable as monopolies in the private sector. It should not matter who delivers health care, whether it is private, profit, not-for-profit or public, as long as Canadians have access to those services through the public insurance system regardless of their financial needs” (Barrett, 2004). Also, in a speech delivered to Toronto-area Conservative candidates on May 10, 2004, Harper said, “It does not matter who delivers health care — it matters that everyone can receive it” (CTV news staff, 2004).

This really scares me because of the implication that Harper either does not know of (or worse, knows of and is ignoring) a wide-ranging study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled “A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Studies Comparing Mortality Rates of Private For-Profit and Private Not-For-Profit Hospitals” (Devereaux et al, 2002). In this peer-reviewed analysis of data involving 26 thousand U.S. hospitals and 38 million patients, Dr. P. J. Devereux et al come to exactly the opposite conclusion to that stated by Stephen Harper above. Dr. Devereaux (2002) states, “The higher death rate at for-profit hospitals occurs for two reasons. Shareholders expect a 10% to 15% return and the hospitals have to pay taxes. Funding is fixed [from Medicare and other schemes in the United States and from national health insurance in Canada], so they cut corners on skills. It would be no different in Canada or Britain. If Canada opened its doors to private, for-profit hospitals, they would be the same US chains that generated the data included in our study.”

In the conclusion of an editorial comment on the research cited above, Dr. C. David Naylor, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, wrote, “Does anyone still want to contract out large segments of our publicly financed health care system to for-profit US hospital chains after reading this article? I hope not” (Naylor, 2002). However, Harper, nearly two years later (Barrett, 2004), is expressing the opinion that providers don’t really matter, and I find this very scary indeed.

Another scary aspect of Mr. Harper’s recent behaviour would be his support and collusion in the defection of David Emerson from the Liberal opposition to a Conservative cabinet post, only a few days after the election. Mr. Harper, who actually claims all the credit and says that it was his idea to have Mr. Emerson defect, has never said that Emerson should run in a by-election to justify his actions to the electorate. (This is probably because the Conservative candidate in Vancouver Kingsway ran third with only 18% of the vote!). Emerson, who said on election night that he would be “Stephen Harper’s worst enemy” (Bryden, 2006) also has ruled out the by-election possibility, and admits he changed sides in order to remain in cabinet.

This contempt for the wishes of the vulgar electorate shown by both Harper and Emerson impresses me with their shared attitude that they know better what is best for the country, better than do the voters of Vancouver Kingsway. The actions of these two seem ethically reprehensible to me, and very scary in terms of the future of democracy in a Harper-led government. Their attitudes also seem very Straussian, at least as defined by Robert Locke, a follower of Strauss. In an article entitled, “Leo Strauss, Conservative Mastermind,” Locke outlines a central concept of Straussian philosophy:

“The key Straussian concept is the Straussian text, which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one (“exoteric”) thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real (“esoteric”) meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men’s attachment to their societies. Ideally, it then offers an alternative based on reason, but understanding the reasoning is difficult and many people who read it will only understand the “calling into question” part and not the latter part that reconstructs ethics” (Locke, 2002).

Possibly, Harper and Emerson regard themselves as the elite leaders who understand the “esoteric” context of their words and actions as part of the ruling class, while the voters of Vancouver Kingsway are only able to understand on the “exoteric” level. If we are offended at such an assumption, Locke provides some further explanation,

“Admittedly, the concept of the Straussian text is one susceptible to intellectual mischief in the form of wild claims about the esoteric meaning of texts, not to mention rather off-putting for anyone who doesn’t like know-it-all elites. But before getting too huffy about this elitist view of the good society, it is best to remind oneself that it is strikingly similar to the view cultivated for centuries by the Catholic and Orthodox churches and by Orthodox Judaism, not to mention other religions: there is a small number of men who know the detailed truth; the masses are told what they need to know and no more. Free inquiry outside the bounds of revelation is dangerous. And yet Strauss practiced free inquiry and taught anyone who could afford the tuition at the University of Chicago how to do so. Clearly he is not just an elitist trying to return to the past that he claims existed; he strongly hints this is impossible anyway” (Ibid.).

The above seems far more scary than the innocent sounding “pedagogical methodology” that Gregory Ryan (2006) would have us believe is underlying the distrust of Harper and the Calgary school. In fact, it almost seems that what Locke (2002) is saying could be used to justify (politically) withholding the truth, or even lying to the electorate, if justified by noble goals.

Finally, I am scared by the fact that Harper has still not rescinded the infamous “firewall letter” to Ralph Klein (Harper et al, n.d.). Since this letter basically recommends actions that, by some interpretations, could lead to the break-up of Canada in the same style as that is supported by Quebec sovereigntists, I find it very scary that one of the co-signers is now sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There are many more concrete reasons to find Harper and the “Calgary school” scary, rather than the vague philosophic misconceptions Gregory Ryan (2006) suggests, and the actions that Harper has taken so far haven’t been reassuring. I, and the majority of Canadians who did not vote for Harper, will be waiting to see if our fears were justified.


Barrett, T. (2004, May 20). So What Did Harper Say? The Conservative Leader’s sound bite file on everything from taxes to Iraq, health care, gay marriage, nature, left wingers and keeping. The Tyee. Retrieved from
Bryden, J. (2006, February 6). Emerson defection to Tories in the works within days of election as a Liberal. Canadian Press. Retrieved from
CTV news staff (2004, May 10). Harper looks to expand role of medicare. [web site]. Retrieved from
Devereaux, P.J. et al (2002, May 28). A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies comparing mortality rates of private for-profit and private not-for-profit hospitals. Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), vol. 166, issue 11. Retrieved from
Harper, S. et al (n.d.). The Alberta Agenda: Letter to Hon. Ralph Klein, Premier of Alberta. Alberta Residents League. Retrieved from
Hopkins-Tanne, J. (2002, June 8). Mortality higher at for-profit hospitals. British Medical Journal (BMJ), vol. 324, p. 1351. Retrieved from
Locke, R. (2002, May 31). Leo Strauss, Conservative Mastermind. [web site]. Retrieved from
Naylor, C.D. (2002, May 28). Your money and/or your life? Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), vol. 166, issue 11. Retrieved from
Ryan, G. (2006, February 17). Misconceptions about Harper’s Hidden Agenda. The Voice, vol. 14, issue 6. Retrieved from
Sibley, R. (2006, February 5). The making of a negative image (Part 2). Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from

UPDATE TO The Scary Harper Government
“Harper ‘loath’ to co-operate with ethics commissioner

On March 3, 2006, CBC News published an article entitled “Harper ‘loath’ to co-operate with ethics commissioner.” The news article includes the following text,

The Prime Minister’s Office attacked the credibility of the ethics commissioner Friday night after he announced an investigation into conflict of interest allegations against Stephen Harper. Ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro said he will look into what influence Harper wielded to convince former Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson to cross the House of Commons floor. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conduct in the Emerson affair will be reviewed. “The Prime Minister is loath to co-operate with an individual whose decision-making ability has been questioned, moreover who has been found in contempt of the House,” said Sandra Buckler, the prime minister’s director of communications.”

As this situation was one of the ethical concerns in the Voice article I recently wrote, I did a quick search to determine how serious this issue is. Apparently, some lawyers (Burrows, 2006; Dimitrov, 2006) feel that Harper and Emerson may have violated the constitutional rights of the Liberal voters in Vancouver Kingsway, specifically rights set out in Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Dimitrov suggests “that it is incumbent upon the Attorney-General of Canada to act to resolve this matter. Action might take the form of the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate, a judicial inquiry, a reference question to the Supreme Court.”

Also, Emerson has been asked by the president of the Liberal riding association to return more than $90,000 in Liberal campaign contributions (Bailey, 2006). It appears that his acceptance (and Harper’s offering) of “$70,000 in annual ministerial compensation (bringing his total taxpayer-financed salary to about $215,000 per annum, not including benefits), the chauffeur-driven limousine, the executive office suite and the army of public servants and political staffers anxious to do his bidding” (McMartin, 2006) may be a violation of the law administered by Elections Canada. Emerson has vowed to resign if found guilty (Globe and Mail, 2006), but it is not clear what the repercussions will be for Stephen Harper. Harper, his party, and Emerson will lose considerable credibility as crusaders to re-establish ethical government if they continue to stay silent (Ermisch, 2006).

Bailey, I. (2006, February 8). Vancouver-Kingsway demands Emerson returns campaign contributions. Republished by [web site]. Originally published under title: Angry Emerson seethes at critics in The Province. Retrieved from
Burrows, M. (2006, March 2). Legal action gets mixed reviews. [web site]. Retrieved from
CBC news staff (2006, March 3). Harper ‘loath’ to co-operate with ethics commissioner. CBC News. Retrieved from
Dimitrov, P. (2006, February 20). Is there a legal case against David Emerson: Part two. [web site]. Retrieved from
Ermisch, M. (2006, March 5). Tory mutes don’t surprise NDP MP. Kamloops this Week. Retrieved from
Globe and Mail news staff (2006, February 14). Emerson vows to quit if guilty. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from
McMartin, W. (2006, February 9). Emerson: The power and the Tory: His betrayal, his perks and some context for the outrage. The Tyee. Retrieved from