An unkind cartoon this summer showed the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, kneeling before the statue of another politician, asking: “What now, O Great One?” That in itself would not be unkind. The punchline is that the statue is clearly labelled as that of Richard Nixon, famed above all for his attempts to corrupt democracy.
As Harper tries for a fourth term in office at the Canadian federal election next week, he is trailed by an extraordinarily long list of allegations. In the Watergate scandal, all the president’s men were accused primarily of breaking the law to get Nixon a second term in the White House. In Canada, some of the prime minister’s men and women have been accused not simply of cheating to win elections but of conspiring to jam the machinery of democratic government.
Some of these allegations have been proved. In the 11 years since he became leader of the country’s Conservatives, the party has been fined for breaking electoral rules, and various members of Team Harper have been caught misleading parliament, gagging civil servants, subverting parliamentary committees, gagging scientists, harassing the supreme court, gagging diplomats, lying to the public, concealing evidence of potential crime, spying on opponents, bullying and smearing. Harper personally has earned himself the rare rebuke of being found to be in contempt of his parliament.
One of his many biographers, John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail newspaper, who is more sympathetic than most, concludes: “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party.” Yet this deeply unpopular politician has won three elections in the last nine years. Although the Liberals are showing a late lead in the polls, Harper’s emphasis on his record on security and the economy may yet put a fourth in his trophy cabinet next week. That is what makes Harper’s politics interesting, that he has perfected the tactics of taking and holding power – in spite of the demands of democracy.
His people have been caught out more often than most. That may be because they are more brazen than most (and because they have some particularly feisty investigative reporters on their patch). But, at heart, Harper’s team are not that different from politicians across the developed world who have discovered that democracy is a pretty sweet theory but that, in reality, if you want to get hold of power and use it, there are all kinds of devious moves available that have very little to do with that antique idea.
Start with the business of winning an election. During Harper’s first successful run, back in January 2006, his party bumped up against the limit that it was allowed to spend in its national campaign – 18.3m Canadian dollars ($9.15m). But it still had money in the bank, and the race was very tight. So it channelled more than $1m down to 67 local candidates who had their own budgets and who then paid for a blitz of TV advertising during the final fortnight of the campaign. Harper squeaked home with 21 more seats than the liberals, and managed to form a minority government with 36% of the vote. Some of the local Conservatives were worried that this was illegal, but Harper’s national director dismissed them with contempt. “What a bunch of turds,” he emailed.
The national officials evidently had persuaded themselves that they had the law on their side. Elections Canada, the official body that enforces polling law, disagreed. As one of its investigators put it: “You could argue that they stole the election.” Team Harper duly suffered the indignity of police raiding their headquarters in Ottawa, seizing their computers and paperwork, and the further embarrassment of having four senior officials charged with criminal offences. The Conservatives fought Elections Canada to the last ditch, repeatedly challenging it in the courts. Finally, the prosecution accepted a plea bargain. The charges against the four officials were dropped, while the party as an organisation pleaded guilty to illegal campaign spending and paid $282,000 in fines and restitution. That was in March 2012, more than six years after the offence, by which time this particular scandal had cobwebs on it, and Harper had won two more elections, in November 2008 and May 2011.
If the path to electoral crime is rarely trodden, there is a close alternative, what Nixon’s people called “ratfucking” – acts of sabotage to damage an opponent. Not exactly criminal. Not always. So, for example, when the current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau (son of the former prime minister, Pierre) held an open-air press conference in Ottawa, he found himself being heckled by a group of young protesters waving placards. They were later revealed by the Huffington Post to be interns working for the Prime Minister’s Office.
In the fortnight before polling day in 2011, Liberal supporters started receiving nuisance calls from people who claimed to be Liberal party workers – calling Jewish voters on the sabbath, waking up others in the middle of the night. Liberals said this was Conservatives trying to alienate their support. Then, in the final three days before the vote, Elections Canada received a series of complaints about “robocalls” – recorded messages sent by automatic dialling – that told voters quite falsely that their polling station had been moved. By election day, anxiety was rising among officials, as internal emails recorded: “It seems that Conservative candidates are pretending that Elections Canada or returning officers have changed the polling stations … They have actually disrupted the voting process … It’s right across the country except Saskatchewan … It appears it is getting worse.” This looked like a national campaign to suppress the Liberal vote by scattering it away from the polling booths.
Some of those voters told the Guardian that they had first received a call from the Conservatives asking how they planned to vote. Sandra McEwing, a stage manager from Winnipeg, said: “My answer was unequivocal, like, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ I hung up after that.” Others say they gave similar replies. All then say they received robocalls or live calls, sending them to a polling station that did not exist or to a distant one where they had no right to vote. Some of these voters were in ridings, or electoral districts, where the eventual margin of victory was tiny. Bill Hagborn, president of the Liberal association in a riding in Ontario, told of a bus full of aboriginal voters, who were very unlikely to vote Conservative, and who were misdirected by calls and ended up not voting at all. That riding – Nipissing-Timiskaming – went to the Conservatives with a majority of only 18.
With Team Harper back in power, a group of voters from six ridings went to federal court to challenge the results of the election. After a seven-day hearing, the trial judge, Mr Justice Mosley, issued a devastating verdict: “I am satisfied that it has been established that misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country and that the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their preference in response to earlier voter-identification calls.”
The judge declined to order new elections – the evidence did not reveal whether the calls had actually swung the result – but the declaration of national fraud was powerful stuff. And perhaps even more serious, he found that “the most likely source” of the phone numbers that had been used was the Conservative party’s central database, the Constituent Information Management System (Cims), which is believed to hold the names and addresses of every voter in Canada, together with profiling information that has been gathered by party workers or bought from commercial data-gatherers.
The judge specifically avoided identifying the Conservative party as a whole, or its candidates, as having organised the fraud. However, he went on to complain that it had “engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on the merits”, which had included “transparent attempts to derail this case”.
Meanwhile, Elections Canada had been investigating. Spurred on by news coverage, voters from 261 of the 308 ridings filed complaints about calls that either caused nuisance or misled them about their polling station. The investigators struggled. When they tried to get records of phone numbers that had called the complainants, they failed in 92.5% of cases. With the 7.5% where they succeeded, they then failed to find the owners of 40% of the phone numbers they had identified, including many that were registered across the border in the US. “We were running into brick walls all over the place,” as one investigator put it. With one startling exception.
In relation to the riding of Guelph in Ontario, the Conservatives who had engaged in “trench warfare” to impede the civil court, handed Elections Canada a group of witnesses who identified an ambitious young party worker, Michael Sona, as a culprit, adding crucially that he had acted without authority, as a “rogue activist”. Sona’s name was rapidly leaked to newspapers. Investigators were able to follow a trail of electronic footprints from the local Conservative office, where Sona worked, to a telemarketing company that had sent out a robocall to more than 7,000 Liberal households, diverting them from their polling stations. Sona was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for nine months for interfering with an election. He says that he is innocent, a decoy thrown out to protect the real culprits. Others say he is a maverick who set up his own relatively clumsy scheme without the blessing of his party.
But what about all the other ridings? Elections Canada in April 2014 published a report in which it acknowledged the difficulties it had encountered, and reported that – with the exception of Guelph – that it had been unable to find any concrete evidence of dubious activity. This left open the possibility that voters in these ridings had been victims of something far more sophisticated than the clumsy operation for which Michael Sona had been blamed. In Ottawa today, political insiders claim to have heard Conservative workers boasting of using call centres in the US, India or the Philippines.
However, they can prove nothing, and Elections Canada not only found no such clues but enraged Harper’s opponents by concluding that its inability to find evidence of activity outside Guelph amounted to positive evidence that there had been no such activity. This contradicted the finding of Mr Justice Mosley and implied that all of the complainants from outside Guelph had been tainted by confusion, delusion or dishonesty. No culprit other than Michael Sona has been brought to book.
Effectively cleared of responsibility, the Conservatives pushed back hard. When Elections Canada asked for more powers to help it investigate future fraud claims, the House of Commons backed them. The Harper government, however, denied the body the powers it wanted and removed its entire investigations branch, transferring it to the office of the public prosecutor, where it is no longer answerable to parliament. Meanwhile, the Conservative MP who had acted as Harper’s spokesman on the robocalls affair – his parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro – was jailed for breaking spending limits in his own riding and submitting false records. The sentencing judge told him that he had indulged in “the antithesis of democracy”.
Stephen Harper has not been convicted of any crime. But his character appears to have had a big impact on the way that his team behaves. He is a loner – a suburban boy who went trainspotting with his dad; whose asthma stopped him playing ice hockey but who knew more hockey stats than anyone else; who became an economist while his two brothers became accountants because, as he said, he did not have the personality to be an accountant. He was a loner who learned to scorn the happy crowd. One of his biographers, Lawrence Martin, found a source who remembered the young Harper at social events in his 20s as “the guy in the corner, pen and paper in pocket, looking at us in a condescending way. It was like ‘Those kids! There they are, drinking again.’”
That scorn appears to have interrupted the clever student’s journey to the top of the class. In his first term at university in Toronto, in 1978, he alarmed his family by dropping out, apparently because he could not stand his classmates and their sense of entitlement. He went west to Alberta, which is like leaving New York to go to Texas – from the bright lights of the city to the oil and gas fields that keep those lights burning; from money and privilege to hard graft and resentment; from progressive to conservative. He worked for three years as a clerk at Imperial Oil before returning to university, this time in Calgary, Alberta. It was 1981. The university was infused with anger at the Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to suppress the price of Alberta’s oil and to tax it for the benefit of the rest of Canada. That hostility to the progressive elite may have struck a personal chord with the young man who felt he did not fit in to Toronto society. It found intellectual shape in Calgary in the rightwing theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which were already being turned into reality by the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Harper left university in 1984 and spent the next 20 years working his way upwards and rightwards through Canadian politics, first as an aide for the ruling Progressive Conservatives, then as an MP for the even more conservative Reform party. He quit to become vice president of the National Citizens Coalition, which lobbied for neoconservative causes. Finally, in March 2002, he became leader of the new Alliance party, which was scooping up the anti-tax, anti-union vote. By now the mainstream Progressive Conservatives were in an electoral wasteland. Harper engineered a merger and, in March 2004, aged 44, he became the leader of a new and distinctly rightwing Conservative party. He had shown himself to be unusually smart, enormously hard-working, relentless. He had also attracted the words that were to follow him: cold, aloof, ruthless. And angry. John Ibbitson records a story from an aide who saw Harper exploding on his campaign bus during the June 2004 election, which he lost: “It was: ‘We are fucking going to do this, and you are fucking going to do that, and I want to see this fucking thing done right now.’ And then he paused and asked: ‘And why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?”
Harper is a master tactician. Knowing that there is a block of rightwing voters who have nowhere else to go, he has been willing to defy them in search of wider support: adopting liberal positions on abortion and gay marriage; veering leftwards to pump public money into the economy to avoid recession in 2008; reaching out to the migrants who now fill the suburbs of traditionally Liberal cities such as Toronto. He studies the stats. He makes the numbers add up. Harper has his roots in the same ideological soil as Thatcher and Reagan: cutting tax and rolling back the state; tough on crime and even tougher on the unions; boosting families and national pride; a solid economy that rewards those who work hard.
And then there were the tactics that were to attract such notoriety. They reflected the man’s character – clever and harsh – moves that turned a democratic election into a mere sequence of manoeuvres. He learned from the master, Arthur Finkelstein, who had played the electoral game for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. One of Harper’s early allies from the 1990s, Gerry Nicholls, captured in his memoirs the special cynicism of Finkelstein’s will to manipulate the electorate in his dictum: “We have to convince Canadians to drink pig’s piss.”
This meant, first of all, spending very little time on the big questions about the economy or public services or the environment and turning instead to an arsenal of aggression: attack ads to smear the opposition, like the one that focused on a Liberal leader’s facial disfigurement, caused by Bell’s palsy, or one that featured a puffin shitting on another Liberal leader’s shoulder. He also exploited “wedge” issues that aim to alienate a section of the opposition support, such as demanding the closure of the unit where heroin addicts in Vancouver can get safe injections.
It meant money – millions in private donations to fund the campaign, and millions more in state giveaways in order to encourage the voters. Just as Margaret Thatcher cut income tax to make Tory voting pay, so Harper gave his electorate a high-profile gift when he first took power in 2006, by cutting the Canadian sales tax, GST. It cost the exchequer some $12bn, but it purchased popularity. At times, it meant descending into old-fashioned, US-style pork-barrel politics, pouring public money into ridings that were politically important. An investigation by the Globe and Mail this year found that 83% of the Harper government’s new infrastructure projects had gone to the 52% of ridings that were in Conservative hands.
And it meant investing heavily in the politically profitable new science of microtargeting. This was the original reason for the Conservatives creating the Cims database, in which was stored every conceivable item of intelligence about voters. Other parties have since caught up, but at that time it allowed the Conservative party to target the “market segments” it needed for victory – not just with policy, but with favours. A $500 tax break for children to do ballet or hockey in the 2006 budget was good for a middle-class segment (this was doubled in 2014). A break for tradespeople’s tools could buy another. The Canadian writer Susan Delacourt, who tracked this in her book, Shopping For Votes, told of the finding in the Cims database that people who owned snowmobiles were potential Conservative voters. The Harper government has pledged $35m to create new trails for snowmobiles.
These tactics have proved particularly effective in a world in which people are becoming alienated from politics itself. In Canada, nearly 40% of the electorate did not bother to vote at the 2011 election. Among voters under 24, more than 60% stayed away (compared with 35.3% in 2006). A poll in Quebec province two months ago found that as the federal election campaign was launched, 20% of respondents could not name the political party that was running the country. Delacourt cites one of Harper’s political marketers, Patrick Muttart, saying that much of Conservative activity was aimed at voters who paid no attention to politics and who needed messages that were “brutally simple”.
In power as in elections, Harper’s rule has been to keep winning, whatever it takes. Even parliament – the embodiment of the popular will – is merely an obstacle to be dealt with. Soon after the November 2008 election, as he began his second minority government, Harper launched an “omnibus bill”, which contained so many provocative proposals that he united the previously divided opposition parties, which decided not just to vote against the bill but to form a coalition that could replace his government. Harper didn’t want that. So he prorogued parliament. He needed the consent of the Queen’s representative, the governor general, to do so. He got it. And so the parliament that threatened him was simply suspended until the political storm passed.
A year later, Harper was in deep trouble again, over press reports that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan had handed over Taliban prisoners to local security forces, who had then tortured them. Harper’s government had denied the claims, which amounted to allegations of war crime, but it was caught out badly in November 2009 when a Canadian diplomat and a general separately went public with evidence that parts of the government had known about this for more than three years. When the opposition united once more to demand the release of paperwork on the subject, Harper refused … and then persuaded the governor general to prorogue parliament again. There was a chorus of protest, led by professors of law and politics, but Harper scorned them. The elected representatives of the people were simply locked out for three months.
The following year, Harper clashed again with the rights of parliament. In July 2010, he announced that his government would buy 65 F-35 fighter jets, costing a total of $15bn – the most expensive military purchase in Canadian history. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, reckoned the real price would be even higher and accused Harper of deliberately understating it. Harper refused to hand over the paperwork that would disclose the truth about the F-35s and about the cost of a clutch of other policies. In March 2011, the speaker of the House of Commons ruled that this was a contempt of parliament, and the House then passed a vote of no confidence in Harper’s government. There was an election (involving the robocalls), which Harper won. Ignatieff quit. And 11 months later, it emerged that the true cost of the F-35s was nearly twice what Harper had claimed. In 2007, his second year in office, the National Post disclosed that Team Harper had drawn up a guidebook for the Conservative chairs of parliamentary committees, advising them how to use delays, obstruction and confusion to block difficult inquiries. In opposition, Harper said he would reform the Senate, so that its members would be elected. In office, he changed his mind, kept the power to select them himself and appointed 59 new senators so that he had a built-in majority in the upper house. The House of Commons found itself being swamped with omnibus bills, which included dozens of contentious proposals that could not be properly debated in the time available. At the daily Question Period, when ministers traditionally provide information, Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, gave answers so obstructive that, after a volley of complaint, he ended up apologising to the house, in tears.
Harper clamped down hard on senior officials whose job was to monitor the behaviour of the state. A report by the auditor general found that defence officials had misled ministers and parliament, and whitewashed cost overruns and delays in a determined effort to ensure Canada purchased the F-35 jet. Kevin Page, parliamentary budget officer, reported experiencing “significant amounts of intimidation” and that his office budget was cut by 30%. Linda Keen, head of Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission, challenged Harper over the safety of the Chalk River nuclear site: she was denounced and sacked. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, attempted to investigate the torture of Taliban prisoners who had been detained by Canadian forces: he lost his job. Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the supreme court, blocked Harper’s choice for a new high court judge: she was denounced in terms which caused a wave of complaint that Harper was interfering in the independence of the judiciary.
* * *
As Harper launched his election campaign 10 weeks ago, he faced the tricky coincidence that one of his closest allies, Senator Mike Duffy, was sitting in court in Ottawa, charged with fraud. The trial is not yet finished, and Duffy has pleaded not guilty, but, whatever the outcome, the case has exposed in embarrassing detail the behaviour of the core of Team Harper – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which has been described eloquently by the Globe and Mail as “a 90-person juggernaut of political strategists, ‘issues managers’ and party enforcers who exercise strict control over cabinet, the houses of parliament and the bureaucracy.”
Duffy has been an Ottawa character for years, famous as a TV journalist and notorious for his Conservative bent, which paid off in January 2009 when Harper appointed him as a senator for the small eastern province of Prince Edward Island.
It was nearly four years later, in December 2012, when a diligent journalist, Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen, reported that Duffy had told Senate authorities that his cottage in Prince Edward Island was his real home and had been claiming public money for the expense of living in Ottawa. The Senate’s internal economy committee hired a firm of auditors, Deloitte, to check the housing claims of all senators, including Duffy. When the PMO realised that Duffy might be tempted to talk to his old friends in the press, it aimed – as an internal email put it – “to prevent him from going squirrely in a bunch of weekend panel shows.”
Harper’s then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, persuaded the Conservative Party Fund, which is partly funded by the taxpayer, to stump up $32,000 to pay off Duffy’s debt for him, although the troubled senator would be allowed to pretend that he was repaying the money himself. Since, as his own emails disclosed, Wright thought it was “morally wrong” that the senator had taken the money, this looked rather like an attempt to use taxpayers’ money to repay money that had been taken from the taxpayer. In the event, it turned out that Duffy owed much more. With Duffy pleading poverty, Wright quietly paid the $90,100 himself. (He had made millions in the world of finance before joining Team Harper.)
Duffy managed to keep his seat until a second diligent journalist, Robert Fife of CTV, disclosed that it was Wright who had paid Duffy’s debt and that the Senate’s report had been “sanitised”. In an avalanche of embarrassment, Mike Duffy was dumped by the Conservatives and charged by the police; Wright resigned, and Stephen Harper denied knowing anything about the cover-up. At the end of May, an Ipsos-Reid poll suggested that only 13% of Canadians believed him.
Harper’s leadership style is all about control – of information and of people. In 2010, Harper provoked fury by cancelling the national census and then scrapping a series of long-term surveys, thus effectively concealing the facts about significant trends in Canadian society, including poverty, inequality, housing need and health. In a report in March, the information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, complained that Canada’s Access to Information law “is applied to encourage a culture of delay … to deny disclosure. It acts as a shield against disclosure. The interests of the government trump the interests of the public.”
The Harper government’s obsession with control may look simply like a means to maintain power. But it can achieve something more important, to reverse the flow of influence: instead of government responding to people, the electorate become passive recipients of state decisions. Consider the case of climate change.
Harper has never made any secret of his support for the oil industry. Emerging from his formative years in Alberta, he was a founder member of the neoconservative Reform party, which was baptised with a $100,000 cheque from the head of Gold Standard Oils. Soon after taking power in 2006, Harper started to clamp down on research into global warming. He got rid of his own science adviser and killed the climate-change section of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He shut down the official website on climate change and tried to cut funding for the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory, which had been at the forefront of monitoring deterioration in the ozone layer as well as climate change.
But he opened his door to the other side of the argument. The Polaris Institute thinktank reported in December 2012 that 45 oil lobbyists had been allowed to work inside Harper’s government and that during the previous four and a half years, officials and ministers had held some 2,700 meetings with the oil lobby. By contrast, the Climate Action Network had managed just six.
Having changed the flow of information into government, he then dramatically changed the direction outwards to his electorate. A new protocol required all government scientists to ask for clearance from the PMO before speaking publicly. As a result, important research has been buried, stalled or misrepresented, including an analysis of changes in snowfall, an inquiry into the loss of ozone over the Arctic, and research on the impact of a 2C rise in global temperature. Meanwhile, the government department that oversees the oil and gas industries increased its advertising budget from less than $250,000 in 2010 to a massive $40m only two years later.
Activists, too, felt the rough hand of government. Harper set aside $8m to check the activity of charities, including environmental groups, to stop them campaigning politically. David Suzuki, the Gandalf-like founding father of the Canadian green movement, stepped down from his own charitable foundation so that he could speak freely without the organisation being attacked. In British Columbia, a green group called Dogwood Initiative, reported that material that it had obtained under the Access to Information law revealed that it had been under “illegal surveillance” by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Having distorted the flow of information, Harper then moulded the policy to fit. Ever since he first took power in February 2006, he has been promising action on climate change, particularly in relation to the carbon that is released from Canada’s huge reserve of tar sands, now the third-biggest reservoir of oil on the planet.
After a false start in 2006 with a bill that was killed by parliament for being too weak, he launched a sleek new vehicle – “Turning the Corner” – in March 2007, with new emissions targets for each sector of the economy, crucially including oil and gas. It could all come in to force as early as 2010, he said. But the sleek new vehicle was soon diverted into the oil lobby’s bog, where it stalled and stuck in endless negotiation. At one point, in February 2013, Harper’s environment secretary, Peter Kent, said the rules were “very close” to being finalised. Four months later, Kent was out of the job, later reflecting ruefully that perhaps he had been “pushing too hard”. To this day, Canada still has no emissions rules for its oil and gas sector.
In the background, Harper’s government announced a “cap and trade” system to cut emissions in 2008, then dropped the plan in 2011. It failed to hit the targets that it had agreed at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, scrapped a raft of environmental rules, and, in 2011, became the first government to back out of the Kyoto protocol, which the Liberals had ratified in 2002. When the Centre for Global Development, in 2013, ranked 27 developed nations according to their handling of the environment, it placed Canada at number 27.
Canada’s current election campaign has followed a path that is now familiar. The Conservatives have more money. Harper has stopped public funding for political parties, which yields a financial advantage to his own party, with its Cims database full of potential private donors. In a neat symbol of its purchasing power, the Conservative party has been accused of buying likes on Facebook (it declined to comment, saying it was an “internal party matter”). His team have restricted the flow of information to voters: the prime minister makes speeches and holds photocalls but avoids questions from the press. With few exceptions, Conservative candidates have been told not to take part in public debates. Big issues are raised, but it is the small issues that dominate. Canada’s most idolised hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, may not be a political thinker, but his endorsement of Harper made big headlines. The collapse in the price of oil may have driven the Canadian economy into recession, but Harper is microtargeting market segments by offering a new tax break for home renovations and for those who belong to organisations such as the Rotary Club.
At a point when the party was slipping backwards in the polls, Harper’s team came up with a brilliantly successful wedge issue, insisting that no Muslim woman should be allowed to take the oath of Canadian citizenship while wearing a niqab. In the past four years, the number of women who wanted to wear the niqab while taking the oath has reached a grand total of two. But this became a big issue as it split off two sections of voters in Harper’s favour: the “old stock” Canadians, who fear Muslim migrants as intruders, and liberal feminists, to whom one of Harper’s ministers appealed by describing the niqab as “a medieval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people”. For speaking up in favour of a Muslim woman’s right to choose what she wears, the leader of the centre-left New Democratic party, Tom Mulcair, was punished with a disastrous collapse in his poll ratings, while Harper surged upwards.
Harper has the natural advantage of an opposition which is divided between Mulcair’s NDP and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. He also has the advantage of what looks like a form of voter suppression which, unlike robocalls, is legal – a requirement that voters produce an official document in addition to their voter card to prove that they have a home in the riding. Harry Neufeld, who has been running elections in Canada since 1982, said he estimated that at least 250,000 qualified electors would be denied a vote. These are likely to be people who would not vote Conservative – students, the poor, aboriginal people. “I believe the legal changes amount to systematic manipulation,” he said. “It saddens me to see this happening in Canada. It reduces the perceived integrity of our national elections. And it damages our reputation as a country with deep democratic values.”
Additional research by Mali Ilse Paquin
Nick Davies is the bestselling author of Flat Earth News, on falsehood and distortion in the media, and a former Journalist of the Year. His latest book, Hack Attack, is out now in paperback
• This article was amended on 15 October 2015. An earlier version referred to Pierre Trudeau as a former premier.