In the last year, Canada’s censorial HRCs have been widely criticized for their campaigns against free speech. When Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant exposed the punitive process to which many social conservatives have been subjected, an outcry arose from across the ideological spectrum. For a while, it seemed that there was no one left to defend the bureaucratic bullies at the HRCs. But, for all of their notorious actions and recent infamy, the HRCs still seem to have one friend left: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In an interview published in the Jan. 8 issue of Maclean’s, Harper was asked: “Will the government amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prevent unwarranted interferences in free expression by human rights commissions?” Harper’s answer was both surprising and disappointing. He said: “The government has no plans to do so. We’re certainly aware of the issue. My understanding – we’ve been monitoring this closely – I think you’ll actually see there’s been some modification of behaviour on the part of the Canadian human rights commissions.” And, after noting that the censorship of hate speech is a “valid objective,” he added: “It’s probably the case that we haven’t got the balance right, but I’m not sure the government today has any answer on what an appropriate balance would be.”
Harper’s safe and terrible answer is deeply flawed and badly timed: it is clear that he has the political instincts of a policy wonk. In opting for legalistic nuance instead of a clear denunciation, Harper has significantly eased the pressure on the HRCs. And while his statements may be technically correct – most of what he called “egregious cases” were provincial rather than federal – his failure to denounce their excesses was not only cowardly, but miscalculated.
Harper has again shown himself to be a political creature with the talents of a backroom strategist, rather than the vision of a moral leader. His awkward and disappointing response in the interview recalls the answer he gave in September when asked if he would allow the abortion question to be revisited: “This government will not open, will not permit anyone to open the abortion debate. Our position is clear.” Shortly after he made these comments, Canadians gave Harper another minority government, and his opponents attempted a coup d’état. His comments in Maclean’s remind us why so many Canadians are unwilling to support him and why so many politicians are ready to challenge him.
Not representing the centre-right, and not ready for the centre stage, Harper continues to disappoint those who would support him. In attempting to win new friends on his left, Harper has lost the backing of many conscientious Canadians who would give him the majority government he so desperately seems to want – yet lets slip through his fingers.