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Book Reviews

Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada

by Donald Gutstein

For many readers, Donald Gutstein’s new book will only serve to fuel fear and loathing for the current prime minister and the way he governs. It describes, in great detail, Harper’s links to the philosophies of Austrian neoliberal economist Freidrich von Hayek. Those links consist primarily of a series of think tanks, from the ubiquitous Fraser Institute to the lesser-known Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Gutstein shows how these well-funded outfits, with their widely covered studies and frequently quoted experts, systematically paved the way for Harper and his agenda.

Harperism (Donald Gutstein)The problem for those who dislike Harperism (the policies and the approach, not the book, which is engaging) is that the decades-long effort to methodically change Canadian politics was completely above board. No laws were broken – or even really bent – in the creation of the Canadian neoliberal think-tank complex. Arguably, the only major national institution that behaved counter to any code, internal or otherwise, is the news media.

Gutstein, a media critic and communication professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., points to countless examples, especially from the last 25 years, in which media ownership has installed senior editors and columnists with ties to right-wing think tanks. He also highlights many cases where reports published by those think tanks are given major attention in the news.

No journalist gets more negative attention than Postmedia columnist and regular CBC panelist Andrew Coyne. Gutstein writes that Coyne “occupies the interface between think tanks and media, crucial territory in the neo-liberal war of ideas.” A short list of the think tanks that Coyne is or has been affiliated with, according to Gutstein, includes the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Manning Centre, the Aurea Foundation, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation. None of Coyne’s media employers require him to disclose these ties, even though he frequently crushes politicians on TV and in print for their own conflicts of interest.

Leaving aside much of the English-Canadian news media’s complicity in advancing the neoliberal agenda, Gutstein’s most important observation for the future is that other countries that have endured comparable regimes – the U.K. under Thatcher; the U.S. under Reagan and Bush, Sr. – did not see neoliberal policies reversed by the centrist administrations that followed.