In the last few months, Canadian journalists with long memories have been decrying what they see as an authoritarian tendency in Canada’s government. Armed with the majority mandate it had long coveted, and which it finally obtained in last year’s federal election, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been remaking the country’s politics, and the national government, in a new image. Traditionalists can’t stand it. Some of it looks like it was lifted from a United States Republican playbook. Despite little evidence of worsening crime, for instance, the government is changing the criminal code to adopt a US-style, tough-on-crime approach. There has also been more use of dirty tricks and negative advertising than Canadians have been accustomed to in the past. tightly controlled Perhaps most worryingly, there has been a shift towards a presidential type of politics, with the prime minister increasingly concentrating policy and decision making in his own office. Information is tightly controlled, and even Cabinet ministers are given talking points drafted by aides in the PM’s office. I recall a conversation I had years ago with a former Canadian prime minister, Joe Clark. Over breakfast during a visit of his to Montego Bay, Mr Clark had warned that the Conservative Party was then forging close ties to right-wing think tanks in Washington. He detected a foreign agenda in the party’s drift. Himself a former Conservative leader, Mr Clark had broken with the re-formed party, and had become a lonely voice of Canadian tradition in the wilderness. Anti-democratic trends Still, defenders of Mr Harper could just as easily retort that centralising tendencies had started three decades before under a Liberal prime minister, the late Pierre Trudeau – as it happened, another man for whom Mr Clark had held little regard. Moreover, the PM’s centralising trend has been counterbalanced somewhat by a devolution of powers to the provincial governments, in keeping with the Conservative vision of greater provincial autonomy. Mr Trudeau, in contrast, really would have liked to have held all the marbles himself. Yet, there have been other developments in Canadian politics that have been a little unsettling to those attached to the country’s middle-of-the-road tradition. For one thing, the government’s disdain of parliament seems palpable, and the government has even been found to be in contempt by the speaker of the House. Mr Harper also seems to have a low estimation of his own bureaucracy. Long seen by prairie populists – from which Mr Harper hails – as a den of liberals (does this sound vaguely familiar?), Conservatives do have a history of sometimes tense relations with the Ottawa administration. Nonetheless, since its modernisation half a century ago, Canada’s bureaucracy has had a reputation for professionalism and propriety. costly bureaucracy Increasingly, though, Mr Harper relies on hand-picked consultants, working out of his office, to devise policy. This has added a new, and costly, layer of bureaucracy in the capital city. Meanwhile, critics argue that government websites are being used to promote the Conservative agenda, and refer not to the government of Canada but to the ‘Harper government’. Old-time journalists, especially members of the parliamentary press corps, who no doubt feel neglected and unloved, splutter with incredulity at what is happening to their country. But then, Mr Harper’s supporters will say that nothing succeeds like success. There’s not much evidence yet that Canadians further removed from Ottawa share the same degree of concern. Were Mr Harper to retain his majority in the next election, he could well say he did what the people wanted. With the next election several years off, we won’t know that verdict for a while. It may be that Canada’s changed demography is leading to the evolution of a new kind of federal system. Or it may just be that one man read too much into his mandate, to be brought to book in time.