I was reminded recently by a reader of Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” that freaked out a generation of US citizens who expected their politicians to play by the rules. The list came to light when John Dean, the former White House Counsel for Nixon, testified before the Senate Watergate Committee.
The original list had 20 names, including actor Paul Newman, but was later expanded to hundreds on a “master list.” The original list had leaders of non-profit organizations and unions, human rights supporters, members of the media, and opposition politicians and their moneyed supporters.
Here’s how Dean explained the list to the committee:
This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.
Wikipedia notes that the commissioner in charge of taxation, refused to audit the people on the list.
The reader’s note reminded me of a couple of news reports from 2013 about the “enemy” list given new cabinet ministers in the current federal government. A senior PMO staffer directed staffers about what to include in transition booklets given to new ministers. Items include: “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders” and “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer.” The government later confirmed that the Prime Minister’s Office had previously sent an email to Conservative ministerial aids asking for “enemy” lists.
Critics, including 200 public-interest and aid organizations formally asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reveal who was considered an “enemy” on the list.
The National Post reported former Environment Minister Peter Kent’s concerns with the “juvenile” language of the lists and its obvious resonance with the Nixon list.
Interestingly, the National Post piece also quoted resigned Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, who found the language “very, very troubling. We can have respectful discussions and disagree with each other without resorting to name-calling or vilification by referring to somebody as an ‘enemy.’”
And the Post quoted Council of Canadians executive director Garry Neil:
They don’t view us as citizens with strongly held opinions that come from places of principle. They view us as eco-terrorists. They see us standing with the child pornographers. I mean that’s the way they view politics.
Neil expected the Council to be on an enemies list because of its vocal criticism of public policies pursued by the government.
Now, I’m not suggesting a direct comparison between Stephen Harper and his PMO on the one hand and the deeply paranoid psychosis that gripped Richard Nixon and his inner circle.
But my research did find that the government is abusing its authority and operating outside of traditional Canadian political boundaries. It is doing so by using administrative bodies, in particular Canada Revenue Agency, to muffle and distract its critics in the form of charities that have different public policy preferences to those of the cabinet. This politicization of the bureaucracy is a corruption of Canadian democracy.
It may not be Watergate, but it’s beyond traditional boundaries of acceptable political behaviour. I wonder if it passes the “smell test” among citizens.
Meanwhile, please check out my Master’s thesis and feel free to forward and tweet it. And you can follow me on Twitter: @garethkirkby
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communications professional. I have earned a Webster Award of Distinction, among other awards, for my reporting.