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Review By Thomas Joseph Harperland: The Politics of Control

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 THUNDER BAY, ON  -----  Octobert 22, 2010  ---  Lawrence Martin’s book should be an immediate read for HarperLandevery Canadian. As a Globe and Mail political columnist in Ottawa covering Parliament Hill, he has been front and centre observing the workings of Parliament and the antics of our parties and politicians.

This book chronicles the political behavior and tactics of Stephen Harper and his Conservative Government. It briefly traces Harper’s victory over Stockwell Day for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance Party and the subsequent merging with the Progressive Conservative Party. The main focus begins with the 2004 federal election and continues through to the present. Martin’s account is peppered with observations and comments by key Harper advisors and staff.

Thomas W. Joseph is a long-time observer of Canadian politics having taught Canadian Studies at Confederation College and Lakehead University for over 30 years. His previous publications include The Charter and You,  Essentials of Canadian Politics and Government, Canada…much more than a maple leaf, eh?, and, 8 Days of Crisis on the Hill: Political blip…or Stephen Harper’s Revolution Derailed? His latest book, A Clear and Present Danger: Stephen Harper's Plan for Canada, will be released soon.
 
Book Review
Lawrence Martin, Harperland: The Politics of Control, (Toronto: Penguin, 2010)
Master Strategist or Schoolyard Bully?

Lawrence Martin’s book should be an immediate read for every Canadian. As a Globe and Mail political columnist in Ottawa covering Parliament Hill, he has been front and centre observing the workings of Parliament and the antics of our parties and politicians.

This book chronicles the political behavior and tactics of Stephen Harper and his Conservative Government. It briefly traces Harper’s victory over Stockwell Day for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance Party and the subsequent merging with the Progressive Conservative Party. The main focus begins with the 2004 federal election and continues through to the present. Martin’s account is peppered with observations and comments by key Harper advisors and staff.

In Martin’s assessment, Stephen Harper brings to the office of Prime Minister a number of significant skills that have enabled him to gain control over the party and the government. Many observers credit him with being better informed and clearer in his thinking than many previous PMs. His cabinet meetings are focused and efficient unlike Liberal Paul Martin’s. As well, Harper and the Conservatives have been better organized, have had a better campaign team and have been better at fundraising.

Harper’s success was also assisted by a number of important external events such as Martin’s choice to set up the Gomery Commission which seriously damaged Martin and the Liberals, the announcement by the RCMP of an investigation into alleged leaks on the income trust changes, Dion’s bad timing of his Green Shift policy and the stumbles by the coalition partners. Harper benefited from these unexpected turns of events and used them to maximum advantage.

But, what primarily occupies Martin is the manner in which Stephen Harper came to the position of leader of the Conservative Party and office of Prime Minister of Canada. In Martin’s view, alarm bells should be sounding across the land. In tracing the various decisions and tactics used by Harper to extend his control over the party, the government, the parliamentary process and the way politics is conducted in Canada, he identifies a dysfunctional personality that is willing to use whatever tactics that will bring victory. The reader might wonder whether Stephen Harper is a classic schoolyard bully or a modern version of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde.

Many Canadians have yet to see this side of the Prime Minister. They regard him as being tough but able and while they might not like some of his actions, they are unwilling to consider him a threat to the parliamentary system and Canadian democracy.

But that is exactly the case that Martin makes. On numerous accounts, Stephen Harper has violated his own often stated principles and values. For example, Harper made government accountability a major issue in the 2006 federal election – “we will continue to respect the principle that government is accountable to the people’s representatives in Parliament assembled.” - and once in office immediately passed the Federal Accountability Act.

But in practice, Harper defied the will of Parliament by refusing to produce documents, even after the Speaker ruled against him and ordered the government to produce the documents.
As well, he padlocked Parliament on two occasions when it was inconvenient for him and his government to face the ‘people’s representatives in Parliament assembled’.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Harper wrote in the Montreal Gazette that “Information is the lifeblood of a democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions and incompetent or corrupt governance can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.”

But as Prime Minister, he impeded the access-to-information system to such a degree that the information commissioner warned that the right of Canadians to obtain federal documents was running the risk of being “totally obliterated”.

These are but two of many examples that Martin uses to demonstrate the reality of Stephen Harper’s abuse of power.

As a leader, former advisors and staff describe Harper as ‘cold’, ‘emotionally flat’, ‘doesn’t mix well’, prone to ‘withdraw into a funk’ when he encounters adversity, often exhibits ‘blazing anger’, often ‘loud and foul mouthed’, has ‘over aggressive instincts’, is ‘excessively partisan’, and, has a ‘visceral hatred of the Liberals’. As longtime advisor and associate Tom Flanagan stated, Harper’s “suspicion of the world around him and his obsession to control was something that was deep-seated, not to be understood and not to be changed.”
Given the many statements of values and principles that Harper claims are central to his and conservative’s beliefs, what is to be made of the numerous times he has violated them and gotten away with it? Is it that Canadians just don’t see his actions for what they are? Or is it that they just don’t care? Is it a case of the media in Canada putting a pro Harper, pro Conservative slant to the news? Is it that the opposition parties have been unable to mount an effective challenge? Martin’s book should provide some answers to reflect on.

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