Reminiscent of books like Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, which chronicled in careful detail the rush to war in George W. Bush’s White House, Lawrence Martin’s Harperland: The Politics of Control relies on insider stories to paint a portrait of Canada’s first hard-right Prime Minister.
It’s not a very pretty picture.
Martin makes no pretense of being objective. He clearly believes Stephen Harper to be the most dangerous threat to Canadian democracy in memory, perhaps in history. Martin’s portrayal of the man he calls “a control freak” is disturbing.
The first part of the book details the rise to power of the newly-merged Conservative Party, a re-branding of the right-populist Alliance Party and the wounded remnant of the Progressive Conservative Party. Much of the second half of the book outlines the Harper government’s policy positions and political maneuvers with respect to issues from the Afghanistan war, to the 2008 federal election, to the brazenly tradition-breaking move — many would say a blatantly undemocratic move — to prorogue Parliament rather than face a confidence vote his party would lose.
But the book’s main focus throughout is how the minority Conservative government is the product of the will and vision of one man, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Martin pulls no punches in depicting a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners politician, a practical ideologue, a right-wing incrementalist, always looking toward his long-term goals while working toward them step by measured step.
Although there is another, looser side to the guarded and uptight Stephen Harper we all observe in public, only his closest friends ever see it, and that only infrequently. To his staff and the members of his caucus, Harper is most often intimidating — focused, disciplined, and demanding.
Focus, discipline, and high expectations can be very desirable leadership qualities, but when they are applied with the extreme control of Harper’s PMO (Prime Minister’s Office, the Canadian version of the White House staff) and PCO (Privy Council Office, the Cabinet’s administrative office), the results can be stifling for the officials who work under their oversight and for the democratic principles by which they are supposed to be leading the country.
It is this penchant for micro-management of policy and total control of politics that provides the subtitle of Martin’s book. This is a book about a dogmatic and dedicated ideologue.
There is much in the book about Harper’s vindictive relationship with the other parties and with the press, as well as his willingness to put political advantage before all else when devising tactics to achieve his policy ends. Yet the most striking example of the level of ideological and political control exercised by Harper and his PMO is the manner in which his newly-installed minority government instituted controls over the Conservative message, through an unprecedented muzzling of caucus and cabinet.
As Martin points out, cabinet ministers had traditionally been used to being pretty much in charge of their own portfolios, managing both the broader outlines and the smaller details of policy and legislative initiatives. They had overseen the bureaucracies under them, and they had explained and defended their departments’ actions to Parliament, the press, and the public. All of this changed with Stephen Harper:
The PMO was in the course of putting in place a message-control system, a vetting operation unlike anything ever seen in the capital. No other government had even come close to such a system of oversight. … The new regimen called for all public pronouncements by civil servants, diplomats, the military, cabinet members, and conservative MP’s to be approved … .
This was no slight formality. The required form was incredibly detailed, the specificity of its sections indicating clearly the political rigour behind the exercise. No longer would any government official at any level be allowed to “wing it” — every event, every speech, every answer to every question, was to be planned and to be kept rigidly on message:
If a government official or a caucus member wanted to say something publicly, he or she would first have to fill out a Message Event Proposal (MEP) and submit it to central command. The form had sections with such titles as Desired Headline, Strategic Objective, Desired Sound Bite, and the like. It also had areas for supplying details on the speaking backdrop, the ideal event photograph,
and even the speaker’s wardrobe.
The vetting of these MEP’s was taken so seriously that it wasn’t uncommon for events to be delayed, even cancelled, because the necessary PMO or PCO approval hadn’t been obtained. One seemingly innocuous example Martin recounts involved a Parks Canada official who had written a press release on the mating season of bears, the kind of routine public service pronouncement which the department had been issuing for years. Not under Stephen Harper. Even this minor announcement was delayed until it had been checked for political and policy appropriateness and approved by the PMO’s censors.
Parliamentary relations was another area of deep control, with a full Cabinet Meeting to prepare for each Question Period. This unprecedented level of control included practice questions and answers, with ministers honing the prefered responses to anticipated opposition questions, under the watchful and critical eye of the Prime Minister and his
chief political aides.
There’s more, much more, that one could say about this book, but this is a short review, and I found that the incredible strength of his impulse to pull all the strings himself is the defining quality of Canada’s most ideological and most secretive Prime Minister. As Martin puts it, Harper ” had campaigned on a promise of accountability, but those who knew him realized that openness was not in his DNA.”
Perhaps the best conclusion is simply to list some of the many ways that Stephen Harper and his minority Conservative government have changed, or are attempting to change, the nature of the Canadian political system — and with it, the nature of Canadian democracy.
Martin summarizes life in Harperland this way:
The excesses left much of the capital prostrate before him. Checks and balances? Stephen Harper weakened them all. He weakened the public service through the vetting system, his own party through the garrison structure, the media by limiting access, the NGOs and agencies by dismissals
and intimidation, parliamentary committees by dysfunctional tactics, the Liberal Party through browbeating, and Parliament through extortion and prorogations.
As a strongman prime minister, he was beyond compare. He made previous alleged dictators like Jean Chretien look like welterweights. It was no small wonder that Canadians feared what he might do with a majority government.
That’s quite a litany, and most Canadians will join Lawrence Martin in his fear and disgust.