stephenharperThis election season has seen the release of numerous political books, but three stand out as important. Ostensibly books about Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and by the current NDP and former Liberal leaders, might not provide similar insights, but indirectly they do.

There have been numerous anti-Harper books released in the past year or so, evidence of what some call Anti-Harper Syndrome. This is not to say there are not valid criticisms, only that most authors are not interested in a balanced view of Harper. John Ibbitson’s Stephen Harper (Signal, $35, 438 pages) is a fine biography that avoids the shrillness of so many other books about the Prime Minister. Ibbitson is critical of Harper but also gives him his due, acknowledging he governed as conservatively as possible within the framework the “Laurentian consensus” – what the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal elites will permit in Canada.

Looking at Harper’s life from boyhood in Toronto to Reform Party strategist to Conservative leader and eventually prime minister, Ibbitson gives a complete and fair picture of Stephen Harper. He also seems to understand Harper’s approach to social issues, which includes a tenuous balance: placating the large number of social conservative voters and caucus members, on the one hand, and the middle-of-the-road voters that generally accept the Laurentian consensus on social issues. Ibbitson’s paints Harper as a ruthlessly political creature who sought tactical compromises before eventually deeming an issue settled. In matters such as abortion and same-sex “marriage” (as well as official bilingualism and supply management), Ibbitson declares that in Harper’s mind and government policy, they are all “case closed.” In some cases, such as same-sex “marriage,” Harper’s views have indeed evolved, as Ibbitson explains the growing number of gay conservative staffers eventually led to a softening of a previous position.

If it is any consolation to social conservative voters, Harper, according to Ibbitson, seems ready to jettison conservative principles in general to hold power and make incremental changes on the margins of policy. Ibbitson suggests this is the best conservatives can hope for, and that Harper has delivered (see the absence of abortion funding in Harper’s 2010 maternal health initiative with the G7).

In Tom Mulcair’s Strength of Conviction (Dunburn, $19.99, pb, 232 pages) we learn about the man leading the NDP, a former environment minister in Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberal. Or at least we learn how he would like to be viewed. He was the second of ten children in an Irish-Catholic family, but he began to abandon the faith – Mass was “optional” – after his mother was castigated by the parish priest for using birth control after her tenth child. But another priest and high school instructor, Father Alan Cox, convinced a young Tom Mulcair that politics was his calling so he could make a difference, “to get things done.” The rest of the story seems to be a selective telling of how Mulcair’s whole career from university student to lawyer to politician led him to become the social justice warrior Fr. Cox always thought he could be.

The book transitions, more or less smoothly, to his agenda for Canada. He promises to battle climate change, create a $15-a-day daycare scheme, and lift seniors out of poverty. It’s standard left-of-center stuff, but Mulcair struggles to balance the need to look unscary to middle-of-the-road voters while brandishing his social reformer credentials. For the most part he pulls it off.

All that said, there is not a lot of depth or self-examination. I’d like to know, for example, how his wife’s role as a psychologist for palliative care patients influences his views on euthanasia. Alas, there is nothing about that particular contentious issue that the next Parliament be forced to confront.

Lastly, Bob Rae’s What Happened to Politics (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, 159 pages) is a lament for direction politics has taken in recent decades, although the focus is on what he considers the denigration and degeneration of politics in Harper’s decade in power. Rae is worried that Canada can no longer deal with large and important issues such as climate change, the plight of natives, or Canadian global leadership. Rae, a former federal Liberal leader and NDP premier of Ontario, says that “practical political philosophy had to shift,” and the “state had to change, evolve, and become more active.”

Rae is an idealist, and few would disagree when he says that “politics is about the common good.” What Rae ignores is that Canadians disagree on what the common good is and how to achieve it. The problem with Rae’s short tract is that he thinks politics is broken because he hasn’t gotten the results he wanted.

There is an argument to be made that politics does not do a great job addressing large and important issues; name an important issue, chances are federal leaders and candidates for office are doing their utmost to avoid the issue. That might not be a political problem, however, but a cultural one. Politicians are intensely attuned to what voters want and don’t want, and Canadians seem phobic of major shifts in policy. Politicians are happy to have contentious issues settled by the courts and bureaucracies, while fiddling at the margins of policy.

If there is a theme to these books is that politics is played in the center, with few bold moves. Political leadership has been replaced by political calculation. Unsaid but demonstrated through each of these three books is that politicians are keenly aware of the timidity of voters and accord themselves in a way as to not offend the electorate. If there is a lesson for social conservatives, it is that political change will not come without cultural change. And yet, as Ibbitson suggests, and as Mulcair hopes if he becomes prime minister, having the right people in power matters, too.