Three recent books about Canadian politics go a long way to explain why our politics is the way it is as they highlight the role of marketing and messaging in campaigns and governing. They raise important issues about authenticity and principles in Canadian politics, providing sometimes contradictory lessons.
Michael Ignatieff’s political memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Random House, $29.95, 207 pages) is on many levels disappointing, and yet is still illustrative of why Ignatieff failed to make the transition from popular academic to successful politician.
It is odd that after the opening chapter explaining why he returned to Canada and entered politics – confirming the Conservative charge that he didn’t “come back for you” as he describes that he was fulfilling his family’s destiny of public service and that he wanted to make his deceased ancestors proud – that Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears as much as Ignatieff does in the former Liberal leader’s own memoir. Ignatieff blames Harper’s ruthlessness for his own failures, even while admitting that he should have done a better job defining himself. (It is also odd that the goddess Fortuna from Machiavelli’s The Prince is the third most cited character or person in this Canadian political memoir; I guess once a professor …)
Sometimes Fire and Ashes comes off as a loser’s lament, because it is: “accepting (the people’s) verdict can be hard at times.” Ignatieff said he wrote the memoir as a warning to intellectuals like himself who are tempted by the allure of a political life and the ability to influence the affairs of men, and his central caution is that it is difficult to be oneself because politics requires you to be someone else. Ignatieff says that the confrontational nature and nastiness of politics threatens the ability of leaders to be authentic. The columnist Andrew Coyne once said that the unorthodox liberal views of the public intellectual Michael Ignatieff were precisely what made him an interesting potential leader of the Liberal Party after the Paul Martin debacle, but he ditched most of those positions as he became a standard-issue Liberal, checking off the laundry list of things a Good Canadian Liberal must support. Tellingly, while Ignatieff laments the difficulty to be authentic, he does not share specific examples of where he wrestled with himself on matters of principle.
For most of the book, Ignatieff not so much details as waxes philosophical about the grungy part of the game of politics, the compromises one must make when leading the party, both with oneself and the public. And despite telling this truth, it is questionable if Ignatieff is telling the whole truth about his time chasing high political office. He denies that politics is a “dirty game” and does not discourage others from pursuing it, but he has clearly been stung by his own experience. He denies that politics is all about tactics and techniques, saying it is about persuasion and perseverance even though he has explained the method by which his opponent beat him down. Unless Ignatieff thinks the attack ads he blames for his downfall are merely part of the persuasive arts and not a form of marketing smarts, there is something dissonant in his message.
Ignatieff entered politics thinking it was a lofty calling and while he claims he still believes that, the picture he paints suggests otherwise. The book is useful to better understand not the disconnect between the political class and voters, a theme Ignatieff returns to several times, but rather the gap between the human being the politician is before political life and what he becomes during it.
The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- by Paul Wells (Random House, $32, 436 pages) looks at how Harper became Prime Minister, how he has held on to power, and what he’s done with it. To understand Harper, Wells says, you must view him through the lens as explained by an unnamed MP: “If you think of Harper as a conservative ideologue, you run into no end of confusion and contradiction. But if you think of him as a Conservative partisan, most of what he does makes sense. He protects the team.”
Once you understand that, you understand how a Reform MP and Canadian Alliance leader can impose the sort of discipline on his party that he once condemned Jean Chretien for; you can understand how he can reverse direction without notice and seemingly sellout long-standing conservative principles of balanced budgets or not appointing senators. Understand does not mean support, but we get a better handle on Harper if we know that he is a capital-c Conservative first and foremost.
Wells goes over a fair bit of Harper’s disciplined messaging as he campaigns and governs – three elections and seven years in power provides plenty of fodder for this book – and makes a compelling case that both of those verbs are part of the same project: keeping the Tories in power and the Liberals out of power.
Wells, a Maclean’s columnist, can be too cute at times but he gets two things right. Harper is slowly making the federal government less relevant by shrinking its revenues by lowering taxes and shifting resources to the provinces with no strings attached thereby altering previous federal arrangements. This is shrinking government even if Harper’s post-financial crisis response was the largest deficit in Canadian history. He is doing all this under the radar; it is, to use the phrase of the slanderous attack on him, his hidden agenda.
On moral issues, Wells notes that Harper has been adamant that he doesn’t want to re-open contentious issues and if that means slapping down his own socially conservative MPs, so be it. Social conservatives, Wells says, “would have to be content with the government’s tax benefits for parents, or its tough-on-crime policy.” Wells says “there were plenty of side doors into social conservatism,” so Harper “kept the front door barred tight.” Thus, the Prime Minister sent his chief whip, Gordon O’Connor, to send the message that abortion was not only an issue the government wanted to avoid, but defend, in a speech that sent “the clearest message” to pro-life members of his caucus: “they were flat out of luck with this prime minister.” Despite the attacks that have become the stuff of parody, Harper harbours no hidden agenda.
Wells helps readers understand that while Harper is slowly changing the country’s fiscal arrangements, he is also a typical politician: he wants to win elections and to do that he needs a caucus that will be loyal and disciplined. To Harper’s mind, that means not permitting Conservative MPs to challenge the status quo of abortion-on-demand and legal same-sex “marriage.”
Probably the best Canadian political book of the year is Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP by one of the party’s best strategists and operatives, Brad Lavigne (Douglas-McIntyre, $34.95. 286 pages). One must always be careful with inside accounts as the players have themselves and friends to puff up and scores to settle, but Lavigne’s book seems honest enough.
What Lavigne illustrates brilliantly is the long-term plan to attain power, unimaginatively entitled “The Project” and how NDP leader Jack Layton and a coterie of close advisors implemented the plan. As Lavigne notes, “Jack was a planner,” and he had a vision for how to grow a protest party into a legitimate contender for power. It took three election campaigns to attain opposition status and it wasn’t for the reason that the media has reported, namely that voters warmed to “Jack.” No, it was a lot of hard work.
There is plenty of details on how campaigns work such as the tricks strategists use to get reporters to cover events and the relationship between party headquarters or the campaign team and local riding associations and candidates. The book is worth reading for these tidbits alone.
Mostly the book explains how the NDP fulfilled its need for “a better message, delivered by a stronger campaign machine, to a bigger audience.” One need not be sympathetic to the views of the NDP to find it admirable that they found some semblance of political success without fundamentally sacrificing their principles. While some compromises were necessary. Lavigne said The Project “wasn’t about denying our history; it was about defying it.”
Lavigne is very good at highlighting those areas in which the NDP could marry the principles in which they believed with good politics, for example promoting pet issues like a national prescription drug plan as voter-friendly initiatives, thereby equating a new spending program as pro-family policy.
Lavigne’s book is a scintillating political tale that explains how the NDP went from fringy fourth party to become the Official Opposition with the same kind of message discipline practiced by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but more importantly it shows that political success can come with a minimum compromise of one’s principles.