Lawrence Martin’s imaginary Stephen Harper

A review of Lawrence Martin’s Harperland: The Politics of Control, by Michael Taube Viking Canada, 2010 301 pages, $29.95

Stephen Harper is Canada’s 22nd prime minister. He has formed two successful, long-lasting minority Conservative governments. Yet most Canadians still don’t understand who he is, what he believes in, and where his present and future plans will ultimately take our country.

Some writers have been able to partly lift the Prime Minister’s heavily-protected veil. Tom Flanagan’s Harper’s Team was an intelligent, fair-minded analysis of Harper the man, and Harper the political leader. William Johnson’s Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada and Paul Wells’ Right Side Up were both valiant efforts in examining Harper’s politics and leadership style.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Lawrence Martin’s Harperland: The Politics of Control. The Globe and Mail columnist has written a breezy, sensationalist and mean-spirited account of the PM. While some people might enjoy this kind of Stevie Cameron-like hit job, in reality, this is the weakest and least informative analysis of the Harper government to date.

Harperland starts off in the same way as most previous books about Harper. How could a book-wormish economics major, described by peers and politicians as “brilliant but aloof,” lacking “any human warmth,” and “could never work a room” if his life depended on it, end up as our national leader? Martin writes, “Sometimes the gods smile on a politician, sometimes they turn away.” That’s true. and in the author’s mind, the gods must have been gritting their teeth when it came to Harper.

Martin sets out to find answers, but ends up taking the worst possible route. The book’s biggest flaw is the one trait that intrigues most people: the format. As with other writers who analyze governments they were never a part of—or were ideologically opposed to—Martin uses an old, tired formula. He finds individuals willing to speak on the public record, and reproduces select statements in the guise of first-hand accounts. The list includes former PMO staffers (Ian Brodie, Keith Beardsley, Kory Teneycke), political strategists (Tom Flanagan, Gerry Nicholls, Rod Love), and political opponents (Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, Elizabeth May). There’s even a tiny sprinkling of books, magazines and newspaper columns to give the book a pseudo-academic status.

While this format has helped build journalistic careers, including the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, it doesn’t necessarily lead to well-written books and factual accounts. Martin doesn’t appear to have properly assessed whether these quotes are accurate, are being made by disgruntled people looking for revenge against their former boss, or if he misinterpreted them along the way. Yes, there are some revealing comments in Harperland, and Brodie, Flanagan and Beardsley’s contributions have historical value. But beneath these layers is a book filled with conjecture and select interpretations of many interviews.

Here are three prime examples:

First, Kory Teneycke told Martin in an interview that during the 2008 prorogation battle, the PM was prepared to explore other options, “among them, the Queen.” The former PMO communications director went on to say, “the ultimate step in this is public opinion.” That led Martin to release the tape to the CBC. While it’s clear Teneycke wasn’t being serious—the Queen has better things to do than meddle in Canada’s constitutional crisis—it was taken as fact. A good journalist would have double-checked this stunning statement, to make sure it passed the smell test.

Second, the PMO is made out to be part fear factory, part inmates-running-the asylum, and part twenty-something children masquerading as adult politicians. As Martin writes in Harperland, “anyone who stepped out of line [with Harper] ran the risk of encountering – to use the hockey talk favoured by the PM – a member of his goon squad.” Or, as one veteran PC reportedly grumbled to Martin, orders would come down from “some debutant neo-con in the PMO who knows nothing.” While there were feelings like that about the PMO, the book doesn’t provide any substantial proof. With many ex-Harper Tory staffers milling about, there’s no excuse for this.

Third, Martin has an obvious partisan stance against Harper and the PMO. He cherry picks quotes to paint Harper as a “control freak” and “emotionless robot” who has “deep and brooding resentments.” Meanwhile, the PM is perceived as running “too aggressive and too oppressive an operation,” and displays “different shades of conservatism at different times…[t]he important consideration was where he was moored, and it could hardly be said that this place was imbued with democratic ideals, but rather with monocratic, domineering tendencies.” Harper therefore takes on an ugly persona of a right-wing ogre with a divide-and-conquer mentality, who will stop at nothing to accomplish his goals. That’s a wee bit conspiratorial, and leaves the distinct impression about the author’s bias to readers.

Let’s be fair: Harper has his flaws, just as other prime ministers before him. Some parts of Harperland are valid, including his desire for order, loyalty and control among friends and colleagues. And there are a few positive comments about the PM, including in the (surprise, surprise) endnotes.

Readers shouldn’t be fooled by Martin’s description of Harper on the book’s last page as “one of the more talented Canadian political leader to come along in decades. His range of knowledge, the precision of his mind, his degree of discipline, his capacity to strategize..was of an unusually high standard.”

Sorry, but the tiniest of olive branches don’t make up for mounds of mud-slinging. If Martin truly has any respect for his subject matter, it’s grudging at best.

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