Thursday, January 11, 2007

Book Review: Conservative Victory Sparks Flurry of new books

Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism,

by Paul Wells

The Long Road Back: The Conservative Journey, 1993-2006,
by Hugh Segal

Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics,
by Bob Plamondon

No doubt the biggest Canadian political story of 2006 was the stunning electoral success of Canada's new Conservative Party in the recent federal election. The rise of the often-maligned Stephen Harper and the party he has led from its contentious beginnings to electoral victory is a captivating story. Undoubtedly, Canada's book publishers thought so and consequently we have seen a number of high quality books dealing with the election and its fallout. In particular, three major books merit attention.

The best of the lot is Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism, by Maclean's Magazine columnist Paul Wells. In it, he ably demonstrates why he merits his status as one of the leading scribes in Canadian political writing. His stories are accessible and his prose is light, though at times the collegial tone feels a bit forced. Overall he has written a book that is a very easy read both for the dilettante and the professional. Yet, his book packs real weight. Right Side Up is full of information you will find nowhere else about Paul Martin's fall and Stephen Harper's ascension.

Wells begins his book immediately after the narrow win of the Liberals in the 2004 federal election against the new Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. Though the Liberals maintained power, they lost seats - yet Martin treated the election as a victory and did virtually nothing to change or improve his team or their message for the next election. That was because from his perspective, Martin and his team had been building for this moment since his 1990 leadership loss to Jean Chr├ętien. Why should anything change? It was this inertia that set Martin and the Liberals up for their mediocre 2006 election results and Martin's subsequent resignation from politics.

Those who remember the Federal election of 2004 will remember that the election was in fact a very near thing for the Liberals in spite of their eventual victory. Three weeks before the election, Harper's new Conservative Party was ahead in the polls but seemingly ran out of script. This loss of momentum allowed the Liberals to run a very effective scare campaign that gave them a surge in the last weeks of the campaign, largely by convincing soft NDP voters to vote Liberal because the thought of a Stephen Harper victory was worse than the thought of continued Liberal government.

Wells contrasts Martin's blithe smugness following his victory with the story of Stephen Harper. Harper could have easily accepted the modest gains of 2004 as a success. After all, Harper had increased his party's seats, unified the country's Conservatives, and led in the polls up until the final weeks.

Instead, Harper treated the campaign like a terrible loss. He organized a series of ruthless strategy sessions in which everything about the campaign, including his own performance, was fair game for criticism. There, with the help of his inner circle of political ├╝bernerds like Tom Flannigan and Patrick Muttart, Harper and team deconstructed their election effort. From this analysis they prepared the working plan that would become the blueprint for victory in the 2006 election.

The results from these two approaches were that the Conservative 2006 campaign has become celebrated for its effectiveness and consistency, while the Martin campaign has been exposed for its disorganization and lack of imagination.

Elsewhere in the book Wells adds some interesting what-if scenarios - which only go to show how fragile and luck-driven political success can be. He documents the point in the campaign where all the Conservative television ads - including many nasty and negative ads that were never aired but where nonetheless prepared - were sent by accident to the Sun newspapers. Through good fortune, the Sun reporters were not able to properly open their DVD, saving the Conservatives from a terrible gaffe that may have been fatal to their election hopes. Through good fate, and little else, the Conservatives were able to retrieve their ads, and continue on to electoral success.

Those of you enjoyed the Maclean's post mortem on the last election will be interested to know that this book grew out of the writing that Wells contributed to that piece. Right Side Up is a great piece of political writing and in-depth reportage that is seldom seen. I think it's the best Canadian political book of 2006, and I can't recommend it enough.

Next to Wells' fine writing, Segal's and Plamondon's books are neither as accessible nor as interesting. Nonetheless, they are recommended reading, but I would read Well's book first and then choose the other books depending on your subject matter and political persuasion.

Segal's The Long Road Back is more for those readers who still yearn for the now defunct Progressive Conservative Party, and is more of a personal memoir. Plamondon's Full Circle is a much stronger historical work, and will be of more interest to those interested in the Alliance/Reform movements.

Segal's book is very much a book about the Conservative world, as opposed to any particular event, and Hugh Segal delivers real value from his privileged perspective on the Canadian political scene. As one of the leading Conservative intellectuals in Canada, Segal's political life was once intertwined with Ontario's Big Blue Machine, where he served then Premier Bill Davis. He is a lead spokesman for the "Red Tory" point of view. To this day Segal remains an active player in Ottawa, where he currently sits in the Senate as a Conservative member.

As knowledgeable as Hugh Segal is, his writing at times feels like a luncheon speech at the Empire Club. Hugh Segal the writer is not unlike Hugh Segal the talking head. He is erudite, nuanced and entertaining but somehow distant and inaccessible.

The Long Road Back is organized as a straightforward chronological narrative that begins with the terrible defeat of the Federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1993. It leads the reader through the years in the wilderness after that stunning defeat up through the leadership of Jean Charest, the return of Joe Clark, the brief reign of Peter MacKay and finally to the merger and beyond. Of most interest here is reading about how an ideological centrist like Hugh Segal feels under the leadership of the more right-wing Stephen Harper.

Plamondon's book covers much the same territory in terms of subject and chronology, but it does so from the perspective of a former member of the Reform/Alliance. Plamondon, while an active Conservative, focuses on the historical events of this period much more than his own political memories. This book is based on the recollections stemming from more than 50 interviews with key players at the time.

Yet, you get the sense he is too close by far to his sources. While Wells has some real scoops, and Segal is just interesting all by himself, Plamondon's moments are much fewer and farther between. Consequently, the book can get boring. It reads in some places like simple description, with little or no interpretation and spice.

That is not to say there are not some surprising turns. Plamondon's is strong in his criticism of Preston Manning and his selfish decision to tear apart the Canadian Conservative movement by founding the Reform Party in the late '80s.

Ultimately, Manning is portrayed in a very unfavorable light. He is the lead player in the tragedy of the Canadian Conservative movement's great divide. Manning's great organizational and leadership skills ultimately result in a perverse but very predictable outcome: Two inadequate Conservative parties, and Liberal Party of Canada domination of the Canadian Government from 1993 through to 2006. Plamondon lays the responsibility for this clearly on Manning's doorstep.

The "Full Circle" that Plamondon talks about is the division of the Conservative movement between the Reform and Progressive Conservatives in the late '80s, and the eventual reconciliation between these two camps just prior to the 2004 election leading to electoral victory in 2006. This is a very academic work, but if you can get through the slow parts, there is a lot here that will prove illuminating as the Conservatives prepare for the anticipated election in 2007.

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