Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Review: Eddie Goldenberg's The Way it Works Inside Ottawa

A classic exposé on the successful exercise of political power

by Eddie Goldenberg - published by McClelland & Stewart

This is a readable, practical memoir that gives the reader a useful view of the goings-on inside the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). It is true that there have been many books about past Prime Ministers and how they came to their decisions. Yet this book stands apart. First of all, it is well written. Goldenberg's prose has a light touch. He writes directly and succinctly, with a clear purpose.

Even better, Goldenberg's first-hand and previously unpublished information is unrivaled in quality, except by what the former prime minister himself knows. Eddie Goldenberg in many ways served as Jean Chrétien's right brain for all of his years in power; from his leadership run, to his time in Opposition, to heading up Chrétien's PMO. All through those years, the Chrétien-Goldenberg tandem worked smoothly in consolidating Chrétien's hold on the number one spot in Canadian politics. Everybody knew that when Goldenberg spoke, it was with the full voice and authority of the Prime Minister.

This is possibly the clearest, most unvarnished account we will have of political level decision-making in the Chrétien years - since the only more authoritative account would have to come from Chrétien himself, and he simply has too much legacy at stake to deliver an account with details like these.

Until this point, except for perhaps targeted and discreet leaks to the press, Goldenberg has been entirely quiet. This book amounts to a virtual deluge of new information and accounts about key events which remain highly pertinent today.

But this is no disinterested account. Goldenberg misses few opportunities to discredit and lessen the legacy of Paul Martin Jr., albeit in a straightforward and dispassionate way. For example, Goldenberg reports that Martin's verbal support for the Meech Lake Accord was pure artifice; that he actually did not support it, but verbally endorsed it because that was the good political position to take.

Nor does Goldenberg pull punches on the Chrétien legacy. There is an entire section about the regrets and consequences of the Federal Liberals' promise to scrap the GST upon assuming power. This promise, which brought about the eventual resignation of Cabinet Minister Sheila Copps, , brought no end of headaches and problems to the Liberals as they assumed power.

What sets the book apart, though, is not that it covers the history and events of the era. Many journalists have already done that. Goldenberg also explains the political pressures on the PMO at the time the decisions were made, and exposes how the competing interests played out at the time in the eventual decision. The reader gains access to the content and nature of the decisions from Goldenberg's perspective. In particular, the chapter on how Chrétien chose his cabinet in 1993, and why various players made it in or did not, is a classic exposé in the successful exercise of political power at the Federal level of Canadian politics.

This is of the most readable, useful and entertaining Canadian political books in a long time.

Strongly recommended.

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