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This article was published 12/11/2010 (2445 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Politics of Control
By Lawrence Martin
Viking Canada, 301 pages, $35
It's not often, if ever, that a non-fiction book about politics falls into the can't-put-it-down category, a narrow place usually reserved for sex, scandal and murderously good reads.
Veteran journalist Lawrence Martin, an experienced and credentialed analyst of Canadian prime ministers, may never have intended to rival Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy detailing all manner of invisible corruption in Sweden. But with Harperland, Martin can certainly be described as The Journalist Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
His research is far-reaching, his style is easy-going, and his tone is measured and balanced. And his book stings to the core.
Harperland offers up an astonishing landscape, peopled by a stunning array of Machiavellian characters wantonly engaged in plots, subplots and merciless mayhem, all in the pursuit of power, and all centred around Stephen Harper, the man Canadians have twice installed as their prime minister.
The one-third of Canadians who stand solidly behind Harper right or wrong will be incensed by Harperland. The two-thirds who have benignly dismissed Harper and enabled him to help himself to power will be in shock.
It is the unequivocal story of the rise of despotism in a country where the very idea is anathema, a country now possibly disempowered and past caring about its future.
Readers may wonder at first how Stephen Harper might seek to defend himself from Martin's microscopic evisceration of his two terms in government.
After the first chapter, it's clear that a man who can defy the military, the Supreme Court, Parliament, international legal conventions, the Court Challenges Program, public funding for political parties, Statistics Canada and the mainstream churches of Canada can believe he has nothing to worry about.
Martin, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, is a very brave man indeed. Harperland carefully details what has happened to people who defy Harper and his blue machine (the book points out that one way or another, they tend to disappear) and yet he persists in the journalist's job; holding the powerful accountable for their actions.
In his view, the Harper story is "a march of audacities" that may have escaped Canadians who rely on their right-leaning corporate-owned media for an understanding of their political environment.
Martin's thesis, that Harper has the brilliance, the drive and unstoppable will to transform Canada slowly into a far-right-wing fiefdom at any cost, is neither new nor uncommon. Indeed, it's often cited as the reason that Canadians have refused him a majority government. But two extraordinary qualities set this book apart.
Although Harperland relentlessly measures and condemns the damage done to Canada and its democratic culture by Harper's politics, Martin approaches the man's personal vulnerabilities with clarity and compassion; the young Harper grew up in an era of smug Liberal party entitlement, scorned, sidelined and smouldering with resentment.
Martin portrays him as a kind of contemporary Scarlett O'Hara, who will never be poor -- in his case, powerless -- again. He acknowledges that when it comes to strategy, Harper is "the smartest guy in the room" and possibly the biggest Conservative success story in this country's history.
Martin also surprises by capturing the heartfelt fears and dismay of Harper's own supporters, including former adviser Tom Flanagan, many of whom admire Harper and have failed in desperate attempts to moderate his anti-democratic impulses.
Those anti-democratic impulses are at the heart of Harperland. Martin's catalogue of Harper's bold gambles, dirty tricks, small-time swindles and unknowing victims is exhaustive. In the beginning, he posits, Harper and his people merely mimicked underhanded and autocratic measures they had seen succeed for Canada's Liberals, for Australia's John Howard and for George Bush.
According to more than one Tory insider, it was obvious that the rookie government had to "work overtime to avoid a Gong Show in Ottawa."
But instead of dropping time-honoured nasty tactics as time went by, and as Harper had once vowed to do, he opted to perfect and maintain them. And he did so with an unmitigated hatred not seen in Canada before him.
The resulting degradation of Canadian democracy has taken a mere four years.
"Before this prime minister," Martin writes, "many leaders paid a steep price for exceeding their bounds of authority."
But with a fragmented parliament, timid opponents, an indulgent press and a public starved of the unvarnished facts and information found in Harperland, Stephen Harper may prove the exception.
The next federal election will tell us.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster. She was a Liberal candidate in the 2008 election.