While my selection of non-fiction is usually restricted to science-fiction, or philosophical literary texts, Lawrence Martin’s book Harperland: The Politics of Control
was far too intriguing to pass up, especially since I took a media theory course last term.
One thing made clear in the text: as Stephen Harper doesn’t like positive books, written by close colleagues, Martin’s critical text would clearly have drawn the ire of the Prime Minister’s Office. This text also doesn’t pull any punches. While Martin is newspaper columnist, this is not an impartial book. The language is slightly coloured at times, in describing Harper’s actions. That said, everything is well documented, and Martin relies heavily on interviews with former insiders.
Harperland does take a clear stance: a great deal of Harper’s success in Parliament is due to the strict control of information put in place when the Conservative minority government was formed. Despite having campaigned in terms of government reform and transparency, Martin shows how Harper’s Conservative government has gone to greater lengths than any previous Canadian government, or even American governments, in controlling and restricting the flow of information, and controlling the flow of government committees.
In particular, Martin shows how Harper’s form of leadership is particularly divisive. Through a numerous string of specific examples, Martin shows how Stephen Harper’s inner circle attacked not only those in the Liberal Party, but any member of their own party who showed dissent. While promising Canadians parliamentary reform, Martin instead presents us with a prime minister who threatens Canada’s democratic traditions, dividing and conquering.
These wedge politics were crucial in the 2008 elections. As Martin notes, Harper used the election to directly attack the leadership of Stephane Dion. Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives spent more time and energy attacking the policies of the other parties, then announcing any significant new policies of their own. The manner in which cuts to arts and culture was announced was seen as a direct attack against Quebec’s language and culture, leading to serious drops in the polls in Quebec.
Martin also explains how Harper used wedge politics during the coalition crisis, painting it as an alliance between the Liberals, the socialists (NDP) and the separatists (Bloc Québécois). While this succeeded in buying Harper the time needed to defeat the coalition, it also seems to have caused future setbacks in Quebec. Wedge politics are aptly named. Rather than bridging together the differences between Quebec and western Canada, Harper has driven a further wedge between them. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen.
Martin’s book suggests that Stephen Harper has a “dark, vindictive side of his character–a side that at times he could not subdue, and that on several occasions, such as the government’s budget update in November 2008, threatened to bring him down” (175). This book is frightening in it’s implications. While many Canadians may be aware of some of the broader elements in the book, especially those who keep a wary eye on our politicians, the depth and breadth of the secrecy implemented by the Harper government, and the scope of the changes occurring in the government bureaucracy is surprising even to those who already suspected as much. That Harper has made this many changes in a mere four years, while in control of a fragile minority government is telling, and leads this reader to wonder what further changes will occur if Harper receives the majority government he so clearly desires.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in politics, from either side of the political spectrum. While Martin’s book does not present Stephen Harper in the best light, it clearly shows how Harper has been so effective during a minority government situation.