Maclean’s Politics: Four authors on their books and Canadian politics

Paul Wells, Susan Delacourt, Chris Turner and Brad Lavigne on the year in politics and political books

In celebration of a remarkable fall in political books, and to make sense of a remarkable period in Canadian politics, we’ve assembled four of the season’s most acclaimed authors for an email book club. Joining our own Paul Wells, author of The Longer I’m Prime Minister, are Susan Delacourt, author of Shopping for Votes; Chris Turner, author of The War on Science; and Brad Lavigne, author of Building the Orange Wave.

From: Paul
To: Susan, Brad and Chris

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had far more fun selling a book this autumn than I thought I would. For one, I have real support from my publisher; for two, I have company: Your books, which I’ve read and enjoyed, as well as new books by Joe Clark, Michael Ignatieff, Stephen J. Harper and a few others. It’s an extraordinary autumn for political books, or for political books and one hockey history, or however you want to slice it.

I thought I’d kick off this discussion by kicking two points around. First, why is the fall of 2013 such an unusually fertile moment for political books? I can think of one roughly comparable precedent: in the mid-1990s, when I got into this business, there was a burst of pretty significant “whither Canada?” books, including Susan’s own United We Fall; Richard Gwyn’s Nationalism Without Walls; and Peter C. Newman’s The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance.

That earlier burst is easy enough to explain: there had been two high-stakes attempts to rewrite the constitution, Meech and Charlottetown; their failures led in a pretty straight line to the destruction of the Progressive Conservative party. There was a lot to talk about. Similarly, I think there’s been much to talk about again in our politics for nearly a decade, but we couldn’t be sure the moment had come until two extraordinary events in mid-2011: the Harper majority and the death of Jack Layton. We have, once again, a lot to talk about.

The other point I want to make is that one of our books is not much like the others. Chris’s book is an angry book, a sustained critique of the sitting government on a major policy file. Brad’s obviously implies systematic disagreement with Stephen Harper’s politics, but it’s really about celebrating a different strain in our national politics, and Susan and I have written fairly emotionally cool books on what could have been a heated topic: the way elections are won these days. I know I spent a lot of time trying to decide my tone before I set about writing, and after I’d begun; I wonder whether you also asked yourself similar questions about the stance to take with regard to your subjects.

Beyond that, I just want author gossip. Any book-tour road stories? How does e-publishing affect your careers as authors? What’s on your mind, as Christmas shopping season looms?

From: Chris
To: Paul, Brad and Susan

An “angry book”? And here I thought I’’d done my best to use my “inside voice”…

In all fairness, though, I did think a lot about tone as I started in on The War on Science. I was motivated by a pretty deep sense of shock and outrage, but I also recognized that many potential readers were neither shocked nor outraged by what had happened since Stephen Harper won his coveted majority in 2011. One of the signature skills of our current federal government is its ability to clothe radical change in the vestments of business as usual.

One of the things I love about Paul’’s book is how carefully he walks the line between straight reportage and shrewd analysis. There’s no question that a very smart and informed observer is shaping the story, but at the same time I think all but the most hopeless of partisans would concede it is a fair and empathetic portrait of our Prime Minister. When I started on The War on Science, I was hoping to strike a similar balance, but the story I was uncovering kept pulling me back to a more critical tone.

As a journalist who’s spent 15 years in the general vicinity of the environment and climate beats, it’s been a source of constant frustration that these issues have rarely been given as much attention and weight as they deserve. It’s not that editors ignore them so much as they treat them as a cluster of special interests rather than a vital, unfolding, world-war-scale narrative of our fate as a species.

I remember seeing commentary in the wake of this government’’s 2012 omnibus budget bill suggesting that the Harper agenda proved to be less radical, in ideological terms, than some had predicted. There was no extreme social conservatism, no stampede to privatization. But if you were viewing the proceedings through a lens of planetary climate crisis, Bill C-38 was one of the most recklessly radical pieces of legislation in the country’s history. When scientists,– against professional tradition and general disposition,– took to the streets of Ottawa in protest shortly after C-38 became law, I realized there was an important story to tell. And the more I investigated it, the more I understood that there was no truthful way to tell it except as an indictment of a government that had abandoned some of the country’’s most cherished traditions—particularly those of evidence-based policy-making and environmental stewardship.

Paul asked for book gossip, so I feel like I’’d be remiss if I didn’’t mention at this point that the original publisher of The War on Science, Douglas & Macintyre, went bankrupt in the fall of 2012, just as I was waiting on an advance cheque and up to my neck in research. Felt oddly appropriate at the time —the publishing biz in general seemed like it was in pretty grave peril, and who the hell cared about wonky policy stuff? Shrug it off and move on.

The book was sidelined while I ran for Parliament (2012 Calgary Centre by-election, best Green result in Alberta history), and I emerged from campaign mode to learn that Greystone (the D&M subsidiary I was working with) had been saved from its death spiral by Harbour House at the 11th hour. Suddenly the book was back on. It should’’ve been published in the spring of 2013, but instead came out in October. Which turned out to be crazy lucky timing —I can’’t remember the last time Canadian politics was this hot a topic. Everyday citizens not being paid to do so are listening to live audio from the Senate floor and watching livestreams of Question Period. On purpose! It’s a good time to have a book out about a vital policy issue, and I’’m flattered by the attention my book has received thus far.

To keep this ball rolling, here are my questions for Susan and Brad: Can the current visceral interest in scandal and intrigue be translated into a more engaged electorate? And if so, how? And what does it mean to parties shopping for the most votes in 2015?

From: Susan
To: Chris, Brad and Paul

Greetings, fellow travellers on the (unusually crowded) political-book-promotion circuit. It’s a pleasure to be sharing the road with you this fall. I’ve even had the good fortune of doing book events with Chris and Paul, which were fun.

I’ve been doing some thinking about what our books have in common—besides coming out at the same time. (Some of that coincidence is explained by the fact that three of us—everyone except Paul—had publishing contracts with Douglas & McIntyre, and we were all hit with that unexpected delay. My book was supposed to come out last spring.)

What struck me is the way that all four books expose the limits of daily journalism to tell political stories these days. I know, I know, some of that’s obvious: books have more words in them than news stories, who’d have figured?

But there were moments, reading all of them (and writing my own), when I thought: why haven’t these stories/anecdotes/analyses/narratives showed up in daily journalism? Chris’s book, for instance, ties together a lot of stuff that’s happening right before our eyes, in terms of what’s been happening with science all over the place in politics. And yet, it seems political journalism is more inadequate these days at doing the job of connecting dots. Paul and Brad have given us important glimpses into the political backrooms, which we don’t get all that much now either in our political coverage. As for my own book, I was amazed when I was researching the 1970s and 1980s to see just how much daily journalism was staying on top of the big changes to polling and advertising and public opinion—in a way that it doesn’t do today. Why is that, I wonder?

In a way, it’s great news for the publishing industry that we need full-length books to tell a fuller story of politics. But it’s less-great news for daily or even weekly political journalism. It seems to me that these books, in their own way, are moving into territory that’s been vacated by the political media in the past decade or so.

Anyway, those are my thoughts off the top—happy to hear yours and chat more.

From: Brad
To: Paul, Chris and Susan

I write to you from Edmonton, on the last of a three day prairie tour. It is –41 and it’s small consolation that it is a ‘dry’ cold.

I share Paul’s point that it is more fun to sell the book than to research, write and edit it. Meeting people who want to share their stories about Jack and the party, whether partisans or not, has been an unexpected highlight of this whole rewarding experience. Beyond the delays for Susan and Chris’s book, I think this fall’s crop of books on federal politics represents the demand to tell the stories of the changes in federal politics over the last number of years.

Chris’s book joins Joe Clark’s book as a critique of the Harper government’s policy, while Susan’s, Paul’s and my book, join others that speak to the changes in the art of how politics is practised. There has been a lot of change on the federal scene in the past five years and this set of releases help explain and comment on how it has happened and what it means for the country.

There are two notable trends I have observed from the road in the past five weeks; the first is a near obsession with “Quebec” (which is curious as I have centred the first round of touring in Western Canada) and the second is a true desire to understand the Prime Minister’s Office/Senate scandal.

On the surprising focus of “how will Quebec go,” folks on the ground in the west are closely watching what is happening in that province as a clue to where the country will go in the next election. My take away: despite the new seats in Ontario, BC and Alberta, Quebec still matters. As for the PMO/Senate scandal, and this goes to Chris’s question, I am finding that the issue is actually turning people on to federal politics, rather than turning them off. This is corroborated by the increase in eyeballs watching Question Period and the political shows on cable news channels.

The key here as to why so many people are engaged (recognizing that folks who come to my launches are pretty political to begin with) is that the principle actors are well known. Duffy and Wallin are household names and have been invited into the living rooms of Canadians for years to explain the issues of the day to them on the nightly news. Now they are the stories. If these were no-name Senators, I don’t think the interest would be as high. Will it lead to a more engaged electorate? I think it can, but while it is too early to predict the issues that will dominate the 2015 federal election campaign, it does appear that the scandal will colour how voters will view the leaders and parties next time they vote. The jury as it were, while far from rendering judgement, is intently listening to opening arguments from the prosecution.

Got to run to catch a plane.




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