I’ve just finished reading Peter C. Newman’s latest book, When The Gods Changed, a worrisome journalistic autopsy on the death of Liberal Canada. It’s a typical Newman effort, full of insider stuff that nobody else seems to know (or tell) and astute observations. I recommend it for anyone interested, and concerned, about the state of Canadian politics today.
(Now, a lengthy aside. Mr. Newman takes some of the credit — or it may be blame — for my lifelong interest in Canadian politics. When I was a teenager, I bought a used paperback edition of Renegade in Power, The Diefenbaker Years, Newman’s 1963 dissection of Dief the Chief. It was Newman’s first inside politics book and it made his reputation. If I can find my old copy, I’d read it again. On the same subject, another significant moment in my political education was a documentary series from 1971 called The Tenth Decade, about the Diefenbaker-Pearson battles of the 1960s. You can see the first episode at http://www.cbc.ca/75/2011/09/the-tenth-decade.html. To my 15-year-old eyes, it was great, and I would love to see it again. And now, back to our blog.)
Newman began the research into what would ultimately end up as When The Gods Changed by presuming to follow Michael Ignatieff towards his certain march towards 24 Sussex Drive. (I’m not sure why Newman thought Ignatieff was a shoe in; I can only assume he has a more optimistic view of the Canadian electorate than I do.)
If I may insert a spoiler here, Newman does not hold out much hope for the federal Liberals. He makes a convincing case that the party is bloated, cumbersome, and splintered by fiefdoms. While the collapse of the Liberal vote may seem like a bit of a one off, and much of the blame has been heaped upon Michael Ignatieff, consider their record in the last four elections — from 135 seats to 103 to 77 (under the Stephane Dion, previously seen as the worst Liberal leader ever) to 34. That is a dispiriting trend.
While When the Gods Changed should be required reading for every Liberal stalwart in the land (and good reading for provincial Liberals as well), one part not written by Newman jumped off the page at me.
Newman devotes a considerable amount of space to failed Liberal candidate Dan Veniez, who Newman sees as just about a perfect Liberal candidate. In the chapter How the Grits Lost Their Mojo, Newman includes this quote from Veniez, which I will duplicate in full here. I include it because it is just about the best description of the Conservatives and Stephen Harper I have ever read. Here it is:
“Whether Harper stays or goes, the base of the Conservative party will remain the small-tent western and rural populist base, and its Christian fundamentalist core. And that’s anathema to my essential DNA. The Conservative party and its leader are viscerally angry. That is an ingrained part of who they are and what they represent. They remain a protest party, even in power, and have turned themselves into a protest government. They manage by negatives and are genetically incapable of inspiring hope or thinking big. They attack, assassinate character, tell lies, lower the bar on public discourse, and engage in tactical and divisive wedge politics and governance. They tap into people’s anxieties, fears, and prejudices, then seek to exploit them to the hilt for electoral advantage. The tone, strategy, and culture for this government are established by Stephen Harper, a cheap-shot artist and cynic of the highest order.”
You may disagree, but to my mind this is a perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The rest of When the Gods Changed is all about what’s wrong with what’s left of the Liberals, but this one section tells you everything that’s wrong with the Conservatives.