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The Long Road Back: The Conservative Journey, 1993-2006 [Hardcover]

Hugh Segal
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Review

The Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders, an articulation of the ethical standards to which Canada’s ex-parliamentarians are expected to conform, dictates that “public office holders shall not act, after they leave public office, in such a manner as to take improper advantage of their previous public office.” It includes clauses intended to prevent offences such as influence peddling and profiting from the use or sale of confidential information. Considering the quality of the political writing that has been produced by former Canadian politicians over the past decade-Sheila Copps’s Worth Fighting For and Brian Tobin’s All in Good Time would be particularly compelling examples had anyone actually read them-it might be time for Canada’s next parliament to include a clause preventing politicians, both past and present, from writing books. That’s because these books are, almost without exception, poorly written, filled with unsupported arguments and opinions, and amount to the worst of scholarship at the best of times. Their only redeeming value is that they are occasionally decorated with interesting looking jacket art, which makes them colourful doorstops and paperweights.
That said, Hugh Segal’s latest book, The Long Road Back: The Conservative Journey, 1993-2006, appeared to be more than the latest arrival on the remainder table at the local Indigo/Chapters. There are few people in Canada with a more thorough conservative pedigree than Hugh Segal, and fewer still with links to its recent history of electoral feast and famine. He was inspired to enter politics, he says, by a visit to his school by then Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He worked for Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, and lost twice as a candidate in Ottawa under him. He served as a senior aide to Premier Bill Davis, and briefly as chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1993. He even ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1998, finishing second to Joe Clark. He was a campaign co-chair in Stephen Harper’s successful 2006 election campaign, and now sits as a Conservative senator. Segal is not just a political hack, though, as he was the president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy from 1999 until this past year, and a senior fellow at the Policy Studies School and School of Business at Queen's University, where he has taught since 1993. If there’s anyone capable of writing an informed and insightful account of the Conservative journey into and back out of the electoral wilderness in Canada, it’s Segal.
That’s why his latest book is more than a little disappointing. Certainly, there are moments that demonstrate Segal’s talents, most notably when he’s describing the experiences of Conservatives during the period they were the political equivalent of an endangered species, from 1993 to 2004. For example, Segal argues convincingly that politicians are only fouling their own nest by raising the spectre of moral and ethical corruption when it doesn’t really exist, a lesson that he illustrates with Joe Clark’s relentless but largely groundless pursuit of a conflict of interest charge against former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. As Segal observes,

“[I]f patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, then surely scandalmongering is to some the highest act of patriotism, especially for those with little else to offer. Because of media euphoria over scandals of even the most Lilliputian dimensions, politicians are easily sucked in. The problem in these cases, of course, is that while such scandals may not be salient enough to attract public interest or in any way affect voter intentions, they eat up great amounts of media, political, emotional, and managerial time and energy, tend to discredit the entire system, and, in the end, change very little indeed."

This observation is an important message both for today and tomorrow’s politicians, and it’s one that is rarely mentioned by those who, like Segal, practice the trade. But this moment of clarity and the few others like it are vastly outnumbered by the political cheap shots he takes at his opponents and the critical blind spots he manifests when discussing any aspect of Stephen Harper’s character or record. There’s an element of score-settling that hangs over much of the book-be it against Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, or Jean Chrétien-that fundamentally undermines his periodic attempts at objective analysis or critical thought.
Perhaps what is most disappointing is that he barely mentions the recent extinction of Red Toryism, a longstanding political archetype with which he identified for most of his life. Nor does he explain that it was a direct by-product of the new Conservative alliance to which he currently devotes his partisan energies. Segal was, in fact, one of the last major figures in the Red Tory tradition that includes his quasi nemesis Joe Clark, Robert Stanfield, and George Grant. It’s therefore strange that although throughout the book he takes rips at the promarket, antigovernment values of neoconservatism both in the United States and in Canada, he casually contrasts them with Canadian conservatism, which today clearly contains many of the same ideas. To boot, he conspicuously avoids associating these criticisms with Stephen Harper, a man who once infamously promised to build a “firewall” around Alberta. It’s unfortunate that Segal apparently believes that a proper eulogy to Red Toryism, an ideology he espoused throughout his long political career, is at odds with his current partisan commitments.
These curious inconsistencies aren’t without an explanation, mind you. Hugh Segal’s unique career path, veering as it has from backroom operative to candidate to political staffer to leadership candidate to think-tank guru and now senator, surely makes it difficult for him to pick a side from which to approach his subject matter. He is, in a sense, a ‘tweener’, at once an insider and an outsider, and this book reflects the ambivalence of this duality. It also reflects the fact that however hard he may have tried and however many intellectual tools he brought to the job, he is still unable to free himself from the old loyalties and even older antagonisms that shape the lives of most politicians and create massive intellectual blind spots when they try to write about them. It’s a shame, considering Segal’s intellectual talents and the unique position from which he both observed and participated in the evolution of the Conservative Party of Canada, that he can’t shake these familiar demons.
Max Fawcett (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada

About the Author

HUGH SEGAL is a Senior Fellow at the Queen's School of Policy Studies. Between 1999 and 2006, he was president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy in Montreal. He is a former chief of staff to the prime minister of Canada, and associate secretary of cabinet in the Ontario government. A graduate of the University of Ottawa, he holds an honorary doctorate of laws from the Royal Military College, Kingston. He has authored, co-authored and edited six books on politics and public policy, including No Surrender, Beyond Greed: Confronting the Neo Conservative Excess, In Defence of Civility and Geopolitical Integrity. In September 2005, he was sworn into the Senate as a Conservative, having been appointed by prime minister Paul Martin. He was active in the 2006 election, visiting ridings across Canada on behalf of the Conservative Party. A member of various corporate and not-for-profit boards, he has served on the National Finance, Agriculture and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate. Hugh Segal lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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