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The best Canadian Politics book of 2006
on May 22, 2007
Maclean's Magazine columnist Paul Wells ably demonstrates why he merits his status as one of the leading scribes in Canadian political writing. His stories are accessible and his prose is light, though at times the collegial tone feels a bit forced. Overall he has written a book that is a very easy read both for the dilettante and the professional. Yet, his book packs real weight. Right Side Up is full of information you will find nowhere else about Paul Martin's fall and Stephen Harper's ascension.
Wells begins his book immediately after the narrow win of the Liberals in the 2004 federal election against the new Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. Though the Liberals maintained power, they lost seats - yet Martin treated the election as a victory and did virtually nothing to change or improve his team or their message for the next election. That was because from his perspective, Martin and his team had been building for this moment since his 1990 leadership loss to Jean Chrétien. Why should anything change? It was this inertia that set Martin and the Liberals up for their mediocre 2006 election results and Martin's subsequent resignation from politics.
Those who remember the Federal election of 2004 will remember that the election was in fact a very near thing for the Liberals in spite of their eventual victory. Three weeks before the election, Harper's new Conservative Party was ahead in the polls but seemingly ran out of script. This loss of momentum allowed the Liberals to run a very effective scare campaign that gave them a surge in the last weeks of the campaign, largely by convincing soft NDP voters to vote Liberal because the thought of a Stephen Harper victory was worse than the thought of continued Liberal government.
Wells contrasts Martin's blithe smugness following his victory with the story of Stephen Harper. Harper could have easily accepted the modest gains of 2004 as a success. After all, Harper had increased his party's seats, unified the country's Conservatives, and led in the polls up until the final weeks.
Instead, Harper treated the campaign like a terrible loss. He organized a series of ruthless strategy sessions in which everything about the campaign, including his own performance, was fair game for criticism. There, with the help of his inner circle of political übernerds like Tom Flannigan and Patrick Muttart, Harper and team deconstructed their election effort. From this analysis they prepared the working plan that would become the blueprint for victory in the 2006 election.
The results from these two approaches were that the Conservative 2006 campaign has become celebrated for its effectiveness and consistency, while the Martin campaign has been exposed for its disorganization and lack of imagination.
Elsewhere in the book Wells adds some interesting what-if scenarios - which only go to show how fragile and luck-driven political success can be. He documents the point in the campaign where all the Conservative television ads - including many nasty and negative ads that were never aired but where nonetheless prepared - were sent by accident to the Sun newspapers. Through good fortune, the Sun reporters were not able to properly open their DVD, saving the Conservatives from a terrible gaffe that may have been fatal to their election hopes. Through good fate, and little else, the Conservatives were able to retrieve their ads, and continue on to electoral success.
Those of you enjoyed the Maclean's post mortem on the last election will be interested to know that this book grew out of the writing that Wells contributed to that piece. Right Side Up is a great piece of political writing and in-depth reportage that is seldom seen. I think it's the best Canadian political book of 2006, and I can't recommend it enough.