Looking back over the past few years, it’s hard to recall a more interesting time in federal politics than the present one:
The first Conservative government since 1993; the intrigues of minority-government politics, with another possible election always around the corner; the Liberal leadership race heading toward a convention that will send that party down a historic new path; a resurgent NDP aiming to supplant the Liberals as the Conservatives’ main rivals; the Bloc Québecois trying to ride a new wave, as the Quebec constitutional issue heats up again.
And that’s just politics. The national agenda is dominated by issues that will determine Canada’s future for many years to come: military and defence, most notably the Afghanistan mission; foreign affairs, especially vis-à-vis the United States; public safety and civil rights; the environment; crime and punishment; finances; citizenship and multiculturalism; national unity and the shape of the federation; health care; and more.
“Right Side Up”, a new book by Paul Wells – columnist with Maclean’s magazine and creator of the popular “Inkless Wells” political blog – tells the unlikely tale of how we got to this political moment in time.
The book’s subtitle offers a compact summary of its contents: “The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism”. The book itself offers up a comprehensive, clever, and frequently hilarious account of the past five years in Canadian politics – as eventful a half-decade as any in recent memory.
It begins in the fall of 2001 with the reluctant return to public life of a former Reform Party MP named Stephen Harper, who quit electoral politics four years earlier to head up a right-wing lobby group.
In his absence, Reform morphed into the Canadian Alliance, and then proceeded to implode under the divisive stewardship of its first leader, Stockwell Day. Wells writes that Harper was drawn into the subsequent leadership race not because of a burning ambition to get back into politics, but as a response to “an existential threat to the political movement he had spent his adult life trying to help build.”
Alternate chapters chart the tale of Paul Martin, an uncanny mirror image of Harper’s. By the time Harper re-entered politics, Martin had been bottling up his burning ambitions for many years, serving as Chrétien’s finance minister while pining for Chrétien’s job.
What follows seems inevitable in hindsight, but Wells’ book reminds us how no one – five years ago – could have predicted the state of Canadian politics today.
At the time, the only thing that seemed inevitable was a Paul Martin majority, governing for years and making mincemeat out of a divided conservative opposition.
Instead, Wells nimbly describes what actually did happen: Harper won the potentially poisoned chalice of the Alliance leadership, doggedly pursued a merger with the Progressive Conservatives, ran for and won the leadership of the new merged party when other more prominent Conservatives shied away from the race, narrowly lost the 2004 election, learned from his mistakes, and narrowly won power in a follow-up election earlier this year.
Martin’s path was, again, the mirror opposite. He consolidated his hold on the Liberal Party, provoked the premature end of Chrétien’s career, steamrollered over all other potential leadership candidates, took power, promised the moon to Canadians, failed to deliver, got tripped up by the sponsorship scandal, lost his majority, didn’t learn from his mistakes, dithered through 18 months of minority government and eventually lost the Prime Ministerial job he had spent years pursuing.
It’s an ant and grasshopper tale worthy of Aesop. And it’s also a case study on why political predictions are frequently useless. If Wells writes a sequel five years from now, who knows what the plot will be?