In the last three short years, stu- dents of Canadian politics have been treated to no fewer than three federal leadership races, two gen- eral election campaigns, the election of two minority governments and the swearing-in of two new prime minis- ters. No surprise, then, that so many party insiders, political journalists and other junkies have weighed in on these events to help us make some sense of their impact on our politics.
The latest in this year’s vin- tage comes to us from Maclean’s national columnist and noted blogger Paul Wells. Right Side Up chronicles the major events in federal politics from the rise and fall of Paul Martin to the return of Stephen Harper to active political duty and his election as Canada’s 22nd prime minister.
Right Side Up is a political drama in three acts. Wells picks up the story in the early fall of 2001, only days before the attacks on the Twin Towers, at a time when the conservative movement remained divided and the Liberals were awaiting with great anticipation the arrival of Paul Martin.
This first act takes the reader from the early stages of Stephen Harper’s return to politics and Paul Martin’s accession to the Liberal throne all the way to their first encounter at the polls in 2004. The second act follows each leader through the uncharted waters of minority rule, the Gomery Inquiry, the Stronach defection and the showdown in Parliament in November 2005. The final act covers in detail ”” and with some surprise revelations ”” the events of the 2006 general election and ends with the first parliamentary session of the new Conservative government.
Unlike the other political books on offer this season, Right Side Up jux- taposes the events that tore the Liberal Party apart and those that brought the Conservative family together again. This is, in fact, what makes the book a unique contribution to the debate on the past few years in Canadian politics. While other authors chose to focus on one or the other of the two major stories, Wells deliberately and successfully puts one up against the other, emphasizing the dif- ferent courses on which the two parties have embarked. The author takes the reader through events that shaped each party’s fate and, through them, allows for some comparisons and contrasts between the two pro- tagonists ”” actions taken or not taken, responses, personalities and leadership styles. Careful to avoid hindsight (and constant in his reminders that readers should do the same), Wells takes the reader back to the scene of the major events of the last five years and considers each leader’s response in the context of the time. Readers might have differ- ent views on the emphasis given to certain events, but the picture that emerges from Wells’s canvas rings true.
The tale is lively, and pep- pered with insider reve- lations about behind-the-scenes machinations and private reactions to public events. Wells takes a hard look at the performances and behaviour of Harper and Martin, and his conclusions are frank and well argued. The Stephen Harper that emerges from Wells’s analy- sis is intelligent, focused, short- tempered and ineffective when off-script. Paul Martin is engaging, collegial, scattered and unable to change the play once he walks onto the field.
In chronicling these events, Wells reveals a toughness vis-aÌ€-vis his main subjects that, while supported by his analysis and reading of events, will sometimes have political operatives of all stripes feeling for Harper and Martin. Wells is cutting in his assessment of the two leaders’ choices in a way that only someone who has never been ”œon the inside” can be. Truth be told, someone who has had to propose policies and strategies might have been more forgiv- ing of some of the limitations or diffi- culties the author ascribes to Harper or Martin than Wells is in this book. Nevertheless, he displays his knowledge of Canadian politics and mastery of the written word in a way that makes it hard to argue with the points he makes.
Sometimes journalistic, sometimes academic, sometimes blog, Right Side Up is in a way several books in one: a chronicle of events, a tell-all settling of scores by sources named and unnamed, and an analysis of why these events should matter to Canadians who care about politics. As a result, the book risks promising slightly more than it delivers. Specifically, the author is so present in the writing that one eventually expects him to deliver his own views as to the meaning of past events and their likely impact on the future course of the Liberal and Conservative parties. However, with the exception of a few fragments here and there, that analysis never comes. A final chapter in which the author argues why he came to the conclusions he came to and, more important, what he thinks it all means would have further justified the pres- ence of the author’s voice throughout the narrative. Perhaps that prognosis will come in a second tome, or on-line.
Right Side Up is a compelling read that delivers insight and entertain- ment. Cleverly written, informative, engaging, irreverent ”” those who are fond of Paul Wells the columnist and Paul Wells the blogger will certainly not be left wanting by the author: it’s classic Wells, and recommended read- ing for all political junkies out there.