Western academics and power
|Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, by Tom Flanagan
How did Stephen Harper become the Prime Minister of Canada? And how did a group of politically inexperienced academics and students from the department of political science at the University of Calgary become the most influential people in Stephen Harper's entourage? Harper's Team by Tom Flanagan answers these questions. It is ultimately a book about contrasts, of Calgary versus Toronto, of populism versus the machine.
The University of Calgary's political science department achieved prominence during the 1990s as the home of many influential neo-conservative thinkers and academics that formed an important part of the new western voice that was maturing in Alberta at the time. As Calgary's population, confidence and economic status grew, so did the department and its frustration with Canadian public affairs. The Calgary school began to deal actively with their alienation from the academic and political mainstream in central Canada.
Tom Flanagan chronicles how he met and became interested in the career of Stephen Harper, then a policy adviser to Preston Manning and a graduate student in the economics department. Professor Flanagan quickly came to respect Mr. Harper's intellect (he discusses the difficult nature of his graduate work in econometrics) and political ideals. Dr. Flanagan's relationship with Stephen Harper, was, however, initially undeveloped. They met to discuss policy and share ideas but were not always in close contact as Mr. Harper learned the ropes in Ottawa and went on to head the National Citizen's Coalition. It was during the troubled days of Stockwell Day's leadership of the Canadian Alliance that Mr. Harper began to toy with the idea of seeking the leadership of the party and went looking for supporters. Dr. Flanagan was one of the first people he reached out to.
Harper's Team is a frank and well-told account of their ups and downs in the party and as campaigners, their struggles to raise money, recruit volunteers and set up an organization that would deliver victory. Dr. Flanagan writes in a deliberate, accessible manner that emphasizes clarity. He remains honest about his own influence and weaknesses. For example, he describes the Liberal advertising effectiveness in 2004: "... our lack of production budget meant that we weren't set up to respond effectively ... At this stage of the campaign, when the Liberals were carpet-bombing us with all-out attacks, it was like bringing a knife not just to a gun fight but to an air raid."
Dr. Flanagan promotes the virtues of individual campaign team members, which is interesting, but lacks critical analysis, especially when he takes pains to print the names of virtually everyone involved in the Harper team, even its bus drivers.
Dr. Flanagan's distrust and dislike for the establishment represented by the Liberal Party and central Canada is obvious, but he does not deal with it adequately and therefore misses the opportunity to explore the theme of political alienation. His frustration, although authentic, can take away from the flow of the central ideas. In one particularly frustrated passage, Dr. Flanagan states: "Liberal outrider organizations - feminists, gay-rights activists, law professors, aboriginal leaders, environmentalists - came at us in human waves, claiming Harper would roll back abortion rights, use the notwithstanding clause to quash gay marriage, and repudiate the Kelowna Agreement and the Kyoto Accord." Mr. Flanagan should have emphasized how the Harper team dealt with their alienation from the political elites based outside of Calgary, rather than dismissing the issue.
The difficulty with the book is that campaigns can be very dull affairs. Although it's true, as the author suggests, that campaigns are often cloaked in military metaphors, the truth can be far more mundane than an epic battle. Campaigns involve a lot of tough slogging, fundraising, organization and phone calls. This does not make for the most fascinating read, even for a very political reader. Although Dr. Flanagan ably deals with the ups and downs of Stephen Harper's campaigns, some of the details make it slow going.
But the book also leaves the reader who is willing to wade through minor details with a few rewards that take patience to find. Persistent readers find that Dr. Flanagan answers questions about Mr. Harper's management style and makes a compelling case that the Prime Minister wants to bring a more moderate, electorally successful brand of Conservatism to fruition. The last chapter, which features "ten commandments" for conservative campaigning, provides many clues to the current government's strategy, tactics and frosty relationship with the media.
Harper's Team partially resolves its own contradictions between idealism and political reality to answer how Stephen Harper will reconcile political ideology with continued electoral success. Dr. Flanagan's continuing contribution to answering this question could prove the electoral key for voters who remain wary of the Prime Minister's motivations.
Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, by Tom Flanagan, McGill-Queen's University Press, 326 pages, $34.95.
Mr. Lynn is a public affairs consultant in Ottawa. Originally from Calgary, he obtained his bachelor's in political science from the University of Calgary.