Reading Diary: Books on Canadian politics: Harris, Wells, Delacourt, Savoie, Bourrie, Gutstein, Doern/Stoney, Pielke

This roundup includes reviews of a bunch of recent and not-so-recent reading about Canadian politics, in particular the Harper government and how it controls information. Some of the books are pretty directly related to science policy and some, not so much. These are all worth reading, some kind of overlap while others present fairly unique approaches. All were useful to me in my long term interest and work around Canadian science policy and in understanding the current Canadian Conservative government's anti-science attitudes. All are solid additions to the growing body of work on the Harper government and its impacts on Canadian society and belong in every public policy collection at academic or public libraries.

Bourrie, Mark. Kill the Messengers — Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. Toronto: Patrick Crean, 2015. 400pp. ISBN-13: 978-1443431040

The books I'm reviewing here all basically have one purpose -- to expose the Harper government's anti-science, anti-democracy, anti-information leanings. They all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, they all cover slightly different aspects of the Harper record. Some are a bit dryer and more academic that others, some deep dive some topics and others are very general.

Mark Bourrie's Kill the Messengers is a very fine addition to the cannon. While ostensibly aimed at the information control aspects of the Harper Tories, it actually covers a fairly broad swath of what's been going on, and I think that's the case because pretty well all aspects of their dysfunction circle around information control, from attacking libraries and archives to muzzling scientists to whipping up terrorism terror, it's all about information.

And Bourrie does a great job of giving an accesible, detailed account of the "kill the information messenger" aspects of the Harper regime, as all-pervasive as they are.

What Bourrie does that's a bit different -- his added value, as it were in oh-so-appropriate corporate speak -- is place what Harper is doing in the context of the collapse of traditional media, how what we have left if hobbled and sycophantic like never before. Where there's less coverage, there's less accountability. He explains how the Conservatives have used their own larger-than-ever-before communications apparatus to fill the void, replacing news with propaganda.

I highly recommend Bourrie's book. If you've read all the ones that came before, like I did, there might be some redundancy but that's probably not the case for most people. The long form census, the history-bending military fetish, the intimidation of charities, the McCarthyistic "enemy lists" are all covered very well. He doesn't cover science or libraries as much as I'd hoped but at least Chris Turner has covered science exhaustively in his book. We're still waiting for the definitive treatment of the Harper assault on libraries and archives, but I guess that will have to wait.


Delacourt, Susan. Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-1926812939

Shopping for Votes is easily one of the most fascinating and important books on Canadian politics I've read in a long time. It's not only or even mostly about the Conservatives -- though they serve as the main case study -- as it is about how electoral politics has become about using marketing, polling and micro-targeting as the main tools for fighting and winning elections. It traces the transition of the the political class's conception of the voting public as citizen to the voting public as consumers of politics and how this plays into the hands of both governments and the media/corporate elites. Not to mention how that conception of voters-as-consumers has fed into and paralleled the rise of attack ads and negative politics. It's a tool box largely imported into Canada from the US by the Conservatives but more and more it's being use by all the parties.

This is an illuminating and frightening book. Highly recommended. Read this book.


Doern, G. Bruce and Christopher Stoney, editors. How Ottawa Spends, 2014-2015: The Harper Government - Good to Go?. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014. 216pp. ISBN-13: 978-0773544444

This is the most recent in a annual series of books that discuss Canadian federal politics through the lens of, well, how Ottawa spends. I guess the idea is that you can talk about high-falutin' policies all you want, but reality is where the budget dollars hit the road. Kind of like an Annual Review of Canadian Politics, with thematic contributions by a changing cast of experts every year. In the last little while, I've read a good chunk of the volumes covering the Harper years mostly to get a sense of the longer context on changes to science policy through that budgetary lens. Not all the articles are directly about budgets or spending per se, but often about governmental priorities or programs.

This 2014-2015 volume at hand has four articles with a science or environmental focus that I read with great interest. All provided solid coverage of their topic area and gave me great context and current information that was very handy for my presentation on Canadian science policy and the Harper government last fall.

Those articles are:

  • Harper’s Partisan Wedge Politics: Bad Environmental Policy and Bad Energy Policy by Glen Toner and Jennifer McKee
  • One of These Things Is Not Like the Other? Bottom-Up Reform, Open Information, Collaboration, and the Harper Government by Amanda Clarke
  • Managing Canada’s Water: The Harper Era by Davide P. Cargnello, Mark Brunet, Matthew Retallack, and Robert Slater
  • How Accurate Is the Harper Government’s Misinformation? Scientific Evidence and Scientists in Federal Policy Making Kathryn O’Hara and Paul Dufour

Perhaps not surprisingly, the article that was the most useful for me was the O'Hara/Dufour one on muzzling of Canadian scientists. They provided a great overview of the controversy, the facts and how it was covered in the media. The Toner/McKee article was also very useful in covering environment and energy, a topic that's covered fairly regularly in the various volumes of the series.

This series is required reading for anyone interested in a detailed view of Canadian politics from the inside.


Gutstein, Donald. Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada. Toronto: Lorimer, 2014. 288pp. ISBN-13: 978-1459406636

Conservative think tanks FTW! I bet they never get audited by the Canada Revenue Agency!

But they definitely have a long term and lasting impact on Canadian government policy. Or at least that’s the thesis of Donald Gutstein’s recentish book Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada. And a pretty convincing case he makes of it too, in a fairly short and focused book that still covers a lot of ground.

Basically, the Conservatives have used think tanks as a way of framing key issues that they want to deal with during their mandate. Gutstein does a good of what those core conservative ideas are in his chapter titles: Reject unions and prosper; Liberate dead capital on First Nations reserves; Counter the environmental threat to the market; Undermine scientific knowledge; Deny income inequality; Fashion Canada as a great nation.

Those pretty well encompass the Harperism movement, don’t they?

Gutstein kicks off the book with one of the best extended definitions of neoliberalism that I’ve seen, including going into some depth about the influence of Friedrich Hayek on both Harperism in particular and neoliberalism in general. The meat of the book is a subject by subject exploration of how various think tanks and “thought leaders,” such as the Fraser Institute are used to both generate ideas as well as to normalize and communicate them to the public. The use of bogus ideas such as “ethical oil” or the misleading buzzword “sound science” is also explored.

This is a well-researched, precisely-argued book that adds to the growing body of analysis of the roots and impacts of the current Harper government. Recommended.


Harris, Michael. Party of One: Stephen Harper And Canada's Radical Makeover. Toronto: Viking, 2014. 544pp. ISBN-13: 978-0670067015

The most recent of the general book to deal with the Harper years, this is probably also the one I got the least out of, probably mostly because I’ve read so many other books (and articles and blog posts and...) about Harper and merry gang of wreckers. But also at least in part because Harris gives the most extensive coverage to the Harper controversies that I find the least compelling and the least damning/important. I’m talking about the robocalls scandal, which in the absence of a smoking gun seems to be important but not the most important in the list of Harper’s sins. Yes, we all “know” that the election shenanigans originated at the highest levels, but “knowing” isn’t the same as knowing. I’m also talking about Mike Duffy and the senate scandals. To me the situation is too analogous to the previous Liberal government’s sponsorship scandals to regard it as anything other than politics as usual as opposed to something that marks the Harper government as uniquely disastrous compared to any other recent government. There are certainly plenty of those disastrous circumstances to go around.

And Harris, to his credit, covers most of those pretty well too, from the appalling treatment of veterans, to the situation at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries to the muzzling of scientists to the various “bad boys” like Bruce Carson, Arthur Porter and Nathan Jacobson.

Harris does a pretty good job of covering the later years of the Harper government, covering some stories that the other very general books didn’t. This book is recommended.


Pielke, Jr., Roger A. The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 188pp. ISBN-13: 978-0521694810

Roger Pielke is a bit of a controversial figure in the science policy field, which I didn't quite realize when I picked up this book as a general introduction to science policy. Last fall I needed something to give me a theoretical introduction as a way to ground the presentation I was going to be giving as part of York University's Science and Technology Studies Seminar Series. So I searched around Amazon and a few other places to see what I could find and this one seemed a decent choice.

And it was, for a first book. I found that the way he framed the relationship between scientists and society in terms of four idealized roles -- pure scientist, science arbiter, issue advocate or honest broker -- was useful for the way I wanted to frame my own presentation. As I got further in to the book, some of the parts did make me a bit queasy were ultimately reflected in what I learned about him over time. That being said, I did find his book to be a lively and useful introduction to the relationship between science and society: short enough to be easily digested while still having enough depth intellectually to be useful and challenging.

I probably need to read a few more general introductory books before the shape of the field really starts to take shape in my mind, for the issues and controversies to start to make coherent sense to me. Pielke's book was probably as good a place as any to start on that journey.

(Yeah, yeah, this one's not actually about Canadian politics but I see this as being all part of one large science policy project.)


Savoie, Donald J. Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?: How Government Decides and Why. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013. 336pp. ISBN-13: 978-0773541108

"How Government Decides and Why." Think of this subtitle as slightly re-worded as "How does government decide and why?" That's the question that Donald J. Savioe's book Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? tries to answer. And what would that answer be? Mostly, "It's complicated" for both how and why.

So in a similar way that the Pielke book helped me frame the scientist/society relationship, the Savioe book certainly helped me think more carefully about the three fold interface between government and the bureaucracy and citizens, with the emphasis on how elected officials interact with the civil service.

While not specifically focused on the Harper years, Savoie does use them as a case study as he examines how the civil service and the elected officials have evolved in their relationship over the years. Particularly interesting is how he goes into great detail on how over time as the government has become bigger and more complex, it has become much more difficult for politicians to make sense of detailed budgets and spending reports -- to the point where they no longer even seem to try any more.

Which dovetails nicely into some of Savoie's other themes. The spenders versus the guardians. The relationships between the various deputy and associate deputy and associate deputy assistant ministers and all the rest of the ever-proliferating levels of administration. The goal of government as blame-avoidance and butt-covering of those above you in the hierarchy to keep them out of trouble, to create a regime of "no surprises." Savoie again and again debunks the idea that private sector managerialism has any place in government or that it ever has been or ever really could be successful. That spending decisions get shifted and morphed by stealth rather than purposeful planning, all towards more complex administration. Planning relies less on evidence and more on opinion. The rise and rise of endless spin. The cocooning of the PM among a small circle of elite advisors.

And more.

Which gets us back to the original question. How and why do governments decide? Basically, the answer is that its complicated and messy, not a linear process, not a process that's easy to predict or easily quantify.

Making governing a very human endeavor.

Which gets me to a weird place when I think about the book. While it can be a bit dry, I certainly learned a lot of rather intricate detail about how government works, stuff I never knew or even really wanted to know. Which makes the book definitely worthwhile. I certainly ended the book with a much greater appreciation of the messiness of government than when I started. So I guess that makes the read worthwhile.


Wells, Paul. The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-. Toronto: Random House, 2013. 448pp. ISBN-13: 978-0307361325

One of the oldest books in this roundup, Paul Wells's book is probably also the first book to really look at the Harper government's overall legacy in a serious way. And of the books on this list, it's also the liveliest and most entertaining. Wells has a great way with a juicy story. And he certainly doesn't pull any punches -- he's pretty blunt about the good, bad and downright ugly about the early years of the Harper majority, about Harper's baldly stated desire to remake Canada as a conservative (and Conservative) country. "The longer I'm prime minister" as he's fond of saying, we won't even recognize this place.

Perhaps a bit dated now, with so much water under the bridge these last few years, I would still recommend this book for a solid insight into the first half of the Harper government's reign of error.


So what have I learned from all this reading? Aside from feeling, "holy crap have I ever read a lot of books about Canadian politics in the last few years?"

Somehow I think I should feel a bit more certain about what's going on or have a better sense of how we could fix it if we really wanted to. But in fact just the opposite. Like initial explorations of any field of study, those first excursions really just illuminate both how much you don't know and just how slippery solutions are.

And by solutions, I don't just mean electing another government, that's the easy part. I hope. What I mean is fixing the larger political climate in Canada so that evidence matters more. So that compassion matters more. So that micro-targeting narrow self-interested voter segments with tax cut goodies mattered less.

Understanding that context and framing those solutions is, if anything, even more illusive than it was when I embarked on this reading project a few years ago. And what it means is that even when the "Canadian War on Science" launched by the Conservatives is over, it does't mean that all the Canadian science policy battles have been won. Perhaps it means that rebuilding Canadian science will be just as important and finding that path will be just as fraught.

A new process and a positive project that will have just as much place for an old science librarian as the old battles.

As a bonus, here are some of the other Canadian political books I've read and reviewed recently.


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