Lawrence Martin has an engaging, effortless writing style that draws you in right from the first sentence. I wanted to read Harperland because of Parliament’s increasing dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I put it on hold at the Toronto Public Library, and by the time I got it, the election was underway. I wanted to read it more than ever by then, but anticipating a tough slog of the must-read kind of reading, I procrastinated. I should’ve known better.
I had read one of Martin’s books before, on Lucien Bouchard, called The Antagonist: Lucien Bouchard and the Politics of Delusion. I’d read that one as background research on biography writing for my own book, a biography on a medical pioneer titled Lifeliner: The Judy Taylor Story. I read a number of biographies back in the 1990s to get a feel for the genre, and Martin’s book on Bouchard stood out for me not only for its numerous documented interviews and how he gained access to people close to the subject, but also for its breezy yet serious style, the way he brought the personality to life, and all the insights he gave the reader. The book’s subject was heavy; the writing was not. And so it is with Harperland.
In Harperland, Martin connects the dots of how Harper has incrementally brought Soviet-style authoritarianism to Canada’s Parliament. He also answers the question of why Harper sought power in the first place. He seemed an unlikely candidate to reach for the leadership of the new Conservative Party, and to my mind, being one of his subjects since 2006, it seemed like he sought power for power’s sake. But it was more than that, as I learnt. What Martin reveals made me even more concerned for my democracy, the cornerstone of which is that we all get a say in our country, we all respect each others’ views no matter how opposed, and we work together for the good of Canada. Of course, what I think is good for Canada, others may not. But what made Confederation an historic achievement is that people with disparate views took the time to hammer out the foundation for our country without bloodshed or wanting to exterminate the "other guy." Harper turned his back on such an idea, even if at times he was able to let go of his partisanship and act in a way that befits a Prime Minister, the first representative of all the people of Canada. As Martin concludes: "character is fate."
I came to realise that Harper was able to achieve his centralization of power for two reasons: people in his party let him, and the rules of Parliament are all based on unwritten tradition. If you get a man who couldn’t care less about "how it’s usually done," then no psychological or social checks are going to dissuade him from accruing power unto himself. Even more than before I read this book, I believe we need not only electoral but Parliamentary reform also so that there are real consequences to Prime Ministers or parties who indulge in this kind of behaviour.
Interestingly, I learnt a bit about the Liberal Party and Jack Layton as well from reading this book. As I raced to beat the library due date, the election for Canada’s forty-first Parliament was racing to its end too. And I suddenly saw that the mistakes the Liberal Party made in the last election were repeated in this one. It wasn’t just a matter of a faulty leadership. The Liberal Party simply did not use the time in between the elections to learn from their mistakes and prepare for this election. On the other hand, Layton did.
I read the ePub edition of Harperland (which by the way is shockingly priced), but I assume the text file was the same one that was used for the print edition. There is much talk in the writing and publishing communities about whether self- or indie-publishing is legitimate or on a par with or better than traditional publishing. One of the big arguments for the latter being preferable for writers is that traditional publishers produce a superior product; they edit and proofread at a professional level. Well, um, how shall I put it? Oh yeah. Bull. This book was rife with typos. As the book went on, the typos increased as if the proofreader got tired of catching all the uncapitalized first words in sentences or uncapitalized names, as well as ensuring spaces between words. For a book that costs (choke) $35, I expect professional proofreading.
Overall, Harperland is a good, thought-provoking read, not only about Harper but also about our democracy and the weaknesses in our Parliamentary system.