Throughout July we are interviewing the authors of the books on our shortlist for the Best Canadian Political Book of the Last 25 Years. Vote for your favourite here.
Lawrence Martin is a Globe and Mail columnist and the author of eleven books. Here he discusses his 2010 book Harperland: The Politics of Control.
Describe the genesis of Harperland. How did you come to write about Canada’s current Prime Minster?
I had written ten previous books, most of them on politics, leaders such Mikhail Gorbachev, Lucien Bouchard, Jean Chrétien. Stephen Harper had been in power four years and no one had written a book on those years. He was becoming an important prime minister and as a journalist I had been following him closely. So I saw the opportunity to do the first book on his governance and jumped at it.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
It took me a year to write. The major challenge was to get inside material, stuff that had not been written about Harper before. The power in Ottawa resides in the prime minister’s office. I started going to people who had worked there and gradually they opened up and told me how Harper operated and how the system worked. Most of them had not spoken to the media before. I was surprised so many of them spoke so candidly because the prime minister ran a closed shop and, even though some of these people had left his office, it was still risky for them to speak on the record.
Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?
I always referred back to Peter Newman’s book on Lester Pearson called The Distemper of Our Times. And there were dozens of other books I use as inspiration. During the writing of Harperland I was reading Edmund Morris’s books on Theodore Roosevelt. They are splendid.
Tell us a little about how you chose the title Harperland: The Politics of Control.
Harperland was the easiest of all my books to decide on the title. The theme of the book was how Harper is essentially a one-man government, a one-man show. I was aware, being a long-time follower of American politics, of the book called Nixonland. I liked that title. It was distinctive. And Harper, in fact, has many Nixonian qualities.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
Harper’s PMO started attacking the book, even though they hadn’t seen it, a week before it hit the stores. They said I was a Liberal sympathizer, not recalling that, as a columnist, I had led the charge against Jean Chrétien’s abuses of power when he was prime minister. Most Ottawa journalists were aware of this. Reviews came out, such as one in the conservative National Post from Don Martin, saying that my book gave Harper’s supporters more space than his critics. The PMO stopped criticizing the book.
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did you hear from any of the main players in your book?
I heard no complaints from any of the players I interviewed. I was very careful to be accurate because I knew the PMO would use any errors they could find to try and discredit the book.
Did Harperland change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
Harperland has received four different award nominations and, in a poll taken by The Hill Times, it was ranked the best political book of the year. It became a number one best seller. But since I've been an author for a long time, it hasn't altered my career trajectory.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
The state of political writing is weak. There are many good journalists in Ottawa, but media proprietors are not making big enough investments to support real investigative journalism, which we require. Nor are journalists independent enough. There is pressure in a lot of quarters not to criticize the government too strongly. If this was the Watergate era of journalism and there were editors like The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee around, I don’t think the Harper government would have survived this long. Too many abuses of power would have been exposed by now.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why? Are there any other books written in the last 25 years that you would suggest people read?
My favourite book on the short list is John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country. It has a strikingly original thesis which the author substantiates very effectively. It is, in my view, a seminal work. One of the great political books not on the list is Double Vision, the book on Paul Martin by Ed Greenspon and Anthony Wilson Smith.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m doing my Globe and Mail column and also a column a week for the online paper Ipolitics.ca. I’m also looking for a good subject for a new book. All suggestion welcome!