When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada
Peter C. Newman
Random House Canada (2011) 304 pages
Reviewed by Bob Tarantino
The kindest word that could be used to describe Peter C. Newman’s latest tome is “lazy”. His newest book, When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada embodies every sense of that term. Even were a reader inclined to set aside the sloppy editing and fact-checking, the analysis trades in cliché and the nearly clinical self-deception of its subjects and author.
Newman sets out to examine why the Liberal Party of Canada finds itself relegated to third place in the House of Commons and having lost, in increasingly brutal fashion, three elections in a row. Tellingly, while Newman’s analysis rarely rises much above limp assessments that the party has lost its “mojo”, the most incisive evaluation in the book comes in the form of an email from a failed Liberal candidate which is reprinted verbatim – and occupies three full pages. As a work of journalism, to say nothing of scholarship, this is more akin to a collection of op-ed columns than a serious treatment of its subject. No footnotes are provided and the assertions of anonymous sources are taken at face value and never independently investigated.
The story of what happened to the Liberals and Michael Ignatieff, their most recent leader (who summarily resigned after his 2011 federal election loss), could make for a fascinating book. Regrettably, Newman is precisely the wrong person to write that story. He seems as bewildered and offended as his interview subjects at the continuing failure of the Canadian public to genuflect at the mere mention of Liberal accomplishments or historical figures.
Notwithstanding his protestations that journalists should not be “ideologues or partisan hacks” and that his political views consist only of “an abiding love affair with Canada”, this book reveals him to be as true a believer in the Liberal Party of Canada as the hoary Liberal Party of Canada politicians and backroom operators whose recollections make up so much of his analysis. A more reflective author would have spent some time unpacking his assertion that “much will be lost if [the Liberal Party] goes down”; for the devout, though, no such introspection is required and so none is available in this book.
Newman appears to suffer from the same deficiency that hobbles the Liberals: their political adversaries (particularly Stephen Harper) are viewed as illegitimate usurpers and interlopers. Both the author and his sources appear almost incapable of comprehending that any serious individual might exist out there who does not want the same things they do in the political sphere, not just in terms of marginal differences, but in terms of fundamental ways of relating to other individuals, the state, the economy and the world. More critically, they seem unable to grasp that such views – mysterious to them when they ponder them at all – resonate with large numbers of voters.
That incomprehension is total and mutual. It leads the Liberals to continually fail in their political efforts and Newman to write embarrassing passages. Consider his lament that with Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, “the country will never be the same – might even have to change its name since it will no longer be recognizable.” Or his demented musing that “maybe we’ll end up living on the equivalent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, obedient beasties to Harper’s command”.
Newman’s views on Harper are of a piece with his predictive power regarding what he saw as Ignatieff’s “inevitable” and “destined” rise to the position of prime minister – and both reveal him to be someone whose views on political matters merit less attention than the publication of this book implies.
The reasons for the collapse of federal Liberal electoral prowess over the past decade are not terribly mysterious. The party became deeply corrupt, interested in exercising power for its own sake. A profound arrogance debilitated the party and its members.
But that’s not how Newman sees it. Commenting on the Liberals, he writes, “They genuinely believed that by accepting the burdens of office, they were bestowing a benefaction on the nation at large, and viewed the slightest criticism as an unpatriotic act”.
The book documents an amazing consistency in the Liberal mindset across the decades. In the 1960s, Lester Pearson, held to minority governments, complained that (in Newman’s words) “the Liberals had tested the Canadian people and found them wanting.” Forty years later the party remained convinced that “they alone knew what was good for Canadians, and that it was just plain dumb to vote for any other party, except as occasional comic relief”. As Newman describes, by the end of the Jean Chrétien years, the Liberal Party had become little more than “a power-preservation vehicle for its insiders”.
Ignatieff himself is revealed as oddly detached from, even oblivious with regards to, his role as a politician. He begins his quest for power by asking the Liberal operatives who recruited him in 2004, “So how do I do this? What do you have to do? What’s the life of a politician?”
On multiple occasions Newman refers to Ignatieff being unaware that the crowds he encountered on the campaign trail were partisan Liberals and therefore not indicative of enthusiastic support from the broader public. (More disturbingly, Newman admits that even the journalists covering Ignatieff conveniently overlooked this crucial point).
By the end of his tenure as Liberal leader, Ignatieff is reduced to mouthing inanities; on the campaign trail he intones that Harper does not “get” Canadians, and that “less participation is good for Stephen Harper. More participation is good for us.” Right. Except that in the 2011 election, almost a million more votes were cast than in the 2008 election, resulting in a majority government for the Tories and Ignatieff getting the hook. For Ignatieff to say that Stephen Harper does not understand Canadians seems an incredibly odd observation to make about a man who has won three elections in a row and been Prime Minister for more than five years. It seems doubly so when it comes from someone who lost his own riding and led his party to its worst-ever electoral showing.
But when it comes to sheer obliviousness, Ignatieff is in good company. Such drowsy non-self awareness is a recurring theme throughout When the Gods Changed. Peter Donolo, latterly Ignatieff’s chief of staff, asserts, apparently not sarcastically, that “we had the best losing campaign in Canadian political history”.
Newman’s constant invocation of religious imagery when talking about the Liberals is creepy in a way peculiar to Canadian journalists over a certain age and of a certain political disposition. With his references to “our political gods”, “shrines”, “saints”, “state religion”, “cult”, and “neo-con infidels”, Newman is giving voice to his political beliefs—and it illuminates more about him and the audience he imagines he writes for than it does about the country at large.
The book is badly edited, with dated cultural references and awkward metaphors. (At one point Canada is described as digging to find its soul but failing to find a panacea.) The book is also marred by a jarring structure that skips from capsule histories to current interviews interspersed with Newman’s solipsistic recollections of discussions from a half-century ago. Numerous instances of missing punctuation and misspelled names (who is Stompin’ Tom Connors?) litter the book. And the sloppy fact-checking produces cringe-inducing moments (Lloyd Axworthy was not Pierre Trudeau’s foreign minister, and Rex Murphy did not advise Stéphane Dion).
To compound the ignominy, Newman specifically names and thanks his editor and fact-checker for their efforts in the acknowledgments which close the book. At other times Newman’s reportorial efforts simply fall down. He repeats the explanation that the Liberals had a $23 million war chest, which could have assisted them in fighting back against Conservative attack ads, but “nobody could figure out how to get at it”, and instead it was hoarded by “power brokers” who “divided the spoils”. Newman never names any names, never confirms that the amount actually existed or where it was held, never identifies anything concrete at all in relation to the proffered excuse.
Perhaps the most astonishing lacuna in Newman’s analysis relates to the issue of the Conservative’s “just visiting” ads, which told voters that Ignatieff “didn’t come back for you”. The ads evidently remain a raw wound for the Liberals, and for Newman as they are referenced repeatedly throughout the book.
But Newman’s own account, indeed Ignatieff’s own words as quoted by Newman, indicate that the ads were accurate: Ignatieff came back entirely for himself. His return to Canada was predicated on his need to “make history” and become “the man in full he always wanted to be”.
Newman casts Ignatieff’s political career as an attempt at “redemption”, and Ignatieff himself describes his “driving motivation” this way: “I don’t want, at the end of my life, to say that I was merely a spectator”. In one of the book’s more bizarre passages, Newman engages (I swear I am not making this up) a Jungian psychologist and a poet to analyze Ignatieff. They conclude that “he wants to redeem his life, to do the one good thing, or go down in flames”.
The book is not wholly without merit. It is useful to have the teeth-gnashing of so many Liberals collected in one place. There are occasional passages of insight married to succinct expression. Thus his observation that “power accrued to people according to their precise position within a formal hierarchy” whereas “influence was a much more subtle phenomenon … manifested … by the willingness of people to take seriously observers or players who lacked formal sanction.”
One interesting element is Newman’s contention that the long post-war dominance of the Liberals was effectively just a matter of happenstance. He asserts that they dominated because they were in power during the Second World War, when the unprecedented concentration in Ottawa of corporate power-brokers meant that a self-reinforcing network of contacts (and patronage) was built up which the Conservatives would find almost impossible to permanently displace. The oddly lengthy treatment of C.D. Howe’s tenure—as a powerful “minister of everything” in successive Liberal governments during the 1940s and 1950s—provides ample evidence of the long tradition of the Liberal Party’s willingness to lavish taxpayer funds on its friends.
Helpfully, Newman documents the active role that the media played in transforming Pierre Trudeau into a political star, and also describes Liberal candidates of the 1960s swearing fealty to the publisher of the Toronto Star. It turns out the old gibe that the Star was the propaganda wing of the Liberal Party had it exactly backwards: instead, the Liberal Party was the political operations unit of the Star.
What might the future of the Liberal Party be? Notwithstanding the carping from his fellow journalists, Newman is not actually predicting the death of the Liberal Party of Canada, just saying that Liberal Canada (meaning the coalition of voters who reliably voted for the Liberals) is no longer viable.
He closes the book not with a requiem for a dead party, but simply a prediction that the odds are against an imminent electoral resurrection. Newman himself seems to have thought that a new leader with “passion, commitment and integrity” could have saved the Liberals. But for all the histrionics of those appearing in Newman’s narrative and all the brow-furrowed columns since May 2011 which seek to explain what has happened to the Liberals, no one ever bothers applying Occam’s Razor to the matter.
Though he never quite expresses it, Newman certainly provides sufficient evidence: maybe the current Liberals are just bad people with bad ideas, whose exercise of power would be bad for the country. It appears that giving voice to that conclusion, or even just recognizing that perhaps that is what large numbers of the electorate have concluded, is something that most journalists and commentators in this country are incapable of doing. It may not be the correct explanation, but it makes an awful lot more sense than vague hand-waving about the Liberals having lost their “mojo”, or the contention, belied by all available evidence, that some combination of a different leader, different back-room operatives and different advertising spots will return the party triumphantly to power.