Book Review

Ex-MP Turner casts Harper as bully in new book

The Canadian Press

Garth Turner answers reporters' questions at a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006. (Photo: Tom Hanson / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Garth Turner answers reporters' questions at a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006. (Photo: Tom Hanson / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa — A new book by a former Conservative MP casts Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a bully obsessed with secrecy and his caucus as a sycophantic squad of yes-men.

It's not a very flattering portrait of the Tory team — made immediately evident by the book's title, Sheeple, and its cover art that depicts a barnyard animal grazing on the Parliament Hill lawn.

By all accounts, the loathing is mutual. Conservatives don't like the book's author, Garth Turner, much either and they deployed significant organizational resources to ensure his defeat in last fall's election.

So Turner has emerged from forced political retirement to take a swing at former colleagues he likens to compliant mammals led by a farmer-in-chief who values their silence far more than their opinions.

It's a 219-page chronicle of a whirlwind two years that saw Garth Turner go from candidate, to Tory MP, to embattled Tory MP, to Independent booted from the Tory caucus, to Liberal, to defeated candidate.

The book's general tone is summed up in his account of a 2006 Conservative private meeting where the prime minister warned his caucus that $1 billion in spending cuts were on the way.

"There will be impacts in some of your ridings," the prime minister told his MPs, according to the book.

"They will affect people, and you will be tempted to talk about them. But don't. Anyone who has anything to say about this will soon find out they have a very short political career."

MPs exchanged nervous glances. Calgary's Lee Richardson whispered under his breath, "Well, that's pretty f------ clear, wouldn't you say?" So nobody uttered a peep about the program cuts.

It's a common theme in a book where Harper and his staff repeatedly sing the praises of silence and warn parliamentarians about the dire consequences of talking.

The Prime Minister's Office offered a two-word reply when asked whether Turner's book reflected events accurately: "Garth who?" was the response from the PM's spokesman, Kory Teneycke.

Turner says the prime minister was far more talkative when describing his goal of winning a majority government.

Harper would often talk to his caucus about winning a majority but, according to Turner, he rarely seemed interested in hearing what they had to say.

Turner cites as Exhibit A the resignation of the promising young Michael Chong from cabinet in late 2006.

He was the intergovernmental affairs minister who stepped down when Harper decided to declare the Quebecois a nation. He told a news conference Harper hadn't even given him advance notice.

"My initial assessment of Harper was proving to be depressingly accurate," Turner writes.

"(He's) supremely self-possessed, driven by the unassailable correctness of his path and the knowledge that he knew at all times what was best. Not a team leader interested in building and inspiring the team, he was rather a leader by virtue of his superiority."

Then again, Turner's view of the prime minister may have been jaundiced by a first meeting that fell flat.

Turner had been a cabinet minister in the brief Kim Campbell government and, after a 13-year stint as a business journalist, author and broadcaster, he planned a return to politics.

He met Harper during a campaign event in his Toronto-area riding of Halton. They held a photo op. They used an entrance where they could avoid taking questions from the media. And afterward they rode in a minivan, with Harper sitting shotgun.

"So you were in Kim's cabinet?" Harper said, without turning around to look at him. "How bad was it?"

Turner says he was puzzled and asked Harper what he meant.

Harper apparently turned around by this point and was smiling: "How bad was it, losing it all, getting killed like that?"

Turner says he quickly realized there were two camps in the new Conservative Party of Canada — and they were on opposite sides.

"It struck me that his one and only vision of the candidate in the van with him was of a former Progressive Conservative who, by a fluke, had managed to survive the ethnic cleansing of 1993. A curiosity of conflict, like the wrinkled Japanese infantryman who emerges from a cave on a Pacific atoll forty-nine years after the war ended, wondering who won," Turner writes.

"I said nothing. There was no point. But Stephen Harper had succeeded in an instant in making me feel old and irrelevant. More telling, in this, our first encounter: he had just divided the inside of that white van into PC and Reform."

Their relationship went downhill from there.

He says the mainstream, moderate Conservative party people thought they voted for is a charade, its caucus actually "permeated with a kind of old-time religious fervour completely at odds with contemporary Canada."

He says the party papers over its most right-wing views on things like abortion, gay rights and gun control by putting up spokespeople who appeal to "mainstream, secular, middle-class soccer moms" whose votes they need.

Weeks after the Tories were elected it was clear there would be no honeymoon between the new prime minister and his newly elected MP for Halton.

Turner earned Harper's wrath by publicly criticizing his choice of David Emerson for cabinet, a man who'd just been elected as a Liberal.

He was called up to Harper's office and was subjected to a lecture that, he writes, made him feel like a petulant child.

He says Harper glowered at him. The prime minister pointed out he'd never taken a formal position against floor-crossing in opposition. Then he delivered a warning — actually, more like a carrot and stick.

Harper said he'd had plans for Turner, a former minister and one-time leadership candidate to replace Brian Mulroney.

"I was going to offer you something, a role, something I had that is delicate, something important," Harper said, according to the book.

"But now I'm not going to anymore. Instead we will just see what happens, what you do, over the next few weeks."

Thinking the meeting was ending, Turner got up to leave. Harper told him to sit down.

"You're a journalist," Harper apparently told him.

"We all know journalists make bad politicians. Politicians know how to stick to a message. That's how they are successful. Journalists think they always have to tell the truth."

He told Turner he didn't need a "media star" in his caucus.

A particular source of consternation was Turner's blog, where he would opine on news of the day. He would ask constituents what they wanted to see in the federal budget. He would make vague references to topics raised at private meetings.

All of a sudden, colleagues started calling for him to be disciplined. A Dump Garth Turner movement broke out in the Conservative caucus, as MPs accused him of being a threat to the government.

He quotes one MP telling him: "We play as a team or we lose as a team. We have no room for an independent thinker on our team."

Others wondered what business he had going around doing his own budget consultations.

That kind of parallel process — having people propose ideas the government might not be able to adopt — could prove embarrassing to them, they reasoned.

Turner was finally expelled.

Following a brief stint as an independent MP, he joined the Liberals.

Although he's far less critical of them, he suggests the Liberals and Conservatives share a similar problem: they stifle open debate and free speech, which contributes to voter apathy.

He cites Stephane Dion's lame attempts at blogging — on a site where user comments were not allowed — as an example of politicians not grasping the reality that in the Internet age people want a more open democratic process.

And he, Garth Turner, casts himself as a champion of that new digital democracy, thwarted by the stultifying slaves to past practice.

He says Canadian politics is already far behind the U.S. — where the Internet has shown an unprecedented ability to raise money, generate ideas, and explain policy positions to voters.

"One or two more federal elections, and the traditionalists will be gone," Turner concludes.

"Online (politicians) will be harder to control, and more responsive to voters. . . Experience has convinced me this is what Canadians want. Parties and leaders who demand unquestioning acceptance of dogmatic positions are doomed.

"No one, not even a prime minister, can put this back in the bottle."

25 April 2009 — Return to cover.
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