If you are looking for some political reading over the summer, here are a few books worth checking out.
Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan. Here’s the whole Random House blurb:
In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of the non-partisan think tank Samara, draw on an astonishing eighty exit interviews with former Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum to unearth surprising observations about the practice of politics in Canada.
Though Canada is at the top of international rankings of democracies, Canadians themselves increasingly don’t see politics as a way to solve society’s problems. Small wonder. In the news, they see grandstanding in the House of Commons and MPs pursuing agendas that don’t always make sense to the people who elected them.
But elected officials make critical choices about how this wildly diverse country functions today and how it will thrive in the future. They direct billions of dollars in public funding and craft the laws that have allowed Canada to lead the way internationally. Even with so much at stake, citizens—voters—are turning away. How did one of the world’s most functional democracies go so very wrong?
In Tragedy in the Commons, MPs describe arriving at their political careers almost by accident; few say they aspired to be in politics before it “happened” to them. In addition, almost without fail, each MP describes the tremendous influence of their political party: from the manipulation of the nomination process to enforced voting in the House and in committees, the unseen hand of the party dominates every aspect of the MP’s existence.
Loat and MacMillan ask: Just what do we want Members of Parliament to be doing? To whom are they accountable? And should parties be trusted with the enormous power they wield with such little oversight or citizen involvement?
With unprecedented access to the perspective and experience of Canada’s public leaders, Tragedy in the Commons concludes by offering solutions for improving the way politics works in Canada, and how all Canadians can reinvigorate a democracy that has lost its way, its purpose and the support of the public it is meant to serve.
Publicity and the Canadian State: critical communications perspectives, edited by Kristen Kozolanka. The University of Toronto Press blurb:
Publicity pervades our political and public culture, but little has been written that critically examines the basis of the modern Canadian “publicity state.” This collection is the first to focus on the central themes in the state’s relationship with publicity practices and the “permanent campaign,” the constant search by politicians and their strategists for popular consent. Central to this political popularity contest are publicity tools borrowed from private enterprise, turning political parties into sound bites and party members into consumers.
Publicity and the Canadian State is the first sustained study of the contemporary practices of political communication, focusing holistically on the tools of the publicity state and their ideological underpinnings: advertising, public opinion research, marketing, branding, image consulting, and media and information management, as well as related topics such as election law and finance, privacy, think-tank lobbying, and non-election communication campaigns.
Bringing together contemporary Canadian analysis by scholars in a number of fields, this collection will be a welcome new resource for academics, public relations and policy professionals, and government communicators at all levels.
Winning power: Canadian campaigning in the 21st century, by Tom Flanagan. The McGill-Queen’s University Press blurb:
Campaigns are central to the practice of modern democracy and integral to political participation in the twenty-first century. In Winning Power, Tom Flanagan draws on decades of experience teaching political science and managing political campaigns to inform readers about what goes on behind the scenes.
While the goal of political campaigning - using persuasion to build a winning coalition - remains constant, the means of achieving that goal are always changing. Flanagan dissects the effects of recent changes in financial regulation and grassroots fundraising, the advent of the "permanent campaign," as well as the increase in negative advertising. He pulls these themes together to show how tactics are employed at specific points in a campaign by providing a firsthand account of his management of the Wildrose Party campaign in Alberta's 2012 provincial election. Lifting the veil of campaign secrecy, he provides a candid account of the successes and mistakes the newly formed party made in an election that nearly toppled the four-decade-long dynasty of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives. Modeling its campaign on the 2006 campaign that brought Stephen Harper to 24 Sussex Drive, Wildrose combined grassroots fundraising, an innovative platform that reached out to its electoral coalition, a carefully scripted leader’s tour, as well as negative and positive advertising in the race towards leadership. Success for the party seemed within reach until breakdowns in message discipline in the campaign’s final week caused the Wildrose tide to ebb.
Citing diverse sources such as game theory, evolutionary psychology, and Aristotelian rhetoric, Flanagan explores the timeless aspects of campaigning and emphasizes new strategies of coalition-building. For future campaigners, Winning Power provides textbook illustrations of what does and doesn't work.
Whatever happened to the music teacher? how government decides and why, by Donald Savoie. MQUP again:
Thirty years ago, Anglo-American politicians set out to make the public sector look like the private sector. These reforms continue today, ultimately seeking to empower elected officials to shape policies and pushing public servants to manage operations in the same manner as their private-sector counterparts. In Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?, Donald Savoie provides a nuanced account of how the Canadian federal government makes decisions.
Savoie argues that the traditional role of public servants advising governments on policy has been turned on its head, and that evidence-based policy making is no longer valued as it once was. Policy making has become a matter of opinion, Google searches, focus groups, and public opinion surveys, where a well-connected lobbyist can provide any answers politicians wish to hear. As a result, public servants have lost their way and are uncertain about how they should assess management performance, how they should generate policy advice, how they should work with their political leaders, and how they should speak truth to political power - even within their own departments. Savoie demonstrates how recent management reforms in government have caused a steep rise in the overhead cost of government, as well as how the notion that public administration could be made to operate like the private sector has been misguided and costly to taxpayers.
Abandoning "textbook" discussions of government and public service, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? Is a realistic portrayal of how policy decisions are made and how actors and institutions interact with one another and exposes the complexities, contradictions present in Canadian politics and governance.