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book review

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes a question as he attends an event at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, in Charlottetown, on Thursday, June 19, 2014.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Does a supervillain run our country?

According to Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover, a new book by journalist Michael Harris, our Prime Minister is a puppet master, using the levers of government to promote the interests of his oil buddies while laying waste to his opponents: environmentalists, progressives, and even ordinary citizens.

The book pummels the reader with scandal after scandal, not trying to persuade, but to bring the reader around to the author's point of view through brute force.

Readers who love Harper will hate the book, and those who hate the Prime Minister will love the book. And in the end, neither side will learn much about the other. And they will learn even less about who our famously private Prime Minister really is.

But the book does tell you a lot about his fiercest critics.

The first step in attacking a politician is to deny they ever really won in the first place. In the United States, a famous example is the "birther" movement, which said that Barack Obama should have been ineligible to run for president because he isn't a natural-born U.S. citizen. (He is.)

For Harper's fiercest critics, he never won an election fair and square; each contest was stolen by the nefarious network of conservatives lurking behind the scenes.

In Party of One, Harper's victory in the 2006 election was the start of something new and dastardly. "Seeking power was no longer a matter of debating with honourable gentlemen over great issues," Harris writes, "but a gruesome fight to the finish with no holds barred."

But one of the main contributing factors to Harper's win, the sponsorship scandal that revealed corruption in the then-governing Liberal party, is given only a single, passing reference.

Of much more interest is Harper's hiring of American political advisers – some of whom, gasp, worked for conservative American politicians. Never mind that Canadian politicians and strategists have been importing tactics from down south for years (a tale told in fascinating detail in Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes), or that Liberals and New Democrats have sought help in recent years from those that got Obama elected.

Party of One spends three early chapters recounting the robocalls case, a special preoccupation of Harper's critics, in which misleading phone calls were sent to residents in Guelph, Ont., during the 2011 election, directing them to the wrong polling stations with the aim that they would get confused and not vote. Conservative staffer Michael Sona was found guilty of a charge under the Elections Act this year in relation to the case, and the judge found it likely that Sona didn't work alone. The implication by some is that the Conservatives stole the election right in front of our eyes. But no one has traced this case beyond the local campaign, and no firm evidence exists there was a co-ordinated campaign of misleading robocalls anywhere outside of Guelph – a riding that the Conservatives ended up losing, anyway – let alone that any of it can be traced back to Harper or the party's top brass. If the robocalls case hampered thousands of voters – which is rightly a crime – there is no evidence it was what won Harper the election, in which Conservatives won a 12-seat majority in the House of Commons and 1.3 million more votes than the second-place NDP. But by attacking the very legitimacy of an election you never have to grapple with the fact that not every voter believes in the same things you do.

Sona was just one of many scapegoats that Harper has thrown under the bus, Party of One says. There are the public servants that disagreed with him, like nuclear safety watchdog Linda Keen – but there are also those that, one would think, Harper rightly dispatched with, such as senators who billed tens of thousands in inappropriate expenses, or partisan movers-and-shakers like Arthur Porter who were revealed to be involved in questionable business activities. It's all part of an attempt to depict Harper's ruthlessness as a true "Party of One," demanding loyalty from all subordinates and centralizing all power in the Prime Minister's Office.

Other recent books make the case more persuasively, however, by taking a longer view. Those books include former-Conservative-now-Independent MP Brent Rathgeber's Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada and Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, based on exit interviews with dozens of Members of Parliament. Both sketch out, through first-hand accounts, how the work of Parliament and individual MPs has become increasingly dominated by the Prime Minister and his office, a trend that dates back through Jean Chretien, Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau. Obsessing about particular cases loses the larger picture, which is that the trend for consolidation of power has gotten worse under Harper, but it didn't start under him. In Paul Wells's The Longer I'm Prime Minister, Harper is presented as a pragmatic politician who believes his ultimate goal – to tilt the government rightward, and more towards the western provinces than Ontario and Quebec – is best achieved by moving policy incrementally and staying in power as long as he can by pulling together a new coalition of supporters.

Harris presents no central theme or argument in return. Instead, he recounts a list of grievances against the Conservative government: the F-35 debacle, where the price and timeline of acquiring new fighter jets has proved vexing for Canada and other countries; the shutting down of a freshwater research station in northern Ontario; the muzzling of federal scientists; difficult relations with foreign powers and our own First Nations; and the poor treatment of veterans.

"Canada was becoming the unrecognizable place that Stephen Harper had once talked about," Harris writes.

All those points are, to varying degrees, valid criticisms of the Conservative government. But they're also often picking at the edges, avoiding grappling with questions about the government that hit wider swaths of Canadian life. What about the Conservatives' economic record? What about how they've changed crime and justice laws, choosing to promote ideology over sociology? What about their unenthusiastic approach to addressing climate change? And what does it all say about Harper himself? That he has earned some enemies after nine years in power?

The book ends, remarkably, with Farley Mowat calling Stephen Harper a "son of a bitch."

It's often easier to insult your opponent than try to understand his point of view.

Chris Hannay is The Globe's digital politics editor.