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Review: Bob Rae’s What’s Happened to Politics? is a useful and important new book

Bob Rae, the member of parliament for Toronto Centre, recently announced his retirement from politics.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

What’s Happened to Politics?
Bob Rae
Simon & Schuster Canada

I read Bob Rae's useful and important new book, What's Happened to Politics?, on the steps of the war memorial in St John's. It's a good place to think about politics – there is certainly no lack of political commentary here in St. John's, and people have some pretty strong opinions.

Based on what I heard in a week in Newfoundland, I'd be shocked if Stephen Harper's Conservatives win even a single seat here. Former premier Danny Williams accusing Stephen Harper of breaking his word about excluding oil revenues from equalization payments might have been the start of it, but the recent refusal to allow the son of former Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie to run as a Conservative, apparently because he made fun of Harperin a skit, has certainly finished him off. In fact, the pithy comments I heard in a local pub would put downtown lefties in Toronto or Vancouver to shame in their clarity of disdain for Harper and his Conservative Party. I bring them up only because those conversations are extremely relevant to Rae's book, particularly his concerns about the disengagement of Canadians from politics. One of his central points is about the permanent campaign – how political parties, led by the federal Conservatives, have changed the nature of politics to be more and more based on simplistic slogans driven by ever more polling. Personal attacks, while always a feature of politics, have become more central to the permanent campaign, as TV and radio advertisements, formerly the purview of election campaigns, run all the time. They are effective: Who among us can't repeat that Michael Ignatieff was "just visiting" or that Justin Trudeau "isn't up to the job"?

Behind this lies a complex campaign machinery, relying on segmentation of public opinion, increased polling and efforts to demonize one's opponent. Rae correctly points out that while the Conservatives may have brought the permanent campaign to Canada, all parties are now endeavouring to catch up. And it's a vicious circle: Fundraising is fed by outraged supporters whose anger needs to be constantly stoked. In these circumstances, there is little room for compromise.

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Rae goes on to paint a clear and disturbing picture of the impact of the current focus on slogans and simplistic ideology on important public-policy issues. He is at his best discussing our treatment of aboriginal Canadians, but shares important thoughts on Canada's place in the world, democratic reform, crime, and trade and the economy, among others.

Although the book is not long, it demonstrates his deep knowledge of the major public-policy challenges of our time and a coherent philosophical approach. It is hard not to see how much of a mistake the Liberal Party made by not electing him leader – intellectually, he would be a tough opponent for Harper, indeed.

He writes in a clear, often pithy way, whether to make a policy or political point. In an eloquent section about the recent failures of Canadian diplomacy, Rae takes direct aim at the current government: "Canada has become a posturer, a poseur, a political game player. Canada has become a right-wing gas bag, shouting from the sidelines. It was not always this way, and it does not have to be this way in the future."

Later in the same chapter, he focuses on the policy implications for Canada of what he terms the new isolationism: "We are not, today, even remotely leaders on any of the critical issues facing Canada and the world. The disengagement from diplomacy has had its comic moments, but now the consequences are far more serious. We are missing the opportunity to advance Canada's genuine interests and risk a deeper isolation than we have faced since the 1930s. This does us no good. And we shall pay an even higher price as time goes on."

In equal measure, Rae lays blame for the current malaise on Harper and on the political process in general. The triumph of spin over substance, combined with the centralizing of power in the PMO, has, in his view, weakened our democracy and alienated the public. It's here that I would disagree with the author – not over the analysis, which is common, but over his pessimism about change. He concludes his book by saying, "Politics is too important to be left to the politicians," in a way that makes it clear that he's not hopeful that such a state of citizen engagement could exist.

As a veteran of municipal politics, I have seen first-hand that people are both capable of and thirsty for engagement. City governments are legally required to engage with people over issues such as planning, and the best ones use their knowledge to invite civic participation on a range of issues. In Toronto's case, our Listening to Toronto budget sessions, held in neighbourhoods all over the city – a form of participatory budgeting – were wildly successful and oversubscribed and provided effective suggestions that was in turn relied on by City Council in the budget debate. All it took was a government that was prepared to open the door to people. More colloquially, anyone who has taken a taxi, or had a coffee or a beer in any Canadian city knows there is no shortage of opinion or desire for change.

For me, then, there is a sense of optimism about politics and the role of Canadians. I am prepared to put my trust in them to make the change they feel is right. It is possible to agree with Rae's observations about a corroded political system, while still acknowledging that Canadians can see through the spin and public-policy failures of a particular government. That is certainly the case in St. John's. And if it's true in Newfoundland, it can certainly be true across this country.

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David Miller is president and CEO of WWF-Canada and former mayor of Toronto.

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