On the Take:|
Crime Corruption & Greed in the Mulroney Years
by Stevie Cameron,
Lost in North America:
The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream
by John Gray,
The Klein Revolution
by Mark Lisac,
Post Your Opinion
|The Mulroney Legacy
by Brian Fawcett
THE SECOND MOST DEPRESSING THING about Stevie Cameron's On the Take: Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years (Macfarlane Walter and Ross, 528 pages, $29.95 cloth) -- and this is a book bulging with potentially depressing revelations -- is that it has not led to any arrests.
The most depressing thing about On the Take? Not only have there been no arrests, but no one is even calling for them. Despite hefty book sales, Cameron's revelations are being given pretty much the same sort of treatment celebrity bios get. In the Global Village fog it has somehow gotten difficult to see much difference between puking princesses, wife-beating sports has-beens, political bagmen dying under bizarre circumstances, and politicians giving away the country's assets to their corporate pals -- they're all creeps, aren't they?
Well, Excuse me, everyone, but it's time to damned well wake up here. The endemic political cynicism that clouds judgement at every level of this country is keeping us from putting two and two together in some pretty crucial ways. Every decent citizen left in this country ought to buy or borrow this book, read it cover to cover, and then have a long cold look in the political and moral mirror. It will, I warn, be a sobering, and quite possibly embarrassing experience. For almost nine years, Mulroney and his pals had just about everyone, even those of us who despised them, convinced that they were Canadians -- Canadians slurping Reagan-Thatcher neoconservatism and drunk on the ferment of entrepreneurial monetarism, maybe, but deep down, still the same decent and law-abiding kind of people we are.
I was probably slightly less surprised and maybe a little more embarrassed than most people will be by what I found in On the Take. At one point during the heat of the 1988 free trade debate I timidly ventured that we might start thinking about whether we should put Mulroney on trial for treason, because he was selling out the country to the Americans. Little did I know that we were in the hands of a regime different only in style from the kleptocracies of Africa, and that Brian Mulroney and his friends were playing fast and loose with the national assets just as Uganda's Idi Amin and Zaire's Mubuto did. I knew the conservatives were trying to sell (or give away) the country to the Americans and any other country with a corporate sector. Stevie Cameron makes it clear that they were trying their damnedest to empty the cupboard before the new owners arrived.
Reading the book will provoke indignation and insight. For me, one of Cameron's tangential insights was the best; I now understand the most revealing moment in the 1988 free trade debacle. It wasn't the Turner/Mulroney election debate, which was wonderful theatre, but -- in light of the current behaviour of the federal Liberals -- not much more than theatre. The truly revealing moment was a brief instant during a chummy television interview with Mulroney in which the former prime minister responded to a question about his trade-negotiating techniques with a rhetorical question: "You don't believe," I heard him say, "that I'd deliberately do anything that wasn't in the interests of the Canadian people, do you?"
He was trying to make it sound like a rhetorical question, but just for a brief moment there was a yawning gulf, and I sensed that the obvious answer might not be the right one. At the time, I honestly believed that no elected Canadian prime minister would set the country up on blocks for a royal screwing. I should have gone with the instinct that informs me that, in this world, there is no longer any such thing as a rhetorical question.
In a sense, offering you a lit-crit judgement of On the Take would be to miss the point. Stevie Cameron isn't my favourite political journalist, nor is her muckraking approach to her subject my favourite journalistic style. Still, there are so many startling facts in this book that if she has 80 per cent of them correct, she's written an indispensable piece of journalism. I have just one question to ask everyone -- including Cameron -- about this book. Why wasn't this stuff being discussed four to six years before now, when it could have made a difference?
The most depressing thing about John Gray's Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream (Talonbooks, 208 pages, $17.95 paper) is that no one seems to be aware that it exists. That this book could disappear so utterly is surprising, because Gray's cultural credentials are pretty much the same as those of Peter Gzowski. Or even better, actually. Gray is of nearly optimum mixed descent (raised in Nova Scotia, spent time in Toronto, lives in Vancouver), he can dance and sing in tune about pretty well everything Canadian, he's under 50, and he can probably still run fast enough to elude an American M-1 tank (until recently, Gzowski was liable to be mistaken for one, which is another sort of credential). And not incidentally, Gray can think clearly and write with wit.
The down side is that what Gray thinks and writes occasionally sounds like an Anglican church sermon. But hey, that's hardly an unforgivable fault in this country. There are lot of people who fervently believe that the CBC has always been one long ACS; and only a few less believe that's how it should be. A troubling percentage of our literature also conforms to the Anglican moral denominator, or would if it could keep its readers awake long enough.
Still, John Gray is dead-on Canadian mainstream, he's painfully funny at times, and he doesn't spare the rod when a subject deserves a whacking. These are serious, intelligent sermons, and Lost in North America is better than "readable" or "interesting." So what's the problem? Why isn't anyone reading it?
It would be easy to lay the blame on the book's weak design: the cover features type that is far too small running across a too-dark colour photo of Gray that makes him look like a cross between a haggis and some sort of LSD- striated refugee from the 1960s, and the interior layout lacks graphic bite. Blaming the failure of this book on the design alone would, however, be a cop-out. I think it is what Gray gets at in this book that is turning readers away. He's saying that media space is deceptively small in this country, and getting smaller each time some globalist institution supplants a Canadian one -- and that our capacity for resistance is mysteriously exhausted before we can quite get to the battlefield.
It is as if Brian Mulroney made it impossible for us to really care about Canada, rendered us unable to feel good about this place as a mixed, dynamic, multiple-entity culture without feeling somehow cornball or retrograde. He did it by sliming the moral space that ought to be the best part of any people's politics. He convinced a generation of those who were desperate for opportunities that a political and social movement that was immorally self-serving and self-aggrandizing was decent and responsible, and he convinced those of us who didn't buy into the opportunity jamboree that the neoconservative takeover was somehow inevitable. Yet in the end what he gave us was neither opportunity nor inevitability. He merely divided the country into gangs and sold its best institutions down the river while the gangs fought over shadows. And we can't quite see it, despite mountains of clear evidence and persuasive testimony.
Now, in the aftermath of the Mulroney years, there is Alberta's Ralph Klein. Alberta has already been "Kleined," and the system operators did the job so slickly that a majority of Albertans appear to have enjoyed it. The basics are pretty simple: you cut all government budgets 25 to 40 per cent and generally make the place so user-hostile for the sick, the poor, and the artistically inclined that they export themselves to more accommodating climes. Then you organize a boatload of public meetings in which you convince everybody that what is happening to them is somehow "real" and "good." Sound familiar?
The Klein Revolution is pretty much what Mulroney didn't have the courage to try. It will be coming to your province via the federal Liberal party or your post-denominational provincial government in the next few years. If you want a fine-grain look at what's involved, the Edmonton Journal's columnist Mark Lisac has written an extremely lucid biography of Klein and his economic programs, called, aptly, The Klein Revolution (NeWest, 260 pages, $19.95 paper).
Lisac is a career journalist with a sense of place and a deep-seated loyalty to Alberta and its people. In other words, he's from a journalistic species that seems to be dying out. He's done his legwork with the public and he isn't comfortable at those politically organized media cocktail parties that have put most of Canada's journalists, if not exactly in bed with the politicians, at least at bedside. Better yet, Lisac doesn't believe the world began at the Yalta Conference, he's well read, and shows evidence that he still has the reading habit.
Lisac delivers a fascinating eyeball-to-eyeball portrait of Ralph Klein, a man he's gotten close enough to for Klein to have called him "an asshole." Despite some obvious temptations, Lisac doesn't lose his journalistic balance. He's after the-man-as-political-phenomenon rather than the political celebrity, and it's this that makes the book timely and useful beyond its immediate news-chase context: if Mulroney was the phenom of the 1980s, Klein may be the phenom of the 1990s. He's more populist than the often remote Mulroney, and probably more sincere -- and less self-aware -- about what he's doing and why.
I first saw The Klein Revolution while it was still in manuscript, but the finished book should arrive in the bookstores about the same time as this issue of Books in Canada. In one sense it is like Stevie Cameron's On the Take or John Gray's Lost in North America: necessary. But in another sense it carries a special urgency because it is about what is on the neoconservative agenda right now, rather than what that agenda has already done to us. For those who are still capable of caring about the quality of life in this country -- or those who still believe we have some chance of deciding what it will be -- it is a must-read.