June 15th, 2011
My research on political narrative has focused on works set in the US and UK, two countries with rich and deep traditions of political writing and film. As for political narrative about Canada, my home and native land, Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland seems appropriate: “there’s nothing there, there.” In the last forty years, Canada has seen a flowering of literature and, to a lesser extent, film, but very little of it has been about politics, government, or organizations. If politics has been involved, it’s been about family, not electoral, politics.
With anticipation and willingness to revise the sweeping conclusion of the previous paragraph, I came to Terry Fallis’s 2008 first novel “The Best Laid Plans.” Fallis, a former political insider for the Ontario and federal Liberals, and now a public relations practitioner, initially self-published the novel, which indicates publishers didn’t see much of a market in political narrative. Winning the Leacock Medal for Humor in 2008 led McClelland and Stewart to change its mind and publish it.
I begin with a brief plot summary. Protagonist and narrator Daniel Addison, a speechwriter in the office of the Liberal leader of the Opposition decides to leave politics for academe after he discovers his politically-connected girlfriend servicing the Liberal House leader after hours in his ornate Centre Block office. With an election just called, Addison agrees – as a last service to the party leader – to find a Liberal candidate for the rural eastern Ontario riding of Cumberland-Prescott. Such a candidacy will be hopeless, as the riding was traditionally Conservative and represented by the popular Conservative Minister of Finance Eric Cameron. Ultimately Addison found a candidate in Angus McLintock, a University of Ottawa engineering professor nearing retirement, on the promise that he need do no campaigning (reminiscent of the US comedian Pat Paulsen’s credo: if nominating, I will not run, if elected I will not serve). Cameron’s campaign collapses when – how life imitates art ! – he is discovered in full bondage gear engaged in an intense S-and-M session with his frighteningly-efficient middle-aged EA.
Narrowly elected in an election that returns a Conservative minority to power, McLintock quickly establishes himself as a political maverick who, in a thorough reversal of public choice thinking, puts the national interest ahead of the interest of his constituents, and their interest ahead of his self-interest. This creates consternation for both his own Liberals and the governing Conservatives. The tale culminates in a debate on the Conservatives’ budget which proposes deep tax cuts, but no spending increases, in the face of a deep recession. The Conservatives hold the budget vote in the aftermath of a fierce winter storm that has immobilized Ottawa, but through heroic efforts –piloting a home-made hovercraft up the Ottawa River – McLintock makes it back to the House to cast the decisive vote that defeats the budget and forces the government to face the electorate.
As a reader, I found the novel’s fast-moving plot and satire of the conceit and foible of Canadian politicians very entertaining, and I zipped through it quickly, a considerable portion during a short flight from Ottawa to Toronto. Bravo, Mr. Fallis. You certainly deserved the Leacock Medal.
Looking at it from the analytical perspective used and narratives discussed in Governing Fables, it could sit comfortably within the chapter on American political narratives. The political assistant as focalizing narrator is a well-known technique, used in Primary Colors and All the King’s Men. The rare honest politician who attempts to serve the national interest over party ideology, constituency interest or personal self-interest brings to mind both Senator Bulworth in Bulworth and, at his best, President Bartlet in The West Wing.
While The Best Laid Plans is a satire, it clearly fits the heroic fable I presented in Governing Fables. Addison returns to political life on much better terms than the ignominy with which he left at the outset of the novel. McLintock is elevated from a curmudgeonly professor awaiting retirement to a political figure of national significance. As I’ll discuss below, McLintock’s devotion to the national interest ends up benefiting his constituency, the nation is spared a misguided federal budget, and (from McLintock’s point of view and I assume Fallis’s) the novel ends with the hope of political renewal in the coming election.
What makes this novel gentle satire – indeed reminiscent of Leacock – is that it treats politics as a form of Liberal wish-fulfillment. Two examples suffice to make the point. McLintock opposes subsidies to an outdated shoe factory in his riding and pressures the Ontario Environment Ministry to shut down an American-owned aggregates plant that has been polluting the Ottawa River. Forcing both factories out of business will result in the loss of scarce manufacturing jobs. This excruciating political dilemma is, however, solved by a classic deus ex machina — a young engineering colleague at Ottawa U. with an idea for a high-tech business that will set up shop in Cumberland-Prescott and hire and retrain all the laid-off shoe and cement workers.
In the novel, the Conservative tax-cutting budget, while extremely popular with the voters, is unanimously opposed by economists throughout the country, including the C.D. Howe Institute, Conference Board, and Fraser Institute. We know from recent policy debates that in Canada, just as in the US, there is a strong constituency, with many economists as members, for smaller governments, and the use of tax cuts as a lever to achieve that goal, regardless of the macroeconomic context.
These plot choices make The Best Laid Plans a satire, rather than a confrontation with tough political reality, such as the movie The Candidate or many episodes of The West Wing. Nonetheless, the book was an enjoyable read and it has made an important contribution to developing a body of thoughtful Canadian political narratives.