When picking his first cabinet in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper arranged an odd series of background checks with an aide. Harper sat at one end of a table, the aide sat at the other end and asked all the embarrassing questions you’d expect of appointees being vetted for cabinet.
The arrangement meant candidates had to answer the aide while turning their back to the Prime Minister. With one exception all candidates faced the aide while saying, “Yes, Prime Minister”, “No, Prime Minister”, recounts Off And Running. Apparently no one felt ridiculous.
By anecdote and candid interviews, author David Zussman recounts one of the most profound and least-chronicled democratic rituals: the peaceful transition of governments. The experience is “limited to a small, relatively secret team of people who work in isolation and away from the public eye”, notes Zussman, a former Privy Council assistant secretary.
“No one in government is ready for the monster of government,” Zussman quotes a former aide; “One characteristic of a newly elected government is that it is rarely ready for the demands and decisions that are required during the post-election period.”
Few had a rockier start than Harper. He suffered a severe asthma attack on the day he gave his first speech as prime minister-designate, presumably due to stress; and after the weird cabinet vetting process included among the new ministers a rival MP just elected as a Liberal, and his campaign manager newly minted as a senator.
Off And Running explains how post-election transition works. Some of this is ponderous: are readers wiser for learning a former deputy minister developed a Hundred And Fifty Day Book to “help ministers survive the first months in government”? Nor are transitions inherently dramatic or meaningful. Canadians conduct themselves pretty well without bread riots or arson fires regardless of who is in government.
Yet Professor Zussman has a reporter’s eye for detail and a knack for snappy interviews. Readers are told for the first time that former Conservative staffer Derek Burney thinks the size of Harper’s 38-member cabinet is ridiculous: “I think it’s egregious. I think it’s obscene. It’s not even helpful”.
They learn Paul Martin picked his cabinet in part on the views of his wife: “Sheila had a very strong view about what was going to happen to certain people because of her relationship with their spouses. In the cases of some appointments, you could tell that a certain degree of cabinet-making had taken place in the bedroom”.
And we are told Mila Mulroney was a Mommy Dearest who petrified the staff. Longtime Conservative aide Geoff Norquay recalls meeting her for the first time in 1984 with the children in tow: “One of them made the mistake of saying, ‘Mommy, I’m bored.’ And there was this stream of Serbian that erupted, and ended in English. The last thing she said was, ‘In politics, you are never allowed to be bored!’ And she’s saying that to a six-year old, a four-year old, and a two-year old, very seriously. I vowed at that point never to cross Mila Mulroney! It scared the shit out of me!”
Whether awkward, or peevish, or strange, Off and Running reminds readers that government is still run by humans — and you know what they’re like.
By Holly Doan
Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada, by David Zussman; University of Toronto Press; 299 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-15274; $29.95