I like the quixotic former Conservative member of Parliament Garth Turner, his quirky adherence to principle and his exuberant maverickism. I used to check out his blog fairly regularly, and I looked forward to reading his exposé of the Conservative caucus—the “sheeple” of the title of his new book. But I will admit that I expected more of Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa than it delivered.
Turner does not entirely disappoint. Digital democracy versus the iron heel is a great theme: the mildly eccentric man of principle, a journalist with a taste for blogging, versus the tightly wound, intensely ideological and media-hating Stephen Harper.
The book is not well constructed, however: there is far too much cutting forward and backward in time, in a contrived and at times confusing attempt to build suspense and maintain narrative tension. But the story line is actually rather simple. Turner, elected in 2006 with lukewarm support from his own party, made the big boys furious when he came to Ottawa, and within the year he was given the heave.
Harper and his advisors, we learn, control the Conservative caucus to the last detail and squelch dissent. Most have already drawn that conclusion, I think, but to hear it from an insider certainly reinforces it. The other strand of narrative is the notion of blogging as a kind of direct and open democracy—a new way of doing politics. For me, that is where the interest of the book really lies, although Turner raises more questions than he answers.
It must be said that there is something self-serving and disingenuous about the air of puzzled innocence that Turner affects as he recounts his political tale of woe. He is no neophyte. He was a Progressive Conservative MP under Brian Mulroney, ran for the PC leadership and was even minister of national revenue for a short spell under the ill-fated Kim Campbell. Given his experience, he would have been well aware that his enfant terrible antics would worry and anger his colleagues. Yet he feigns surprise that they caused quite predictable consequences. And his principles, which appear entirely genuine, fetched up against the shoals of a realpolitik with which we must assume he was intimately familiar. His story, in any case, very nearly tells itself.
To Turner’s considerable credit, he chose to stick to those principles. In opposition, his party had belittled and insulted Belinda Stronach for crossing the floor to the Liberals and taking up a Cabinet post. But immediately after the 2006 election, David Emerson, who had just been elected as a Liberal, did precisely the same, joining the Conservative Cabinet on February 6—even before the new Parliament had sat.
Turner was outraged, but the Conservative top guns, in effect, gave him pitying smiles. Snaffling the capable Emerson was a coup, and that was that. Then Turner told the media what he thought about it. And that initiated a downhill slide that would end a mere ten months later with his ouster from caucus. So badly had he offended the powers that be, in fact, that he was forbidden to run as a Conservative ever again.
As Turner tells it, an “MP’s job has evolved into representing a party to the people, not the people to Parliament.” Conservative MPs were expected to be docile, meekly accepting talking points from the Prime Minister’s Office and obediently parroting them. Caucus debate was unwelcome: people were shouted down when they attempted it. Guy Lauzon, now chair of the Conservative caucus, told him: “We have no room for an independent thinker on our team.” And: “We had an election, and we have a platform, and that’s what we think.”
That was not the way Turner thought, though—which might not have mattered so much had he not had an increasingly popular blog, to which he contributed a thousand independent words a day.
On it he insulted fellow caucus members, suggesting that they were being bought off with posts and perks. He called some of them “hats-and-horses colleagues.” Worse, he publicly questioned and even opposed the government’s electoral platform and policy, yet he pretends to be shocked by the consternation that this inevitably caused.
Things quickly began to escalate. An attempt was made to steal his nomination for the next election, with the help of the sinuous televangelist Charles McVety. It failed, which Turner attributes to his blog. Finally, charged with breaking caucus confidentiality, he was expelled.
From the point of view of any political party in power, no matter what the issues or the ideologies, Turner would come across as dangerously unpredictable, a classic loose cannon. He may or may not have broken caucus confidentiality—he sort of admits that he did on one occasion, but says he removed the offending words in his blog as soon as he was asked to [!]—but he certainly had a lot of powerful people on edge.
An odd mixture of narcissism, self-righteousness and boyishness pervades his account. He calls himself “an unusual renaissance man.” When he refers to himself as a “digital Trojan horse,” it is impossible to tell whether he is being ironic or simply boasting; it may be a bit of both. “My crime was information,” he says, “but my potential for mayhem was much worse. The virus of empowerment might spread.”
But what does he mean by “empowerment,” and who, exactly, is empowered? Turner revelled in the internet’s sheer anarchy: he was “obsessed, hooked, addicted, high on the narcotic of [digital] populism.” He goes on: “Leaders and parties fear the potential of the internet for the massive destabilization it could bring.” The digital world is like “an out-of-control town hall meeting.” Blogging is “as insanely dangerous as it is gloriously democratic.”
All great fun, of course, but government is serious business. How is control restored? How is a new stability maintained? How does anything get done in the future that he imagines?
In fact, there is far less to blogging than meets his overly enthusiastic eye, and the only federal politician destabilized by it so far has been Turner himself. The blog-reading demographic is hardly representative of the real-world electorate, which refused to return him to Ottawa as a Liberal in 2008. According to a Harris poll last year, most adults do not read political blogs. Those who do tend to be in their mid forties or older, and only a few of them leave comments.
Not that the new communications technology should be underestimated. In early April, in the tiny Eastern European republic of Moldova, thousands of demonstrators stormed the country’s parliament to protest a communist electoral victory, forcing a recount. “Six people,” explained organizer Natalia Morar. “Ten minutes for creativity and action. A few hours of information on networks, Facebook, blogs, SMS [texting] to friends, and an e-mail newsletter. All of the organization through the Internet. On the street came out 15,000 young people!”
But Turner exaggerates the importance of blogging to the point that he claims it is better than going door to door and actually meeting people face to face—which is what won him his election in the first place. Blogging is less intrusive, he says, but blogs are also bloodless, remote and easily ignored. And blog readers, as noted, are not the general public but an unrepresentative slice of it.
Blogging also creates the illusion of “public dialogue.” When a controversial public figure posts, lots of comments are guaranteed in response. But Turner’s out-of-control town hall meeting—in his case, between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors a month—is hardly a conversation.
To many people, I suspect, the political blogosphere resembles an auditorium full of lunatics talking to themselves and shouting at each other, as they pass hurriedly by. A new way of doing politics? A new tool, certainly, with much potential. But, as Turner unwittingly demonstrates, we should not let ourselves get carried away.