- A Dissenting Voice: Essays, Addresses, Reviews, Polemics, Diversions, 1959–2015 by Denis Smith
A Dissenting Voice draws on almost six decades of political writing from Denis Smith, from eighteen-page essays to two-page book reviews on an assortment of Canadian political topics. It even includes political fiction. Smith runs the gamut: federalism, Parliament, political parties, and the Prime Minister’s Office. However, the focus of the book is Canadian political institutions, Canadian–American relations, and Canadian foreign policy. Since Smith discusses a variety of topics over a number of years, this review will focus on two questions: (1) how well does political commentary age and (2) what contributions can political commentary make to academic work on Canadian politics? As this review will contend, Smith’s collection of work is what would be expected from a volume of writings; when the topic and angle is [End Page 312] compelling, the political commentary can open a window to the perspective of the time and breathe new life into debates surrounding historical events and political institutions.
The emergence of a 24/7 multimedia/social media universe and the ongoing survival stories of traditional newspapers has altered the landscape of punditry and opinion writing in Canadian politics. Opinions even a few days old can be incredibly dated. The days of waiting for the hot takes in the thick Saturday editions have long passed. In light of this, how does punditry that is decades old stand the test of time? Surprisingly, Smith’s commentary ages well; the works have a time capsule authenticity and a rhetorical urgency that historical work can lack. In two pieces on the first Gulf War (1991)–one published before and one after the war ended–Smith’s scepticism is fresh in a way that a historical approach may not capture. The players, the setting, and the consequences all seem timeless.
While Smith’s collection does not fit properly in any specific place in the Canadian political science or political history literature, there are individual pieces that stand the test of time concerning academic contributions. In the 1959 “Prairie Revolt, Federalism and the Party System,” Smith’s discussion of federal and provincial party systems in western Canada provides extended analysis of political culture and federal–provincial dynamics. Smith’s focus on the region’s failure to produce a national party is obviously challenged by the last thirty years of Canadian politics–from the creation of the Reform Party to ten years of Conservative government that had its power base in the West. Still, while much has changed since this essay was written, the lengthy and challenging history of western political parties speaks to the embedded regionalism in national politics. In the 1980 “Political Parties and the Survival of Canada,” Smith laments on the actions and positions the three national parties had taken in light of the constitutional crisis facing Canada and suggests that only two provincial parties–the Quebec Liberals and the Parti Québécois–were playing creative roles in the evolution of the constitutional debate. Again, similar to his thoughts on western Canada and the national question, his 1980 perspective on the collision of national political parties and regionalism fits into the research that would follow.
Finally, the contribution that is probably best known to academics outside of his political biographical and political history work is Smith’s 1969 “President and Parliament: The Transformation of Parliamentary Government in Canada.” While Canadian political scientists would not continue using the popular British “presidentialization” terminology to describe the changes to the centre of Westminster governments, Smith [End Page 313] was the first Canadian political scientist or historian to write critically and academically about the changes to offices of the prime minister and the Cabinet. Notable are Smith’s observations on the marginalization of the House of Commons and the personalization of the prime minister, two themes that only intensified leading into and past the turn of the twentieth century.
The audience for this collection may vary. The collection would work as...