Ex-civil servant finds humour in the halls of government

When the former communications boss of the B.C. government told friends he was writing a book, many assumed it would be a tell-all exposé.

Not at all, replied author Ron Norman of Brentwood Bay, who in 2011 left his $200,000-a-year job as head of the Public Affairs Bureau.

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Slouching Towards Innocence (Now or Never Publishing) is fiction. Although any similarities to real-life events are not entirely coincidental.

The 317-page novel, slated to be released today, is about a bright young man who zips with alarming alacrity up the ranks of the civil service. Despite being just 26 years old, Malcolm Bidwell soon finds himself press secretary to the premier of British Columbia. In a Catch-22-like twist, it turns out Bidwell was initially promoted by accident — the job was supposed to go to someone called Malcolm Turnbull.

Slouching Towards Innocence might be fiction, but the novel — hard-hitting political satire in the tradition of House of Cards and Veep — will have a familiar ring to anyone who follows B.C. politics.

For instance, does anyone remember this page from real life: The provincial government’s disastrous plan in 2010 to evict veterans from a Royal Canadian Legion in James Bay?

The vets had a 76-year-old deal allowing them to operate their legion rent-free at a provincially owned building near the legislature. The old soldiers complained when the government tried to renege on the deal, telling them they’d now need to cough up $26,000 annually in rent.

This resulted in a major embarrassment for the government, with citizens’ services minister Ben Stewart hastily recanting previous statements defending the rent scheme.

In Slouching Towards Innocence, a minister called Watling encounters an eerily similar imbroglio. He attempts to get vets at an Army Navy Air Force Club to pay rent on their government-overseen digs or be evicted. In one comic scene, young Bidwell muses over the PR disaster that’s just exploded in Watling’s face.

“‘The NDP have posted a release showing one of the veterans on the sidewalk outside the ANAF in a wheelchair,’ said Malcolm, looking up from his smartphone. ‘He looks pretty old.’”

Behind the scenes, Watling’s lackeys fret and curse over their boss’s stupidity. Naturally, the media have a field day with the story, and the decision is immediately reversed. The incident is so notorious, this sort of political disaster becomes known as “pulling a Watling.”

As head of the B.C. government’s Public Affairs Bureau, Norman provided communications counsel to the premier, cabinet and deputy ministers. He oversaw a staff of 200.

This gave him an opportunity to witness first-hand the inner workings of government — a real insider’s view for which any political journalist would kill. And this first-hand knowledge is what gives Slouching Towards Innocence a tang of authenticity.

Although Slouching Towards Innocence is his debut novel, Norman is a longtime fiction writer. The idea for the book came to him after he noticed how quickly promotions came to some in the civil service.

“It was one of the things that struck me, how fast you could move up. And I wondered if that could happen to someone who was younger,” said Norman, who was in his late 40s when he first joined the ranks of bureaucracy.

His government career began in 2001, when he went to work for the chief forester as a communications officer. By 2008, he had become head of public affairs, a post he held for three years. When the Christy Clark government took power, he was offered a more junior position. Norman declined, instead opting for a severance payout.

Before that, Norman was a small-town journalist, working as editor of the Castlegar News and reporting for the Salmon Arm Observer, the Rossland Summit and the Sidney Review. He was also a regular contributor to CBC Radio in Kelowna.

Norman had a small taste of politics before working in Victoria, serving as an elected school trustee in Castlegar for two terms. But he admits he was still a “little naïve” when he landed his initial government communications job.

“In government, it’s unlike any other business because it’s so partisan and so adversarial. That’s what hit me when I first went to government. Wow, I didn’t know it was so partisan. I thought I knew politics — I’d interviewed all sorts of people,” Norman said.

 

Like many works of satire, Slouching Towards Innocence (the title references Yeats’ “slouches to Bethlehem” line in his poem The Second Coming) is at its heart an examination of morality. As one might expect in a book about politics, the reader encounters numerous examples of characters — when presented with a moral choice — behaving badly.

The novel’s opening scene has premier-elect Steven Davis of the fictitious United Party giving a rousing speech emphasizing the need to focus on families. Davis then thanks his own wife for being “my rock.” Of course, minutes earlier, the new premier had enjoyed vigorous sexual congress in a storage room with a young female supporter.

Later in the novel, a minister is arrested when the male prostitutes he was attempting to enlist turn out to be cops in a sting operation. As Bidwell frets about how to present the story to the media, he notes the problem is not so much the politician’s sexual orientation, but rather, the fact he lied to friends, family and voters about it.

Here, from Slouching Towards Innocence, is Bidwell’s thought process, which provides insight into how communications staff might try to spin a controversial story.

“A newser in the controlled environment of a downtown Vancouver hotel would be best, the media corralled and contained behind a roped-off area well back from the minister. He should be standing with his wife beside him — but only if she’s willing. The kids, too, if they’re old enough. Maybe not the kids — too unpredictable. Definitely not the airport, where everything is moving: the plans, the people, even the luggage. Moving might be OK for radio and print, but not for TV. Bad visual. Bad. Bad. Bad.”

Norman encountered his own share of moral challenges as head of communications. A politician once became upset over too many leaks in his ministry.

“The minister told me, stop those darn leaks. A bit like what’s going on in the States now.”

The minister suggested bringing in a detective to administer lie-detector tests. Norman refused to take part. The tests still happened; however, Norman’s staff were exempted.

“Not only is it morally wrong, but it’s not wise employee strategy. You’re got problems with leaks and you want to give lie-detector tests? How soon do you think it’s going to take before that’s going to be out there?”

The scenario is echoed in Slouching Towards Innocence. After government documents are leaked, Bidwell is pressured into taking a lie-detector test. The results are dramatic.

Norman enjoyed his years in communications. He loved working with politicians, colleagues and the public. It was fun and at times, exhilarating.

Yes, aspects of the job could get you down. Politicians jockey for position; there’s too much emphasis on image and power. Despite it all, says Norman, a lot of good work on programs and services gets accomplished.

“I didn’t get the impression that it’s a swamp that needs to be drained. I think there is some of that stuff going on there. But I also think there’s lots of good stuff,” he said.

 

Ron Norman will present Slouching Towards Innocence at Bolen Books at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6.

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