#onpoli newsletter - Essential books on politics

Podcast co-host John Michael McGrath shares his favourites
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 07, 2019
True fact: Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath like to read.



Hello, #onpoli people,

It's John Michael McGrath in your inbox this week. It’s hard to believe we’re already prepping for Season 3 of our #onpoli podcast! The first season was a wild ride, with the production team just trying to keep up with events as the 2018 Ontario election unfolded. The second season, which wrapped up in June, focused on in-depth interviews with rookie and seasoned MPPs, as well as breaking down some of the processes and policies that make Queen’s Park tick.

Going into that second season, I had two big questions about the future.

First: is there room for more? #onpoli isn’t the only podcast about Ontario provincial politics out there, and in this business there’s never a guarantee that people will tune in just because you do the work of making something. But, as Steve Paikin wrote last week, people are tuning in and asking for more. And, like Steve, I’ve had people approach me in unexpected places to tell me they’re listening. (Shout out to the fellow dad at my kid’s daycare!)

The second question: will the work pay off? Last season my job was to put together “explainer” episodes, where we tried to explain some of the basics of Ontario politics and policy for people who are tuning into provincial politics for the first time (maybe thanks to the 2018 election and Premier Doug Ford?) and don’t have years of experience. Sure, an episode like “How a Bill Becomes Law” is more labour-intensive to produce, but our numbers show the work has paid off: these explainers have been some of our most popular episodes.

That we managed to be either good or lucky on both counts was a relief. To quote The A-Team, I do so love it when a plan comes together. 

Looking forward to the federal election, I’m going to apply what we’ve learned from Season 2 in the fall. It seems there’s an appetite out there for important policy debates to be explained in accessible language so yes, we’ll be doing an episode about the federal carbon tax and the fight that Ontario and other provinces have put up against it. We’ll also be diving into other issues, like immigration and political advertising.

But the election hasn’t been called yet, it’s still early August, and I’m not in your inbox to ruin the waning weeks of summer. Before the kids have to go back to school, try to take some time for yourself. I’ll be reading when I can: I’m looking forward to reading John Ivison’s new book, Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister.

Often, though, I find my writing about provincial and local politics draws as much on history books as it does on books about Ottawa circa 2015. (Once upon a time I compared the Ontario budget to the reign of Pharaoh Thumose III, so it can definitely be over-done.) Here’s a handful of reads that I recommend for understanding politics in general, or at least to explain why that McGrath fella thinks the way he does: 

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

Before Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party of Canada back to government in 2015, you would see this book’s title appropriated a lot to explain Canadian politics, but it was clear such people hadn’t actually read the text. That’s a shame, because Dangerfield’s book is still a relevant explanation of the numerous crises that were afflicting British politics before World War I. The collapse of the British Liberal party may not be a good metaphor for events in Canada a century later, but it’s still a pretty wild story. 

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles

While this book is technically about a late 1800s argument over whether to allow Toronto’s streetcars to operate on Sundays, it’s actually a bigger story about so much more, including religious and class divides in early Toronto politics. You’ll often hear people cite Fiorello La Guardia’s maxim “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” which is supposed to mean that people care less about partisan politics at the local level. In fact, local decisions are just as political as any other, and the arguments they bring are often no less vicious. And the ending (which, spoiler alert, explains the title) is worth reading all the way through for. 

The Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson

Okay, this is on the list just because it’s the last book I read during my vacation last month. I wanted a book about something as unrelated to current events as I could get. I realized I didn’t know enough about the Vikings so I picked this up off a discount table at a local bookstore. If I’m honest, I didn’t love it, but it did teach me enough to realize I want to learn some more. 

What books do you want to squeeze into your summer reading list before Labour Day? Write to us at onpolitics@tvo.org. We’d also love to know about you’d like to hear about the federal election on the #onpoli podcast this fall.

John Michael McGrath
#onpoli podcast co-host 

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