Ron Norman, an ex-journalist who ended up becoming the head of communications for the B.C. government, has a broader view of government that most. He saw how policy was made, the in-fighting, and young people trying to do their best while under the microscope. According to Norman, it was never boring.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on,” said Norman. “They think they know, but even the reporters don’t really know.”
Norman’s debut novel, Slouching Towards Innocence, exists because of the insight he gained, but it is not based on himself. Norman started in government at 47, but his book’s protagonist is based on the kinds of young people politicians often hire as staffers. His main character, Malcolm Bidwell, is fresh out of university and starts work for government, where he is immersed in a dark, funny environment. There’s sex, there’s swearing and there are political scandals that Norman said reads like an updated version of the BBC satire Yes, Minister.
While he was in the civil service, Norman joked about writing a book. He was not interested in writing a non-fiction account or a tell-all, he said, but he wanted to capture the structure (the Legislature, the relationship between the press gallery and the government) and authenticity.
There were plenty of examples from his real life. He suggested a media event with a video game company to promote the province’s tech industry and suggested the premier play one of their games. It was shot down by his team, who asked him, “will he win?” When he said, “Well, probably not,” they nixed the idea because “the premier can’t lose.”
Norman expected government decisions to happen slowly, with much deliberation and planning, but many decisions were made because “a politician said, let’s make this happen, and boom, they want to make it happen fast.”
Norman himself was in government during the HST debacle, where economists praised the policy, but it was ultimately scrapped due to how it was brought in. He learned that not everything is done because it’s good policy or good politics. Instead, it was more of a mix.
“It might make perfect sense, but the timing might not be right,” said Norman. “There could be an upcoming election, or who knows what.”
Before his stint in government, Norman was a reporter for 20 years, and worked at the Castlegar News, Salmon Arm Observer, Rossland Summit and the Peninsula News Review (then called the Sidney Review). In that sense, he was unlike many of the political staffers, who were very young and had not done much besides politics. They were smart, he said, but they could sometimes make poor choices.
“What if you’re 25, and advising the premier of the province, and you make a mistake? And then it’s reported in all the media in all levels. The stakes are much greater.”
Ultimately, while the book is set in the halls of the Legislature, it isn’t just for hardcore politicos.
“You don’t have to like politics to like this book. It just happens to be in a political setting.”
Ron Norman will read alongside Keith Ogilvie at the SHOAL Centre on May 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at Tanner’s Books or at sidneyliteraryfestival.ca. Proceeds will support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.