Elected leadership is a fascinating concept, particularly in a representative democracy like Canada. By and large, definitions of leadership center on the relationship between leader and follower through which the former gets the latter to do something they would not otherwise do. In a very real sense the electorate gives up control over some aspects of life. That this is willingly done is a remarkable exercise in trust.
In appointing a leader by consent, society elevates someone to a position of authority to make decisions on behalf of the whole and agrees to follow within reason. In small groups, leader selection occurs through the observation of a potential leader's performance. With political parties it is done through an examination of the party platform. Which is why it is so troubling that the Liberal Party of Canada doesn’t seem to have one. They have a list of critiques that does not coalesce into a coherent paradigm. In order to win the trust and support of the electorate, a clear demonstration of what a resurgent Liberal government would do is required.
Recent Liberal leaders haven’t helped, tugging and pulling at the traditional Liberal tapestry. Stéphane Dion veered towards the greener path, while Michael Ignatieff never really had a chance to go anywhere, other than to point out he wasn’t Conservative or NDP. Interim leaders admittedly have limited powers of agenda setting, but it is becoming increasingly opaque what a Liberal government would enact.
Before a group appoints a leader, they need to see them in action. The TV series Lost is a good example as the surgeon Jack assumes control over the survivors. Similarly, the police officer Rick of The Walking Dead fame displays similar characteristics and a comparable arc in assuming leadership of the group.
In these examples, the two men become leaders on the basis of their abilities and the mutual consent of their peers. They displayed leadership before assuming the position. Which is why elections are so odd. There is no real way to determine if an individual standing for election will be a good leader, let alone better than the incumbent.
But in a democracy like Canada’s, the purpose isn’t to elect leaders, but representatives. However, any meaningful chance of election necessitates party membership. Thus politicians are less the people’s representatives than the party’s. Their purpose is to stand as a proxy for an ideology that, they hope, is close enough to the voter’s that their party will form the government and thus lead the nation.
Admittedly this simplistic position does a disservice to many fine politicians who truly seek to represent their ridings. But the purpose of this meander is to highlight that in getting elected, the most important thing is to represent a paradigm attractive to a large number of voters. In short, proselytizing an appealing ideology that forms the party platform. Policies expressed within the platform are the arguments as to why a party will be good leaders for the nation.
And with all due respect to Mr. Goodale, indeed a fine politician, individual policies about student tuition or affordable housing are not convincing. The Liberal Party website, which should have their paradigm plastered in vivid colour, is instead a list of critiques. Potential followers are unsure what the Liberals, as potential leaders, would do if that potentiality evaporated.
The environment is a good example of this. While the NDP and Conservatives tussle over carbon emissions, the Liberal website has a blog post about how the nasty Conservatives are shutting down ozone monitoring stations. Fine, admittedly that’s probably a bad thing, but what would the Liberals do instead?
Imagine you are part of a group stranded on a desert island. Conrad, one of your fellow survivors, decides that it is time to build a rescue fire. Conrad has made some reasonable decisions in the past, and everyone is inclined to go along with him. Except Libby, who thinks making a fire is stupid. The other survivors turn to listen, waiting to hear more, because they too aren’t so confident Conrad knows what he is talking about. But all they hear is that Libby thinks fires are dumb. So in the absence of anything better, everyone goes back to collecting driftwood.
Leaders emerge because they have ideas and carry them to fruition, winning support along the way. It is impossible to criticize your way to power.
Representative democracies rely on platforms to give aspiring leaders a vehicle to convince followers of their ideas. So if the Liberals are serious about coming back to lead, they better come back with plans for a better fire, maybe even a boat.
Griff James is a graduate student in public management at the London School of Economics.