Scott Reid is a political analyst and principal at Feschuk.Reid and served as director of communications to prime minister Paul Martin.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford reminds us that contemporary politics is in crisis. Not a constitutional crisis as some might fret. But a crisis of character. A humility crisis.
It isn’t just that Mr. Ford made the snap decision to cut the number of Toronto city councillors in half mere weeks before the municipal election was to be held. Or that he intends to cavalierly override the courts by using the notwithstanding clause – for the first time in Ontario’s history – without bothering to first exhaust the option of appeal. It isn’t even that he casually threatens to use this constitutional club again, perhaps even frequently, if he decides that future court rulings are also not to his liking.
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It’s that he swaggers as he swings that big bat. It’s that he feels thoroughly justified in his actions and wholly untroubled by the convention-shattering means that he employs to get his way. In fact, he revels in the dashing of such customs. This is a man who launched his time in office by taking the rare step of legislating away the rights of others to sue the province. Small wonder that he’s quick to use the override clause that has been treated so warily by his predecessors.
“I was elected,” he declares, as though that frees him of any constraint, any restriction or any limitation as to how he exercises his authority. Mr. Ford’s credo is that if he can do it, then he will do it. And if you don’t like it, well that’s just too damned bad.
Flagrantly and persistently, Mr. Ford has displayed a complete absence of humility. And that’s a problem, because humility is a vital, even necessary, quality of strong and ethical leadership.
It is humility that keeps our leaders rooted and level-headed, even as the impressive trappings of power feed one’s sense of importance. It is humility that discourages those awarded the enormous authority of high office from abusing that authority, either deliberately or indeliberately. It is humility that reminds premiers and prime ministers and even presidents that their discretion is not – and cannot be – regarded as boundless.
Without humility, leaders are tempted easily into the arena of zealotry. And that’s no abstract threat. One need only look to history to find those who similarly believed themselves to be the instrument of the public’s will – as Mr. Ford frequently insists himself to be while defending his decisions as being uniquely “For The People.”
If history seems too great a stretch, then just look to our south.
Like Mr. Ford, U.S. President Donald Trump rebels against forces that challenge his impulsive desire to do whatever he wants. He rails at his own Attorney-General for enforcing the law and bringing criminal charges against Republican legislators. He fumes at the ongoing special counsel investigation into his campaign’s incredibly latticed relationship with Russia. And he, too, rages against courts that rule against executive orders issued without due regard for their constitutionality.
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The Trump presidency is a constant, tweeted in real-time advertisement for the perils of electing those who lack humility and self-awareness.
Of course, politics has long attracted personalities who crave power. That’s nothing new, and not all egomaniacs become tyrants or dictators. But the trend line now seems to hand the advantage to the least deserving.
The professionalism of politics has combined with big-data mining and consumer marketing techniques to extinguish nuance and reflection from our campaign vocabularies. Tag lines and memes reward the simple and the superlative with the language of “Best Ever” and “Great Again." Populism invites extremism and ridicules compromise, producing more and more candidates who lack empathy for any cause beyond their own success. Candidates who come to office with an insufficient appreciation for the responsibilities they inherit.
To all this we can add a very deliberate effort to undermine those institutions we rely upon to corral and contain such excesses, most notably an independent judiciary. When Mr. Ford adopts the talking points of the U.S. far-right in disputing the authority of “appointed” judges, he signals his hunger to operate even more unaccountably. The demonization of our courts is a particularly noxious import that seeks to transparently establish majoritarianism as the only test for the exercise of power. That’s a small step away from a very ugly place.
The temptation to dismiss such concerns as hyperbole is understandable. But the threat is real and the disregard for valued and important norms is growing greater all the time. This is most certainly a crisis, and it requires urgent correction.
What we need now is less bellicosity and self-certainty from those in elected office. We need leaders with the integrity and strength that flows from the incomparable virtue of humility. Leaders who recognize that those who wield power best are those who wield it with a measure of respect and a dose of restraint.