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Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with former prime minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa on April 20, 2006.JONATHAN HAYWARD

Brian Mulroney took in Bernard Valcourt after the promising young cabinet minister was caught driving his motorcycle drunk and involved in a horrific accident that cost him the sight in his right eye.

Rather than distancing himself from him and making him a pariah, the former Prime Minister put him up in the guesthouse at his official summer residence, Harrington Lake. He fed him; he supported him and, after an appropriate time, he brought him back into his cabinet.

Mr. Mulroney, as a political leader, showed compassion - something that is lacking among political leaders in Ottawa these days. Indeed, there is meanness in today's politics. Reputations are ruined on the flimsiest of evidence; loyal staffers are discarded and avoided.

And the thing is, Canadians support this tough-over-soft approach in our leaders; recent polling shows honesty and decisiveness trump compassion when Canadians are asked what they believe is the most important attribute in a leader.

"I really think it's part of the transformation of the zeitgeist.… I do honestly believe there are literally spirits of the time," said EKOS Research's Frank Graves, who polled on this issue. "And I believe the spirit of this time is a harder … is less compassionate in what we would have seen historically."

(It should be noted that Mr. Graves was embroiled in a controversy with the Conservatives, who said he was a Liberal and should not provide polling to the CBC. These allegations have been dismissed by the CBC; Mr. Graves continues to poll for them.)

Mr. Mulroney, meanwhile, didn't just stop with Mr. Valcourt. When his young sports minister, Jean Charest, resigned after he had telephoned a judge, which is forbidden for a cabinet minister, Mr. Mulroney called Mr. Charest's father, Red.

He told him his son would be resigning, there would be lots of media coverage but not to worry. Mr. Mulroney gave Mr. Charest his solemn promise his son would be back.

And he kept that vow by giving Mr. Charest some high-profile jobs. Last week at Red Charest's funeral, which Mr. Mulroney attended, that phone call was not forgotten.

Compare Mr. Mulroney's treatment of his two young cabinet ministers to how Stephen Harper has dealt with Helena Guergis.

It has been six weeks since the Simcoe-Grey MP was forced to resign from cabinet and expelled from caucus, and the allegations against her remain a mystery.

After all this, private investigator Derrick Snowdy, whose handiwork spurred Mr. Harper to act, told a Commons committee that he has no dirt on the former minister whatsoever.

This has prompted calls for fairness.

Liberal Party president Alfred Apps said on CTV's Question Period last week that Canadians need to get back to a "Parliament that's respectful of the rights of individuals. …"

And that goes for his leader, too. Michael Ignatieff is not seen as warm and cuddly.

Some eyebrows were raised in caucus after he distanced himself from his young MP, Ruby Dhalla, over the so-called "nanny-gate" affair in which a House committee investigated the hiring of two caregivers who had looked after Ms. Dhalla's mother. In the end, there was some smoke but no fire.

Liberal MPs were not impressed either with how swiftly and ruthlessly the leader dispatched his friend, former chief of staff Ian Davey, from Ottawa when things weren't running smoothly.

Mr. Graves believes this toughness among leaders reflects a hardening in society driven by an older and more cantankerous population still fearful from the Sept. 11 attacks and anxious about the economy.

"Fear is linked to this harder outlook ...," he said, noting it is not an emotion that leads to feelings of benevolence and generosity.

And so Canadians have in their leaders what they want. "Can you imagine people getting misty-eyed at a speech by either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff?" Mr. Graves asked.