Patrick Luciani is senior fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
Why do our national leaders seem so much less impressive than those in the past?
Whatever you might think of Canada’s past leaders, including Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin, Pierre Trudeau, Ed Broadbent, Stephen Harper, Lester Pearson or Tommy Douglas, all brought more than their ambition when they entered politics. Many left successful businesses, professorships or other occupations to run for office. Not so much with our current crop of political leaders.
I suppose Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Leader, is smart enough, having won the leadership of his party, but other than that not much stands out. He seems to have spent his adult life tied to the Conservative Party as an MP and then Speaker of the House all before the age of 38. The leaders in the other two parties don’t fare any better. Can anyone really say that Justin Trudeau would be Prime Minister if he wasn’t the son of Pierre Trudeau? Our Prime Minister seems out of his depth in a world inhabited by the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. And Mr. Scheer’s thread-bare policy speech in Halifax last week had not one original cause worth fighting for. As for the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, does he have any new ideas, or a clear vision of where he wants to take the country? Who knows?
One theory is that good people today shun high political office because they are scared off by the intense media attention. That’s the reality of living in a 24-hour news cycle and the age of social media. Others argue that talented people don’t want to spend time schmoozing, raising money and sitting around in opposition without any guarantee they’ll lead the country. Perhaps, but that’s always been a gamble, and better people have waited years for their chance.
There’s a third, less-defined reason: Could it be that we’ve reached the end of government? That there are no longer great causes that need the passions of great men or women? The big problems that have shaped our country have for the most part been solved. The founders of the country forged the east and west with roads and railways and kept us from being swallowed up by our southern neighbour, and also had the wisdom to keep our British-based legal and financial institutions that allowed Canada to flourish into one of the richest countries in the world.
Leaders who followed guided the country through wars, fought for national pensions, universal health care, employment insurance, equalization payments between the provinces and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guaranteed all from discrimination regardless of age, sex, religion or race. After a long and acrimonious political fight 30 years ago, we even have a trade agreement with United States that will, I believe, survive the assault from the current U.S. administration. Those are the building blocks of our current federation.
In short, the heavy lifting of government is pretty much over now that the three levels of government consume half of the nation’s income each year. And since there’s not much left to do, public office has lost its appeal. Status now comes with careers in private business, especially those in disruptive technologies that transform the economy.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems to resolve around issues of the environment, relative poverty, Indigenous land claims, crime or discrimination. But these are problems that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. On the environment, we can do our part but it means nothing without international co-operation. All sectors are crying out for more money but we’ve pretty much reached the limit of the taxing powers at all levels of government.
There are a few national issues that need attending such as our self-destructive interprovincial trade barriers, more and better infrastructure, and reforming our supply management programs that protect our dairy industry. But who wants to tackle those problems? Today we seem more eager to get high on marijuana than get cheaper milk to our kids. Our Prime Minister would rather have a statutory holiday to remind us of the harm of residential schools or march in another Pride parade. That’s not leadership, that’s pandering. We don’t need an Abraham Lincoln when mediocre leaders will do.
If we’ve reached the end of what governments can do, the challenge now is containing government growth. What we need are good managers to deliver more efficient government with the power to control unbridled spending. Will this new generation of political leaders give us that leadership? There’s no indication that they will.