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opinion

Pierre Poilievre speaks after being elected as the new leader of the Canada's Conservative Party, in Ottawa on Sept. 10.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

The time has come to call for the return of a disappearing breed: the serious political leader.

By that we mean an elected official of any stripe who tells voters that governing involves hard choices, that there are no simple answers to complex questions, and that an endlessly repeated hashtag isn’t a policy.

Someone who does not feed public cynicism about government by attacking its institutions, or exaggerating its failings for political advantage. Or who does not cause the same harm by breaking important promises, or by putting themselves in blatant conflicts of interest (or both).

Who doesn’t see party politics as a game whose only rule is winning, and who doesn’t promote a culture of partisan antagonism that makes it impossible for supporters to acknowledge any validity to the other side’s positions.

Who thinks trolling opponents on social media, trading in sarcasm and insults, and spreading disinformation are activities that are beneath the role they’ve taken on.

And who has the confidence to listen to expert advice, and the ability to rise above partisan politics to achieve important goals for the common good.

Around the world in too many democratic countries, this one included, politics has lately been dominated by too many unserious politicians – of both the populist and traditional variety.

The making of Pierre Poilievre, conservative proselytizer

Britain has just seen off Boris Johnson, a prime minister with a disastrous mix of high intelligence, short attention span, postmodern contempt for the truth and an allergy to the hard work of leading. Mr. Johnson’s cynical support for Brexit was only slightly less awful than his incompetence at negotiating a settlement with the European Union. And he was often not to be found during the pandemic – other than at drunken parties at 10 Downing Street that violated lockdown rules imposed by the occupant of that address. The weight of hypocrisy sank his premiership.

In the United States, the belligerent populism of Donald Trump led straight to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill, and an attempt to overturn the U.S. government. He never accepted that the presidency came with duties, instead seeing the position as an opportunity for enriching his family, feeding his bottomless ego and settling personal scores. He continues to insist that the 2020 election can’t have been legitimate, because he didn’t win it.

In Canada, the Conservative Party has just named a new leader, Pierre Poilievre, a lifetime politician who spent months selling party memberships by claiming that a nefarious group of shadowy global elites is conspiring against average Canadians. You know, the sort of ideas that used to be the exclusive preserve of Marxist-Leninists.

With inflation gripping the globe, no serious politician would suggest that firing Canada’s central banker, as Mr. Poilievre did, is the answer. Nor would they, unlike the Conservative leader, peddle dangerous financial advice, such as that you can “opt out of inflation” by opting out of the Canadian dollar and putting your savings into cryptocurrency.

But any anger and distrust Mr. Poilievre is exploiting is there for the taking thanks in part to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has governed for seven years and has not always been a loyal servant to the common good.

His government has done notable things, from renegotiating NAFTA, to bringing in a real plan to lower emissions, to making sure the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion gets built, to reaching a deal with provinces for low-cost daycare.

But he himself has repeatedly been caught in conflicts of interest – vacationing with the Aga Khan, WE Charity, the SNC-Lavalin affair – that a more self-aware politician would have avoided.

And he deliberately politicized COVID-19 vaccine mandates by waiting to call an election in 2021 before promising to impose them on federal employees, and on domestic plane and rail travel. A serious politician would have gone to great lengths to avoid turning vaccines into a wedge issue; Mr. Trudeau did the opposite.

It’s impossible to expect perfection from politicians. But it’s not too much to ask that they try to use their positions responsibly, and make competent governing their priority.

This country has problems that need the attention of responsible leaders; the health care crisis and inflation are just two on a long list. The last thing Canada needs is more politicians working to add their own names to that list.