THE SEARCH FOR LEADERS
CANADIANS ARE PUTTING PRESSURE ON POLITICIANS TO EARN RESPECT FROM THE VOTERS
Wanted: Charismatic men and women to provide leadership to a large national enterprise in an extremely troubled and complex environment. Must have a sincere and well-articulated vision of the enterprise’s future, acceptable to the majority of shareholders. Strong communications skills are vital, including the ability to respond sensitively to conflicting demands despite diminished resources and large debt load. Successful candidates will be morally beyond reproach, tough-minded but flexible. They will require a sound grasp of public relations, economic, social and legal matters. Must be candid, open-minded and at ease with persons from all cultures. Ability to accept criticism essential. Weekend and night work necessary. Those with previous experience need not apply.
The advertisement for fresh new leaders to rescue Canada from a host of encircling problems is, of course, fanciful. What is not is the disillusionment of Canadians with their current crop of political leaders. From evidence as scientific as public opinion polls and as anecdotal as neighborhood conversations, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that most Canadian voters view their elected officials at best as ineffectual and insensitive, at worst as dishonest and corrupt. In their place, it is equally clear that many Canadians are looking for a new generation of leaders capable of restoring their faith in a widely discredited political system.
What Canadians seek may be unrealistic. “On the one hand says veteran Conservative political strategist Hugh Segal, “the public looks for a leader who will seek consensus and reflect commonly held values. Yet, on the other hand, the leader must dare to take initiatives and make tough decisions.” But there is no question that the public’s repudiation of the existing standards of political performance is both sincere and widespread. “People have lost all confidence in the political process,” asserts Donald Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. “It has become a game of non-issues and charisma and leaders who refuse to take a stand.”
Such disillusionment is not confined to Canada, nor to this era. Political scientist David Elkins, an expert on U.S. and Australian politics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, observes that hostility towards politicians “is now a very common thing worldwide.” Others argue that there is little unprecedented about the present situation in Canada. Richard Johnston, also a UBC political scientist, and a specialist in leadership questions, says that now, as in Canada’s past, “a combination of economic distress and cultural tensions is a recipe for populist reaction.” Ten years ago, he notes, people were saying: “ ‘Just subtract Pierre Trudeau from this mess and we’ll be out of it.’ ” Indeed, many other men and women who are now often regarded as leadership paragons—among them, John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier in Canada, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and, most recently, Margaret Thatcher—were widely unpopular at times during their years in office.
Even now, there are exceptions to the decrepit state of most political reputations. Many individual representatives retain the strong loyalty of local electorates—often earning that
loyalty with tireless dedication to public service. On a wider plane, from his base in Calgary, Reform party Leader Preston Manning has won growing support while displaying a personal style that clearly sets him apart from other politicians (page 20). And in Quebec, where public cynicism towards politicians is generally lower than in the rest of the country, a majority of voters express strong approval for federal MP and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard (page 19). The one element that such leaders have in common, of course, is that they do not hold the reins of power. Many other politicians, of every stripe, are struggling to respond to the public's demand for change with an array of reforms—actual or proposed. Government leaders in most legislatures have introduced written guidelines for their members’ conduct. In Ottawa, as well as several provinces, politicians have demonstrated a new eagerness for public involvement in resolving issues that range from the Constitution to the environment. And in the back rooms of every party, strategists are searching for the elusive elements of political visions potent enough to dispel the sullen skepticism that has settled over the electorate (page 18).
That task may be hardest at the pinnacle of power. Keith Spicer, chairman of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, for one, observed late last month that he had found “fury in the land” against Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Last week, Gallup Canada Inc. published poll results that seemed to confirm that judgment. Sixty-eight per cent of those polled nationally—a majority in every region, and as many as 80 per cent in Ontario—answered “yes” to a question asking whether Mulroney should step down as leader of his party. By comparison, 38 per cent of the respondents to that question said the same of Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, and 14 per cent said that New Democratic Party Leader Audrey McLaughlin should step down.
The negative impression goes well beyond party leaders. Toronto Liberal MP Dennis Mills, for one, recounted how Grade 8 classmates of his daughter, Jennifer, booed when she told them what her father did for a living.
Recalled Mills: “She said, ‘Dad, it was the most humiliating experience I ever had, telling my friends that you’re a member of Parliament. I don’t think I’m going to tell anyone again.’ ” Manitoba Conservative Senator Nathan Nurgitz, appointed in
1979, already avoids admitting his occupation to fellow passengers on the flights he regularly takes between Winnipeg and Ottawa. “Sometimes, when my seatmate asks me what I do,” he acknowledges, “I tell them that I am just going to Ottawa to see a friend.”
Some politicians blame at least part of their present unpopularity on factors beyond their control. Veteran Tory MP Donald Blenkam, for one, cites organized attacks against politicians by such special-interest groups as the Torontobased National Citizens’ Coalition, whose national advertising campaigns have criticized the pensions and other perquisites received by elected men and women. As well, Blenkam says, television newscasts often confine their coverage of Parliament to clips from the daily Commons Question Period, which he likens to “a sort of chicken dance” that “sometimes
creates a bad impression of the system.” Quebecers appear to be almost alone among Canadians in retaining a measure of respect for their politicians. Despite a string of scandals surrounding federal politicians from the province—including such high-profile figures as former public works minister Roch La Salle— analysts note that Quebecers express far greater confidence in their leaders than residents of other provinces do. Explanations for the difference vary. Observes Montreal City Councillor Nick Auf Der Maur: “There is an ingrained respect for figures of authority in francophone Quebec.” Commented Marcel Léger, president of the Montreal polling company of Léger and Léger: “Powerful personalities, especially if they are colorful like René Lévesque or Jean Drapeau, are given much leeway in the way they conduct their affairs.” But in the rest of the country, politicians who seek to win power—or to keep it—will clearly have to satisfy the public of a new measure of competence in at least four critical areas:
Maintaining personal standards:
Canadians expect standards, and they aren’t being met.
—Lynda Erickson, political scientist, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.
The turning point in the public’s perception of acceptable political standards may have come in 1974, the year that U.S. President Richard Nixon was forced out of the White House by the Watergate scandal. Reaction to that event swept into Canada, contributing to the introduction of such measures as governmental conflict-of-interest guidelines and elections legislation requiring disclosure of contributions and limits on spending. But the lessons still have not been uniformly absorbed by Canadian politicians. After reporters in British Columbia first disclosed last year that then-Premier William Vander Zalm had played a more direct role in the sale of his family business than he had publicly disclosed, the flamboyant politician offered a succession of explanations for the discrepancy before reluctantly resigning on April 2. He continues to insist that his actions were not improper. But Paul Tennant, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, views the matter differently. “Here was a man whose following was based on charisma,” says Tennant. “It was uncritical and trusting. But when that sort of person falls from grace, it is like a member of your own family who has done something that you cannot accept. It is treachery.”
STRATEGISTS SEEK THE ELUSIVE ELEMENTS OF POLITICAL VISION
But the standards that Canadians increasingly demand of their politicians extend beyond such clear-cut cases as that of Vander Zalm. They have become intolerant of far less serious personal peccadillos. Soon after he took office, Mulroney encountered criticism for possessing too many high-priced Gucci shoes, and similar barbs were directed at his wife, Mila, for her expensive tastes in clothing. More recently, feminists attacked Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae’s young government, accusing then-Consumer Affairs Minister Peter Kormos of committing an impropriety by posing fully clothed as a newspaper pin-up model—the day after he announced that he would introduce guidelines to eliminate sexism in beer ads—even though he had broken no law and breached no written guideline. Rae fired Kormos.
The lesson, according to one of the politicians campaigning for Vander Zalm’s old job, is plain. Said Grace McCarthy, one of five candidates running to succeed the ousted premier at the Social Credit leadership convention this week: “People want integrity in the handling of their affairs. They can forgive little errors, but expect clean and honest delivery of services they are paying for.”
Listening to the public:
The lifeblood of democracy is the people’s participation in it. If people do not participate, the whole process is in jeopardy.
—Nova Scotia NDP Leader Alexa McDonough
It may be the strongest complaint to emerge from all of the recent public and private explorations of the country’s political future: the widespread conviction that elected politicians do not adequately reflect the wishes of their constituents. Many voters expressed that view vehemently in interviews with Maclean ’s. Michael Vass, a Calgary-based commercial real estate agent, put it pungently: “Politicians are
all contemptible. They do nothing of what people want them to do.” And, said Eileen Spencer, an elementary schoolteacher in Langley, 55 km east of Vancouver: “Politicians, especially at the federal level, have gradually adopted a superiority complex. They truly believe they know everything better than the populace.” In Halifax, Dalhousie University political science professor Andrew Heard noted that sustained public protests over such policies as free trade with the United States and the Goods and Services Tax “did not appear to make a difference,” and concluded:
“There is an increasing consensus that Canadian politicians are not representing the public’s interests.”
But reflecting the popular will in politics has also become more difficult, as the public fragments into an expanding universe of specialinterest groups—many of whose objectives are at odds with one another. Among those groups: a native Canadian community impatient to settle long-standing claims, women’s organizations, ethnic minorities and vocal advocates of such disparate interests as fetal and animal rights, people with AIDS and the rights of the disabled. The result is what University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin describes as “a participatory revolution.” Still, declared Bashevkin: “Politicians must express a willingness to look at interest groups as a legitimate part of the political landscape.”
Levelling with the voters:
Politicians are still pretending they’re perfect. But voters know they’re not, so the politicians look like liars. —Allan Gregg, Toronto pollster
According to the House of Commons rules of order, it is forbidden for one member to accuse another of lying. That has not prevented many Canadians from doubting the strict truthfulness of their politicians. Bruce Knapp, a retired salesman who lives in Peterborough, Ont., is among the
doubters. Knapp, who helped to establish the Reform party in Ontario but has since left it, states a commonly heard refrain when he says that politicians “promise the earth during the election campaign and then, once they are elected, do whatever they want.” Adds Knapp, who now describes the Reform party as no more democratic than any other: “I think the whole political process stinks. It nauseates me.” The perception that too much honesty can be politically damaging, however, is deeply ingrained among many practising politicians—
with strong reason. Mulroney, for one, felt the full consequences of a moment of candor during the final critical days of consideration of the proposed Meech Lake constitutional accord last year. In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Mulroney said that he had consciously chosen to “roll the dice” in waiting until the last minute to gather the premiers in Ottawa to discuss the issue. That suggestion of manipulative politics drew scathing attacks that may have contributed to the accord’s collapse less than two weeks later. Other factors are at work, among them a wish by politicians to appear firm in their views. Said one federal MP of the major party leaders, including his own: “If they admitted that they were wrong about one thing, then they would feel that they were vulnerable on other issues.”
But one factor outweighs all others in the erosion of politicians’ credibility, according to many analysts: the impact of television. Decima’s Gregg, for one, traces the medium’s growing effect to the late 1960s, when television brought images of the Vietnam War into voters’ living rooms, often conveying information that directly challenged the version of events that political leaders were presenting at the same time. Then, says Toronto political scientist Bashevkin, the televising of the House of Commons since late 1977, “demystified what had been an arcane process.” At the same time, she said, closer coverage of politics by all media has made it more difficult for politicians to say one thing to one audience and another somewhere else.
As a result, some political handlers are now trying to convince their charges that, despite its pitfalls, strict honesty is indeed the best political policy for the 1990s. Segal, for one, says that he will carry that advice to Mulroney when he joins the Prime Minister’s staff as a political strategist next month. The Torontobased communications consultant, who once worked as an aide to federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield and later for Ontario premier William Davis, argues that the most effective politician in the decade ahead will be the one who is capable of admitting mistakes. “No one has ever penalized someone for having the courage to say simply that they were wrong,” observed Segal. Other strategists echoed Segal’s philosophy, but questioned whether it will
influence Mulroney, a politician who has seldom publicly acknowledged any errors.
Offering a vision:
We need a person who has a vision of Canada—a set of principles which they are willing to follow regardless of the consequences.
—Gerald McConnell, businessman and Liberal strategist, Halifax, N.S.
The most difficult challenge facing political contenders in the 1990s may well be their capacity to articulate a clear—and inspiring— direction for the country’s future. One recent reflection of the popular eagerness for strong leadership was the outpouring of support in English-speaking Canada for Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake constitutional debate. The Liberal Newfoundland premier “had a vision of a united, cohesive Canada,” noted UBC geography
professor Walter Hardwick, who specializes in economics and politics. “A lot of anglophones thought, ‘He’s just like me,’ so his ratings went up substantially,” said Hardwick. “I’m not saying that he was right, but he took a stand.” Other observers point to the lingering political potency of former prime minister Trudeau, whom many Canadians respected for his determined vision of the country even when they bitterly disliked the man himself or disagreed with his policies. Indeed, an April Gallup poll indicated that if Trudeau, now 71, returned to lead the Liberals, the party would sweep to a majority victory in an election. Said political scientist Desserud: “Most politicians today do not have a vision.” And he attributes the success of the few politicians whose public standing is on the rise to their ability to articulate a clear sense of direction. Said Desserud: “With Manning and Bouchard, it is clear what their vision is.” Taken together, the new expectations placed upon Canadian politicians represent a formidable obstacle course on the road to power. Candidates for public office will be asked to demonstrate high moral standing, unflinching candor and supple responsiveness to an often contradictory public will—all the while maintaining a clearly charted course of their own. The demands may well exceed most ordinary mortals’ capacity. Among the few certainties, however, are that some hardy individuals will take up the challenge—while many of those already in politics who fail to adapt to the new expectations will quickly find themselves in another line of work.
GREG W. TAYLOR with bureau reports