BUSINESS WATCH

Kim: Be Mary Poppins and Machiavelli

Governing Canada in the 1990s is a balancing act—like juggling wet fish while standing on a slippery diving board

Peter C. Newman August 2 1993
BUSINESS WATCH

Kim: Be Mary Poppins and Machiavelli

Governing Canada in the 1990s is a balancing act—like juggling wet fish while standing on a slippery diving board

Peter C. Newman August 2 1993

Kim: Be Mary Poppins and Machiavelli

BUSINESS WATCH

Governing Canada in the 1990s is a balancing act—like juggling wet fish while standing on a slippery diving board

PETER C. NEWMAN

In these doldrums of summer, as Kim Campbell prepares herself and the country for the general election this fall, she should take a moment to reflect on the office she occupies, its terminal authority, awesome responsibility and quirky mandate.

Becoming a Canadian prime minister means more than being the country’s top politician. Because we don’t have a resident pope or monarch or even a president, prime ministers inevitably get pushed into becoming part-time keepers of the national conscience. The office thus turns into a cockpit not so much of unchallengeable influence but as a public testing ground of its holder’s character and intent.

No coalition of political forces can match a prime minister’s power, yet Campbell will quickly find herself shackled, like some latter-day Gulliver, by the tendrils of regional disparities, burgeoning social problems, economic agonies and the iron-lunged yodelling of special interest groups who won’t take “maybe” for an answer. Governing this country has always been a balancing act—like juggling wet fish while standing on a slippery diving board—but at no time has it been tougher to find any solid consensus. The long cycle of high expectations—stretching back to John Diefenbaker’s Northern Vision, Lester Pearson’s Co-Operative Federalism, Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society and Brian Mulroney’s promise of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”— has left a residue of such intense disillusionment that no prime minister can rule with much hope of success.

The trick then becomes to at least hold the party—and country—together long enough to carve out a mandate to govern. Whatever lofty illusions or grand intentions brought Kim Campbell to office—and we still don’t know what drives her except that she tends to change careers every 60 months or so— she will soon discover the secret of trying to operate any institution larger than a lemonade stand in the 1990s. Running any enter-

prise these days requires the leader to reincarnate herself or himself into a combination of Mary Poppins (making that fiscal medicine go down) and Machiavelli. A prime minister must chisel workable policies out of the bedrock of voter self-interest while rejecting temptations of absolutism or opportunism. That will require Campbell to blend her highly developed self-confidence with her yet-tobe-born sense of self-restraint—learning to suffer political abuse without inflicting it.

To keep from being strangled by Ottawa bureaucrats well versed in the dynamics of delay, Campbell will have to apply her intellectual agility to judge preferred advice with discrimination, and then to make decisions based on her own intuitions about how the country should be evolving. She must above all retain control over her caucus. If that loyalty—which she has yet to win—wavers, her internal authority and eventually her external clout will be fatally weakened. Any prime minister’s tenure depends more on controlling the party machine than on the post’s vague constitutional precedents. (The office dates back to the first half of the 18th century when the Hanoverian King George I succeeded Queen Anne to the British throne. Because he couldn’t speak English, King George appointed Sir Robert Walpole, the first lord of the treasury, to preside over cabinet deliberations, thus making him the first prime minister.)

Custom and precedent has since vastly multiplied a prime minister’s powers to include major appointments, speaking for the country as Canada’s chief diplomat, setting cabinet agendas, being the final arbiter on ministerial budgets and so on. But even if the office has ill-defined powers, American President Woodrow Wilson might (except for his gender bias) have been describing Canadian prime ministers when he said that the presidency is “so much greater than any man could honestly imagine himself to be, that the most he can do is look self-possessed enough to occupy it.” If she’s to succeed, Kim Campbell will have to stretch her mandate far beyond its daily operational demands. What this country needs is a worthy cause, the moral equivalent of building the CPR or inventing Medicare. In the few precious weeks she has left before dropping the election writ, Campbell has to come up with a sense of purpose more inspiring than balancing the budget or auditing the cost of the Mulroneys’ used furniture. That appeal to voters must be designed to set free Canadian society’s capacity for self-fulfilment.

Campbell should immediately jettison the Reagan/Thatcher-style conservatism of the past decade and replace it with something approaching genuine social and economic justice, true gender equality and expanded educational opportunities. She should promote the option of an independent military posture that stresses self-defence instead of Canada remaining the junior partner in obsolete American alliances.

The function of democratic leadership is to respect the past, grab the present and enlarge the future. A worthy prime minister—and it seems to me that Kim Campbell at least has the potential of becoming one—must welcome the challenges of society’s revolutionary changes and delight in promoting and harnessing them. She must demonstrate that she possesses what Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” She must be aggressive without being contentious, decisive without being arrogant, compassionate without sounding confused. She must respect ideas but not substitute them for action, fashion resonant political prose but not become intoxicated with her own. She must be pragmatic but spurn the arithmetic of expediency.

It all sounds too idealistic, and it probably is, but Canadians don’t expect any less from anyone audacious enough to pretend to be their leader these days. They’re demanding a different style of politics based not on public opinion polls—the cool droppings of hot computers—but on their collective desire for a higher quality of life.

Instead of participating in the lottery of history and reacting to events, Prime Minister Kim Campbell must lead out of her own sense of what’s right and necessary for this country in the troubled 1990s.