Hoping for a young apprentice

Canada’s political system could use passion and charisma, not another boring old man

Omer Aziz, ArtSci ’12
Omer Aziz, ArtSci ’12

Omer Aziz, ArtSci ’12

In early 2009, federal NDP leader Jack Layton came to Queen’s to hold a town hall meeting.

I distinctly remember asking him quite pointedly what an NDP government would have done to prevent the economic crisis from coming to Canada and what it would have done to mitigate its effects if the first option failed.

My question received no answer; Ontario MPP Andrea Horwath, who was then recently elected leader of the Ontario NDP, stood up and gave several platitudes on responsibility that, frankly, should have insulted the audience’s intelligence.

Mr. Layton’s case is a singular example of something that most Canadians already know: our leaders are boring, uninspiring and driven more by accumulating political points and dominating the next poll than by a grand vision for this country.

Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe are four old men bickering over petty politics in a tone that should embarrass not just them but us, the Canadian people.

Why is it that here in Canada we haven’t had a leader who’s been able to inspire or embolden us as a nation?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that our political institutions favour politicians who are apprenticed and groomed from within the system, discouraging someone fresh and new from rising and delivering a vision for the country that looks beyond the next poll or election.

At the centre of this system is our Prime Minister. Having met the Prime Minister on a number of occasions, let me say that he is not a very welcoming person.

This, in and of itself, is not a fair criticism of Mr. Harper. His supporters—whose ranks I was once a part of—rightly point to his wonkish approach to policy, his Machiavellian approach to politics and his Nixonian approach to opposition.

However, even if we set aside the cold aura Mr. Harper exudes and examine his resumé, it reeks of boring, simple and tried approaches to governing.

Our current Prime Minister has spent his entire life in politics, first as a Reform MP from 1993 to 1997 and then as Canadian Alliance/Conservative Party MP from 2002 onwards. His brief break from politics between these years came as he took up the leadership of a conservative think tank named the National Citizens Coalition.

Do these credentials in any way make Mr. Harper unique or a break from the past? It seems that the office of Prime Minister of Canada is one long apprenticeship.

The same holds true for the other party leaders. The exception to the apprenticeship thesis is Mr. Ignatieff, who’s spent almost his entire adult life outside of the country he wants to run. In his case, politics is an internship.

Contrast Mr. Harper with some other leaders on the world stage right now and the uninspiring, unambitious nature of our Prime Minister is amplified.

President Obama was a community organizer working in the poorest neighbourhoods of Chicago, a civil rights lawyer, a professor at the University of Chicago as well as a Senator prior to becoming President.

Chancellor Merkel of Germany, a researcher of quantum chemistry by trade, was involved in the democracy movement following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and served in Helmet Kohl’s Government as Minister of Women and Youth.

President Sarkozy of France—who was born in Hungary and whose mother was of French Catholic and Greek Jewish origin—was abandoned at an early age by his father but still managed to become a successful lawyer and later an accomplished politician.

He is acknowledged even by his opponents to be a powerful orator and charismatic man. Imagine Mr. Harper’s opponents saying that of him!

President Lula of Brazil, upon whom Barack Obama conferred the title of “most popular politician on earth,” served as the head of certain unions and leftist organizations while Brazil was under military rule.

Manmohan Singh of India, the first Sikh Prime Minister of that great Republic, orchestrated the economic reforms of the country in the 1990s to put India on a path to superpower status. It’s hardly surprising that Newsweek Magazine called him “the leader other leaders love.”

So, why is it that our leaders pale in comparison to Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Lula and Singh, to only name a handful of democratically elected and internationally respected—even revered—leaders?

Notice the one example I did not name was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. That’s because Canada follows the example of the UK in apprenticing leaders from inside the system.

The influential international relations theorist and Columbia University Professor Kenneth Waltz persuasively argued that the reason why the United Kingdom has traditionally had older and more tried Prime Ministers was because the route to the premiership required becoming first an MP, pledging loyalty to Party and Prime Minister, becoming a cabinet minister with some political clout, and then if the leadership opened up, declaring a candidacy that relied on decades of experience and loyalty. In other words, one long apprenticeship.

Between 1867 and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, the United Kingdom had 22 Prime Ministers who served, on average, 28 years in government before becoming Prime Minister.

Unlike Canada, the UK has had the wisdom to change and allow those with shorter apprenticeships to become leaders.

Tony Blair and David Cameron were both young Prime Ministers with new ideas to invigorate and inspire the country.

In Canada, our last young apprentice was Pierre Trudeau, someone no Prime Minister since has been able to replicate in terms of vision and political stature.

Contrast this to the United States where no direct route to the Presidency exists.

The past hundred years have seen academics, lawyers, businessmen, generals, governors, congressmen and senators become President, some of them inspiring the country to believe in politics as a means to solving big problems.

Here in Canada, our trained Machiavellian politicians seem to care little about these big problems.

It’s the next poll that’s on their minds or the policy that will stir up the base enough to win the 35 per cent of the vote necessary to win government. It’s no surprise that many Canadians are fed up with our federal leaders’ inability to solve big problems.

Let’s just hope a young apprentice comes along soon.

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