Friday, October 17, 2008

Toxic Leadership

There has been a lot of commentary, during and since the Canadian election, about the pressing need for “leadership.” Canadian political commentary, it often seems, is about nothing but leadership. The Conservatives spent eighteen months portraying Stéphane Dion as “not a leader,” and now it seems we have all agreed they were right. At the same time, most observers tag Stephen Harper as cold, clever, and calculating but lacking in the "leadership" personality that might have secured a majority.

What is this leadership thing? Is this what passes for democracy now? Too often, it seems we are criticizing our political leaders for failing to meet a standard set by Benito Mussolini. But our party leaders wield vast and unaccountable powers. Instead of demanding they wield them more effectively, we should be seeking ways to rein them in. What would make them more effective as leaders, in fact, is not more power, but more restraints, more obligatory teamwork, more accountability.

Consider Mr Harper. He's generally seen as a one-man government, controlling of his cabinet and his backbenchers, focussed on his own authority all the time. This is hardly weak leadership. And consider the consequences. Anyone who knew Quebec knew that anti-arts policies and jail-for-teens would reignite Quebec's suspicion that Harper’s team was just the old Reform gang, insensitive to Quebec. But Mr. Harper’s small circles assumed if the slogans worked in Calgary South, they would work anywhere. They did not have to listen to anyone who could tell him different. He’s a leader, after all. Leadership over teamwork shredded his prospects for a majority.

Consider M. Dion. He’s dismissed as an inadequate leader, but he’s also being described today as a “lone wolf” who did not trust or respect his caucus colleagues and could not accept their input. When he focussed on the Green Shift, no one could tell him it was bad strategy. He’s a “leader,” after all. Dismissing everyone else’s contributions is what he is supposed to do. The unaccountable authority he held as leader damaged the Liberal Party as surely as Mr Harper’s damaged the Conservative Party.

This is not about personalities. This is the essential problem of Canadian politics. Surely it is evident that Canada is too big for one-man rule, no matter who the one man is or how well he plays the il Duce role. No party leader can calibrate all the issues and interests that must be calibrated into Canadian public policy. Successful parties need to be big tents with lots of strong personalities who can advocate the variety of wants and needs that the party must accommodate. One-man shows with the “strong” “leaders” we keep begging for are always bad for the country and bad for the parties too.

Which brings me to … proportional representation, the other thing being widely called for in the election's wake. Now I share the sense of failure and disillusion that attends this inconclusive, frustrating election. But PR seems driven by the idea that our only problem lies in the fact that some parties’ seat representation is not precisely correlated with their share of the popular vote.

But what would proportional representation entail, beyond some vision of mathematical precision? Party-list PR means, in essence, that citizens will delegate their vote to one or other of the parties, and the parties will then be entitled to appoint their hacks and flunkies to fill out the numerical formulas in the House of Commons.

PR will be great for Elizabeth May. There may still not be a single community in the country inclined to be represented by anyone associated with the Green Party, but she will have a Commons seat forever, and you know she will be a strong “leader,” particularly when she gets to appoint who sits behind her. It will be great for, say, Garth Turner, defeated in his own constituency the other night, but precisely the kind of egomaniacal self-promoter who could scrounge up enough sympathy across a national electorate to appoint himself and a few acolytes to the Commons. The André Arthur party would no doubt thrive in Quebec.

And PR would be just a good for the Harpers and Dions and Laytons of the future. IN a party list system, every party would be authorized to appoint claque of yea-sayers whose loyalty would be to the party that appointed them, not the voters. PR, in effect, seems destined to institutionalize precisely the problem we most suffer from today: party leaders who would be at once powerful and ineffectual, burdened with impossible responsibilities and immune to correction.

Is there an alternative? I suggest we would do better going in the opposite direction. Not giving leaders even more power over their caucuses, but encouraging caucuses to wield more power over their leaders. Imagine if the Quebec Conservative caucus had used its authority to tell Mr Harper his policies were terrible for Quebec, and that if he persisted, they would start thinking about a leadership change. Mr Harper's one-man show would have been dented, but the Conservatives would likely have done better in the recent election. Imagine if dominant figures in the Liberal caucus had gone en bloc to M. Dion and told him that if he persisted in his self-destructive course, they would have to replace him with someone more attuned to the party and the public mood. Either way, the Liberals would probably have done better, not worse. Accountability in a party leader is a good thing, not a character weakness. It is how a parliamentary democracy should work.

What we suffer from in this country is not weak leadership but toxic leadership. We make such a fetish of leadership that even the weak leaders are toxic. Tinkering with the electoral system is more likely to make that situation worse than improve it. We need to make our leaders accountable, and the people they need to be accountable to are their fellow caucus members.

Gonna happen? Nah…. But we need to be saying it.

Update, Oct 24: Heard a questioner ask Andrew Coyne about leadership at this the other night, and was pleased to hear him dismiss that notion that all that holds Canada together is heroic acts of statesmanship by supermen. What we need is citizenship and ideas, was his take. Today Rick Salutin is also sceptical about "leadership." I'm not sure either is entirely agreeing with me, but it's good to see not everyone is in thrall to the man on horseback syndrome
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