A federal election is imminent or in prospect. With two parties—the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP—mired in a state of permanent opposition, we are left to ponder a choice between Paul Martin and Stephen Harper as our next national leader. Unfortunately, if we defer to the Apache definition of a leader as “the one who convinces us,” we will be choosing between two non-leaders.
Leadership is like pornography—we know it when we see it, but can’t explain why. The question is often posed: Are leaders born or made by circumstances? The late pope seems to have been marked from earliest youth with an aura of destiny-in-waiting. By contrast, George W. Bush exhibited no clues in early manhood of his readiness for command (indeed the opposite), but rose to the occasion on 9/11, remaining firmly at the helm from then on.
There is a third (vestigial) category, very popular in Canada: leaders who are neither born nor made, but rather groomed for the job. Many Canadian bank presidents of retirement age, for instance, began as tellers or juniors, walked close to the wall on the way up and were later acclaimed as chief once they’d amassed a critical mass of support from their peers. That is effectively what happened to Paul Martin, who followed in his father’s political footsteps, and only challenged Chretien when his own ascendancy seemed assured thanks to his enormous constituency within the party.
But the problem with this third category is that it incubates “leaders” with such conservative, consensus-building habits that the label hardly applies.
That helps explain why true leaders are so few and far between in politics. The most naturally effective Canadian leaders I have personally witnessed in action were Pierre Trudeau, Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard, not coincidentally all Quebecers, since engagement with some kind of philosophical “vision,” whether federalism or ethnic nationalism, is mother’s milk to Quebecers, but far from a preoccupation in the rest of Canada.
The constitutional face-off between Trudeau and Levesque in 1982 was a clash of gladiators, and the stronger, Trudeau, won. Conversely, the 1995 referendum war glaringly highlighted the contrast between challenger Bouchard’s strategically organized, on-message, focused leadership, and the indecisive, inarticulate, ultimately panicked Chretien/Martin defence team.
Stephen Harper seems well aware of his leadership strengths: personal credibility, intelligence and maturity—and also his deficits: stiff intellectual reserve and lacklustre skills in communicating his political vision. He is trying to overcome his limitations, so far with little success. “I can’t relate to Harper in any way” is a typical comment to pollsters.
On the other hand, Martin seems complacent about his leadership style. In a recent interview he said, “I believe Canadians know my values. They know my convictions.”
Well, no, actually, we don’t. Paul Martin’s tenure has been marked by so many policy equivocations—equalization, gay marriage, missile defense, Kyoto, Iraq, his budget—that it is impossible to know what his values consist of, other than remaining in power.
As for his credibility—along with “the vision thing,” a sine qua non of leadership—it was once high, but has been tarnished by his alleged association with Adscam and other Liberal party excesses. His record makes him a poor fit with all current models for effective leadership.
Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s biographer, says that for their political courage, leaders George Bush and Tony Blair will likely be remembered as the new Roosevelt and Churchill. With unintended chutzpah, Paul Martin cites Winston Churchill as one of his leadership models (along with Paul Martin Sr., Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King).
Well, as poet Robert Browning said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Alas, our present and probable future leader is too timid and distracted to reach for anything resembling Churchillian heights, and we are thus likely—faute de mieux—to re-elect a would-be leader who, rather than reach for heaven, grasps at straws instead.