Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Leadership is the Issue

The pundits opined when it began that this election would be duller than dishwater. They said there was no one energizing issue. What crap. Manufactured cynicism and showboat yawning are the bastion of the lazy, who cannot get it up enough to inspire people in the election issues. It also shows how little they understand that what the events in the US and the grumblings up here do reflect are the twin yearnings of the public: democracy revitalized and leadership. These are the issues that inspire Canadians as much as Americans, otherwise why so much interest up here with the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates down there? And why did Canadians rise up so forcefully and quickly to demand that Elizabeth May be in the leaders' debate? The public prevailed, thereby showing that people can make a difference. But if people then promptly forget that and hide behind the arguments that no matter who they vote for, it won't make a difference; that all politicians are the same; that nothing changes, then nothing will change.

For month after month, we've watched the Presidential race crawl along in the US. Yet we've remained glued to it, or those who've never been interested in American politics before -- like me -- became interested because of two things: new kinds of faces joined the race and the contenders look and sound different from the same old, same old. Women competing for a party nomination and now the Vice-Presidency is compelling politics. It means that half the population in the US now have a chance of leading their country. Not so in Canada. Kim Campbell was our Prime Minister briefly, but the huffy media soon put paid to that idea with their over-the-top attacks on her during her first and only election. I was definitely not a Conservative back then and not a Campbell fan, but even I was appalled at the way she was attacked. And while we insist on minimums for women in the Afghan government, we have huge under-representation in Parliament and parties that routinely nominate few women, way less than rep by pop, and routinely stick them in no-win ridings. We have a Conservative government that has gone from having women holding leading positions in Cabinet who were widely respected in the Brian Mulroney government to token dim bulbs in Harper's Cabinet.

And then there's the visible minority factor. Barack Obama is actually more unusual than one would think. The media refers to him as the black candidate, when in fact he belongs to that even more hated segment of the population, the half-breed. We belong to neither camp, we're asked to hold allegiance to one side only, and we walk a tight balance between two cultures and/or two religions. Regardless, there's no question that his nomination puts the US light years ahead of Canada, a country that boasts of its multiculturalism, its tolerance of many peoples from many lands, of the fact that, unlike in the US, a person does not have to be born here in order to run for the Prime Minister's office. Yet the people in power, the people who run the media and lead the Conservative and Liberal parties, engineer things such that women and visible minorities have no hope in hell of rising to the visible top positions in politics.

Canadians are being inspired by what's happening south of us because there is a desire for that to change, to see women lead government, to see visible minorities compete for the top job, to see a new way of looking at things and to see the new approaches that they can bring. Unfortunately, Ontarians were too chicken shit and too uninformed to change the way we elect people so that at last we would see a change in the faces of the elected. If electoral reform had gone through in Ontario, then it would only have been a matter of time before the reform ball hit Ottawa. But Ontarians were too comfortable in their complaints of nothing changes to vote for change.

And so with the exception of Elizabeth May, we continue to be stuck with fair-skinned guys with traditional backgrounds in English or French Canada as the leaders of our federal parties.

Yet do any of these four men offer something different? The ability to see things differently from the norm and to inspire people to follow you makes a person a leader. Leaders generally don't come from the majority of the population; they are in the minority. And ones who speak well, the orators, like Obama or many British politicians, are in the minority of the minority. Stephen Harper's idea of boasting about being an ordinary Canadian doesn't surprise me because with the exception of his strategic abilities, he is devoid of the ability to inspire, to speak in a way that creates passion, of ideas that will lead Canada into the 21st century as Wilfred Laurier talked about leading Canada into the 20th. Whatever happened in the end, Laurier inspired the populace -- and even us students in history class -- with his ability to dream big for his country and share that dream with all. Sir John A began our country with those very qualities. He took big risks and created Canada and joined her from sea to sea. Where are those kinds of leaders in Canada now?

Instead we have the small thinking of Harper. We've become used to small thinking and do-nothing ways, especially here in Toronto. From Art Eggleton as Mayor of Toronto in the 1980s who perfected the art of doing nothing so that everyone could go to work unoffended as the city silently deteriorated around them, to Jean Chretien whose one accomplishment was the slaying of the deficit, to Harper who has slayed the surplus, broke a big promise to his senior constituency, and introduced uber-secrecy to democracy, we have been taught to expect little from our leaders.

But we do have a chance to change that. And in changing that, re-energize our democracy. It's only by daring to question our cynicism, our need to say they're all the same, our tired excuses as to why voting doesn't matter, that we can change the look of Parliament. And by changing the look, by reducing some parties and growing others, then we can start to bring other changes into our democracy.

The reason why the American election fascinates us is because no matter who is elected, the Presidency will be different. The American parties ensured that result by who they nominated and who the nominees chose as their Vice-Presidents. But here, in Canada, that fundamental change is in our hands, the hands of the electorate. The parties here, with the exception of the Greens, didn't have the courage to elect a woman or a visible minority or a person who has experienced great hardship in their life to be leader. But we still have the power to effect change by moving the parties into different positions of power in the House. The question is why are we so afraid to do that?

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