The Ethics of Leading a Nation: Fake Leaders Need Not Apply
Many, many years ago, when I was a young economist with the Government of Canada, a colleague who was an immigrant from Turkey remarked to me that “Canadians are sheep.” Over the succeeding decades I’ve never forgotten Zeynep’s comment that day while we were discussing politics.
Canadians ARE sheep, and Americans are not much better.
Because we’re suckers for the false, sugar-coated promises of politicians. We never seem to get it, falling once again for the same BS. Then we smack ourselves collectively in the head and say, “Not next time; I’ll vote that asshole out!” And then we do it again.
Canadians are slow learners.
What finally motivated me to write this post is a Canadian Prime Minister who is intent on destroying a not just fine but, indeed, noble country. Stephen Harper is going on 10 years as prime minister, with a federal election supposedly due for October 2015. A Conservative, Harper finally achieved his majority government in the last election (his third win), which gave him his long-sought mandate to start his make-over of Canada.
Witness his agonizing four-year downsizing of the federal public service. Over my three-decades in the federal government I was part of several down-sizing efforts, only to watch the bureaucracy explode once again. If the head of an organization wants to downsize, fine, but do so quickly and efficiently. Harper’s slow death of a thousand cuts (make that tens of thousands) has been a mind-blowing exercise in client service deterioration, mounting employee stress and floundering managerial leadership.
The sad spectacle of the Government of Canada’s 1994-96 downsizing under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which saw 55,000 positions eliminated to the eventual tune of some $4 billion (despite the promise of a neutral cost saving exercise of $1.5 billion), was never picked up by Canada’s sleepy media. The public service not long afterwards started growing again under Chretien, aided and abetted by Harper when he became prime minister.
Canadians over the past decade have become suckers for false promises from Stephen Harper, believing that for some reason a “conservative” prime minister is somehow more attuned to economic and budget matters than a Liberal or New Democrat Party leader.
The consequence of Prime Minister Harper’s inaction on the economy is reflected in his government ignoring vitally needed investments in science and technology, innovation, infrastructure, and human capital. This inaction has led to a national economy limping along, to the point where the Governor of the Bank of Canada referred to Canada’s most recent quarter’s growth as “atrocious.”
Political leaders are invariably all learning disabled when it comes to mathematics and financial matters, with some leaders being incredibly incompetent. One recent exception is Quebec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard (a neuro surgeon), whose March 2015 budget actually seems to get it, with respect to that province’s serious debt situation. However, many Quebeckers (I grew up in Montreal) aren’t all that happy, now that the gravy train has slowed. The entitlement mindset continues. (It needs mention that Quebec is a huge recipient of federal transfer and equalization payments.)
But there are other really serious issues facing those who lead nations besides finances and pleasing the electorate.
Since September 11, 2001–aka 911–attention in North America, and most of the world for that matter, has been focused on terrorism. The infamous War on Terrorism, branded by President GW Bush and his gang (note Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) helped spawn subsequent Wars on _____. You name the cause.
Recently, the rapid rise of ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State–choose a name) has been a God-send for the media. Canada’s media has locked on to the rise of ISIS and, in effect, facilitated Stephen Harper’s desire to get Canada more deeply enmeshed in helping eradicate this scourge to human kind. This initially involved sending some 70 special forces to help train the Kurds on the front lines (resulting in one Canadian soldier being killed and three injured in a friendly fire incident in March 2015). And six CF 18s, two Aurora surveillance aircraft and one refueling plane, with 600 support crews and technicians (based in Kuwait), were also sent over to help bomb ISIS strongholds.
At the end of March, the Harper government rammed through Parliament a motion to increase Canada’s involvement by including bombing runs in Syria. There is no clear consensus by informed military and geo-political strategists that entering Syria is a wise move; indeed, some believe that it will further enable Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Harper has always marched to his own drum, manipulating Canadians by inventing crises when he feels cornered, such as with a weakening economy. Witness his war on crime, when in fact crime rates in Canada have dropped. According to the internationally respected Statistics Canada, Canada’s crime rates have seen a two-decade decline.
Harper’s latest invention: his version of Canada-lite war on terrorism. Check out this cogent editorial from The Globe and Mail.
Stephen Harper is a master of exploiting the latent fears that people have, such as with crime and, in Canada’s case, the more distant terrorism. On terrorism, the statistically remote probability of a Canadian being a victim (driving a car in Canada is a much more dangerous endeavor) is blown wide open into a contagion, fueled by a ratings-based media and irresponsible political leaders.
One would have thought that a Canadian Prime Minister would have learned from Canada’s painful decade-long involvement in Afghanistan post-911. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in an effort to repel President Bush’s request for Canada to send troops to Iraq, deployed soldiers and support personnel to Kabul. Grossly underequipped and not adequately prepared for this type of deployment, Canadian soldiers did the best they could.
Not long afterwards, under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, Canadian troops were deployed to the far more dangerous Kandahar Province, which is where most of the deaths and injuries occurred. During Canada’s full stay in Afghanistan 158 soldiers were killed (including the first female killed in combat since WWII), 635 were wounded in battle and another 1,412 in non-combat operations. Indeed, of the coalition partners Canada suffered the highest incident rate of deaths and injuries. This was due in part to Canada’s lack of air transport, requiring land transport through IED infested areas. It was a sad testimony that Canadian troops had to rely on air transport from the Poles in some instances.
Read this National Post article from March 15, 2015, on why Canada’s current defence spending is unsustainable and why Stephen Harper’s government will have to reduce the number of missions.
There’s an old saying (credited to Albert Einstein and US President Herbert Hoover) that aptly captures the propensity of politicians to use war as a political tool. To paraphrase it in a modern sense: “Old men crave war; young men and women fight it.” Yes, women now fight in combat operations in many countries.
For those of you old enough, reflect back to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s use of the Falkland’s War (against Argentina) to rally the British during a time of political difficulties for her government. Her strategy worked marvelously.
War has been a staple of Stephen Harper’s government, along with his make believe world of out-of-control crime. And then there’s the very recent Bill C-51, Harper’s anti-terrorism legislation, which while containing some very worthwhile elements to assist CSIS (Canada’s spy service) and the RCMP to prevent terrorist strikes, is excessive in some areas, and in particular lacks sufficient judicial and parliamentary oversight. Canada stands alone on this point in contrast to other Western governments.
Finally, if there’s one obscene irony in this story it is Stephen Harper’s abject treatment of veterans who have served in Afghanistan and in other theatres of combat. It has been only through the persistence of a few brave veterans, combined with the media’s help, that the Harper government is at least getting the message. Whether the measures being drawn up and implemented (eg, PTSD treatment centres and enhanced payments to the injured) are sufficient will require some time to evaluate. The point here is that for a war-prone prime minister, Stephen Harper has become proficient at speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
True national leadership requires integrity: aligning actions with words and speaking the truth to citizens.
Let’s be straight here: it’s one thing for a head of state (Canada’s is actually Queen Elizabeth II) to assert that their country will not engage in foreign war engagements, even indirectly, and will restrain defence spending; it is quite another for, in the current case, a prime minister to adopt a muscular defence policy that pretends to actually be making a difference. Read that as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s macho posturing to increase Canada’s commitment to taking on ISIS not only in Iraq but in Syria.
Let’s do a quick rewind of history to remind us of what Canada was once capable when it came to the military. Here, I rely on one of Canada’s great historians, Conrad Black. Here’s a brief excerpt from his latest book: Rise to Greatest: The History of Canada from the Vikings to Present.
As Minister of the Navy from 1940 to 1945, Angus L. MacDonald “…built the Royal Canadian Navy from 11 ships and 3,000 men in 1940 to 400 ships and 96,000 men in 1945….at the end, the third navy in the world in effective size….The Royal Canadian Air Force…grew between 1939 and 1945 from about 7,000 people and 29 front-line aircraft to 215,000 (including 15,000 women) and 125,000 aircraft, and was the fourth largest Allied air force….The Canadian Army, at 500,000, was also the third largest of the Western Allies in 1944.”
Put this in perspective: Canada’s population in 1945 was a mere 12 million; today it is 35 million.
National leadership matters–a lot–when things are at stake. Reflecting on where Canada is today when it comes to defence and security is a sad indictment of current national leadership, considering the attention that Prime Minister Harper is attempting to re-direct from socio-economic and environmental issues. In the vernacular to Prime Minister Harper: show me the money and the action.
What inspires me personally is how Franklin Roosevelt, one of America’s greatest presidents (read Conrad Black’s acclaimed biography on FDR), was not only so focused on what needed to be done during The Great Depression and World War II (both in support of Great Britain and post-Pearl Habor) but he actually delivered in spectacular fashion. How many national leaders can boast that? Certainly not Stephen Harper.
Canada’s current national leadership void, reinforced by a mostly rag-tag band of weak provincial premiers, is setting up a proud and wonderful country for years of pain ahead unless the situation is reversed soon. Canadians likely head to the polls this fall. We would do well to seriously contemplate who we wish to lead Canada. Getting out to vote is the next crucial step.
A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.
– Nelson Mandela
First photo: Mahatma Gandhi, pre-eminent leader of India’s independence.
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