The Clueless Leading the Clueless: When National Vision and Leadership Matter
National leaders come in all varieties: from the visionary (eg, America’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, Canada’s founding prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald, Great Britain’s Winston Churchill) to the administrator (eg, America’s Jimmy Carter, Canada’s current prime minister Stephen Harper, Germany’s Angela Merkel), to the despot (eg, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada).
And then there’s Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, a self-perceived rock star to his citizens but who clearly is following Machiavelli’s playbook, with some pernicious twists and adaptations. Stay strong, Ukraine!
Canada, as a middle power of 35 million citizens but the second largest country geographically on the planet (second to Russia), used to matter. And that was when it had a smaller population.
Whether it was Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who fought tirelessly against Apartheid in South Africa (coercing US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to support sanctions) or Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1957 for setting up the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal crisis, Canada has made a significant difference in the world on several occasions.
Unfortunately, the past near quarter century has been a time warp of corrupt government (witness the Liberal Party of Canada under Prime Minister Jean Chretien), impotent government (Chretien’s successor Paul Martin) and, currently, inept government under the iron fist of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
If there were ever a time that demanded the attention of Canada’s 35 million citizens, it is now. The exception is World War Two, when a totally different context was set in motion.
Stephen Harper (56 years of age) is one of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers. This may be seen as a major feat, considering how negatively Canadians perceived him when he first came into view as a strongly right wing reformer, the product of an early childhood Toronto upbringing but which was uprooted and shot across Canada to Alberta, to some America’s putative 51st state.
It would be easy to forgive Stephen Harper for his misplaced intentions to remake Canada, considering what must have been a traumatic childhood in Calgary, home to the anachronistic Calgary Stampede. Layer on top a badly bruised Canadian electorate following the never-ending scandals within the federal Liberal Party, under the direction of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and you have a country yearning for the subtle snake-oil messaging of Stephen Harper. It has indeed been a bizarre decade of Canadians turning to one another in wide-eyed exclamation, uttering (children, please close your eyes): “How the fuck did we get to this state?”
Yes, it is rather puzzling.
So let’s take a moment to examine three very different topic areas where the Harper government has fallen flat, showing virtually no leadership, while simultaneously engaging in frequent unethical behavior.
1) Consumer Rights and Health:
There has probably never been a situation in Canadian politics where the hyperbole was in such overdrive that the Minister of the Department of Industry was rubbing his legs together in glee, exclaiming how the Harper Government was on the side of consumers and had introduced legislation which would spank the country’s big three telecom companies: Rogers, Bell and Telus. Three year contracts would become toast and Canadians would be the better for it. Two year contracts would be the maximum duration.
Except that someone forgot to send Harper and his Minister of Industry the memo that the telecom companies, despite being allegedly an evil trio, are pretty smart. You do the math. Canadian telecom consumers are no further ahead financially with their wireless plans.
Indeed, in its 2015 Wall Report, Wall Communications Inc. reported that the cost of wireless plans in Canada rose, overall, by three to four times the rate of inflation. And of note, new entrants to the wireless spectrum, some of whom have subsequently exited due to the imposing influence of the big three, had plans 25 to 50% cheaper.
A similar situation, but more serious, is being played out when it comes to federal food inspection. Stephen Harper’s five-year gutting of the public service has decimated frontline operational employees who work to ensure the health and safety of Canadians–every day. The same applies to railway and airline safety inspections, which operate on the basis of industry self-regulation. The catastrophic Lac Megantic oil tanker-laden train explosions on July 6, 2013, in Quebec’s beautiful Eastern Townships, exemplify a federal government that became lax on ensuring rail safety, with disastrous consequences for the many small communities through which freight trains travel daily.
2) Science, Technology and Innovation
Your faithful correspondent has some measure of knowledge in this arena, having spent three decades with the Government of Canada, the last 10 years with the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology, and subsequently working on manufacturing and innovation competitiveness issues.
Stephen Harper may have a Master’s degree in economics but it’s questionable whether he ever worked in an applied setting. Considering the volatile, unpredictable and global street fight for market share, one could easily conclude that one of the top three priorities of a national government would be strengthening the country’s competitiveness: from human capital (economist jargon for education and skills training) to new technologies research and commercialization to infrastructure enhancements (eg, roads, bridges, airports, internet broadband)
But that’s not Stephen Harper’s world. His world is giving tax breaks to parents whose kids play sports. He lays off federal public servants who are responsible for keeping the workplace, food and railways safe. He wipes out the jobs of federal scientists; those who are lucky to keep their jobs are forbidden to speak to the media, let alone the public.
A few facts on Canada’s slow decline:
• The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2014 report on 144 countries showed Canada slipping further down the competitiveness rung, from 14th to 15th place, the lowest since 2006.
• The respected Conference Board of Canada places Canada 13th out of 16 peer countries on innovation, with the country showing particular weakness in productivity, income per capita, and the quality of its social programs.
• Canada is ranked at 14th place (behind Australia and Indonesia) by Global Firepower (note: nuclear capability is excluded, but such factors as economic health, political/military leadership and limited naval capabilities are taken into consideration).
• The OECD’s 2014 report on mobile broadband subscriptions placed Canada in the bottom third of the 34 member states. Ranking behind Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain is not encouraging news.
• However, some good news: the WEF ranked Canada at 4th place on its human capital index out of 124 countries 2015. It’s not totally bleak.
When faced with persistent questioning from the opposition parties and critical media articles, Harper resorts to his favorite strategy: Crime and Punishment.
Harper uses crime in a misguided attempt to deflect the attention of Canadians from such substantive issues as the country’s international competitiveness ranking, a stubbornly high unemployment rate (especially with youth and indigenous peoples), and Canada’s weak showing in science and technology.
This has a huge impact on Canada’s global competitiveness.
Indeed, Stephen Harper has proven to be a master of the politics of fear. From attempting to paint the image of evil Islamic jihadists (aka terrorists) lurking in the Canadian shadows to a near hysterical response to efforts to legalize medicinal pot to trying to manipulate the public to believe that violent crime is rising across the country (when the opposite has actually occurred), Harper’s reputation has become one of ignoring, or even running away from, tough issues requiring well thought out solutions for the country.
During his first several years in office, he seemed to take exquisite glee in poking China in the eye for its human rights abuses. Ostensibly, this would have seemed to be the appropriate tactic. Poke ‘em, and poke ‘em hard!
But that’s not how international diplomacy typically works–especially with China.
It took Stephen Harper several years to figure that out, but then he seemed to leap to the other end of the spectrum. The point is, it is an art to determine the degree of tension a national leader must exert on a country such as China if the desired result of improved human rights is to be achieved. Harper is in some ways a bit of a bull in a china shop when it comes to international diplomacy.
Witness how he has tried to manipulate the media with respect to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. If Harper thinks that tough talk about Russia’s adventures in Ukraine from wee Canada holds any sway with Putin then it may be time to retract the plate of hash brownies. Vladimir Putin has laughed at US president Barack Obama. He’s met numerous times with Germany’s Angela Merkel (who speaks fluent Russian) but who has made little headway with Putin. However, Harper’s tough talk makes great media headlines in Canada–but nowhere else.
Harper’s “muscular” approach (as labelled by some commentators) to the desperate situations in Syria and Ukraine is more appropriately explained as belligerence. The irony with Harper’s tough talk is that Canada’s defence spending is a mere one percent of GDP; NATO has been urging Canada to boost its spending to two percent to reflect member countries’ average. Since the 2009-10 fiscal year, Harper has steadily cut the defence budget, notably after Canada’s withdrawl from Afghanistan. Layered on top of the defence department’s contraction is a report that is critical of how procurement is being carried out.
So where does that leave Canada’s 35 million people? Not in a very reassuring place, when one takes into the account the dozens of intersecting economic, environmental and geo-political issues that a national leader must address on a daily basis. It is a measure of not just political leadership incompetence but indeed irresponsibility for Prime Minister Harper to continue playing games with the national electorate. There’s too much at stake for Harper and his sycophantic ministers to keep playing the political fire-up-the-electorate’s-emotions game.
It’s now time for visionary leadership guided by a set of principles and ethical behavior.
On October 19, 2015, be sure to vote if you’re eligible. In the last national election of 2011 a mere 61.4% of eligible Canadians turned out to vote, the third lowest turnout in Canadian history.
Make a difference–Vote!
Confederation is a compact, made originally by four provinces but adhered to by all the nine provinces who have entered it, and I submit to the judgment of this house and to the best consideration of its members, that this compact should not be lightly altered.
– Wilfrid Laurier (7th Prime Minister of Canada, July 1896 – October 1911)
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