By WILLIAM THORSELL
William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Monday, June 9, 2003
When Peter MacKay lost faith in his ability to win the Progressive Conservative leadership on the strength of his own capacities, he rationalized his weak-kneed deal with David Orchard by reference to a "big tent." He said the Tories would govern again only if they built a broad-based coalition, like the Liberals usually do, and like former prime minister Brian Mulroney did. Aren't brokerage politics and coalition-building the very definition of leadership in a diverse country such as Canada?
Not according to, in his last term, Pierre Trudeau, the man most Canadians would describe as the strongest leader in recent memory. Between 1980 and 1984, Mr. Trudeau emerged as the first great practitioner of "wedge" politics, riding to victory and driving radical changes in policy by polarizing the voters among regions and political preferences.
"Federalism is dead," he famously said in 1981, after bringing in the National Energy Program and vowing to impose major constitutional changes over the objections of all the provinces but two. When those eight provinces challenged him on this, he threatened to go over their heads to Canadians in a referendum -- so much for brokerage politics. Only a cautionary tap on his shoulder by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1981 stopped the juggernaut and forced him back into any kind of tent at all.
Pierre Trudeau's definition of leadership when he chose to exercise it, which he did not for most of the 1970s, was to drive change through while he had any kind of mandate to do so. "Just watch me."
Brian Mulroney was a mixture of these styles when he first came to office, a proud builder of the "great coalition" among Ontario's middle class, Quebec's soft nationalists and the rising bourgeoisie of the Canadian West. On one hand, he seemed to be out to please everyone, shying away from controversy and reaching out to opponents in the name of one happy family.
He also came to office with a distinct agenda for change: killing the NEP, welcoming foreign investment, reforming the tax system and reviving federalism through the Meech Lake accord. More radically still, Mr. Mulroney acted quickly on Donald Macdonald's royal commission on economic union and announced in 1985 that he would pursue a broad, deep free-trade agreement with the United States.
Brian Mulroney's definition of leadership consisted initially of visionary change through effective brokerage politics, rather than brokerage politics to avoid visionary change.
This came crashing down with the creation of the Reform Party in 1987, the defection of Lucien Bouchard in 1990 and the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. By the end of his second term, Mr. Mulroney was driving the GST through Parliament by appointing emergency senators, and insisting that visionary leadership was only possible at the cost of deep unpopularity, like that which clung to Pierre Trudeau by 1984. If you do not set out to polarize people to get things done, you polarize them by the simple act of getting things done.
By 1995, Mike Harris emerged in Ontario as a classic wedge politician, with a lot to drive wedges into after the agonies of the NDP regime. It was a brilliant political tour de force, sustained through two elections, and hankered after again now by his brain trust in the Tory party. The view that real leaders do not impose unpopular ideas, but rather make unpopular ideas popular, is anathema to this species of politics. Mr. Mulroney tried it, and look what happened to him.
Ralph Klein's highly successful tack depends on the wide consensus within his electorate, which requires little coalition building to satisfy, and his penchant to give voice to that consensus rather than seek to change it. "Because of not daring to be ahead of the world, one becomes a leader of the world," said Lao-Tzu 2,500 years ago, and Ralph Klein leads/follows in that fashion ("Oops, I was wrong"), seeming to be decisive because of the unity behind him.
In national politics, where a broad voter consensus is far more elusive, this style can work only by avoiding change, except where circumstance requires it, and, even then, belatedly and ambiguously. Mackenzie King and Jean Chrétien come to mind as enormously successful examples (with some exceptions in Mr. Chrétien's volatile legacy period).
Peter MacKay looks very much like Mackenzie King in his avoidance of ideas and his embrace of "tent-making" to the point of incoherence.
In this sense, he comes from a potent tradition, perhaps having learned at both Brian Mulroney's and Jean Chrétien's feet. One hates to see Lao-Tzu's aphorism validated in the face of great challenges, but Canadian federal politics seem to bear it out.