What Canadian politicians have forgotten

[It should go without saying that this is an opinion piece: my opinion. It may not be yours. Politically, I’ve been centre most of my life. Today? I genuinely don’t know.]

Alberta has entered another provincial election, our fifth since the beginning of the millennium (that’s every three years, on average). And in Alberta, a province of wealth and entitlement, that means the old guard fending off competitors who dare lay siege to the castle, replete with feces-slinging (we’re well past mere mud), ethically-laden promises, and scare tactics, from all sides.

Canada is also heading down the road to a federal election, which by schedule we will see this fall. We will likely see the same slinging and fearmongering, not only because the same mentalities are at play, but because we’ve been witnessing the preamble for several months, now.

And all of it has shown one thing: that our politicians have forgotten about Canadians.

The squabbling alone is like listening to the group of neighbourhood kids fight over a favoured toy. The younger ones are petulant, the older ones use their physical strength and bully to get their way. Some of the other kids in between ages argue logically, but receive neither support nor a sympathetic ear. All I hear, as the parent who wishes them to sort anything out, is crying, fighting, and threats of tattling to parents.

The same thing happens in our political landscape, just without the benefit of (somewhat) impartial parents to sort out the mess and restore order. The parents we should have — the Canadian people, acting through an election — have become disillusioned, disaffected, and apathetic. As a whole, we have stopped caring. And as much as I, and others, have tried to blame this on the Canadian people, the reality is that we cannot blame the people. Individual persons, perhaps, but as a collective, the Canadian people have lost faith in government.

For a person to care, they need to feel attachment to something. To get that attachment, we need three things, in order:

Vision

Most important of any politician’s toolbelt should be a concept of what they want to achieve, something that they know their constituents need. Sadly, most politicians fall short into short-term or simple goals: lower taxes (which politicians never lower), more jobs (which politicians don’t control), better education (which politicians take neither accountability nor responsibility), and so forth. We’ve all heard these promises, every single election.

These are not visions, these are tactics. Real vision comes from things that are far more intangible, such as understanding the division between the wealthy and the poor, looking to the health and welfare not of today’s children but those who will come in two generations, looking at how we are truly perceived on a global stage and knowing we could be better, preparing for a world with an ever-expanding population with less space.

Our governments do not offer vision. They offer fear. Ruling parties tell us we are in danger, so take away the freedoms of the many to benefit the extremely few; they tell us we cannot have sustainable incomes from a consistent tax base, to placate business, they tell us that the present is failing and sacrifice our future. Our opposing parties are no better, instead choosing to define themselves only by how they will reverse ruling party’s efforts, or how they will do things different.

Such actions offer no inspiration, no dreams, no hope. They serve only to oppress and defeat, leaving Canadians with nothing more than apathy. Without vision, we fall into mere name-calling, and petty arguments. We don’t have anything new to believe in, so we fall back on what we already believe, regardless of how flawed it may be. And we’ll fight to the death to protect those beliefs, because we’re human, and we loathe others telling us what to believe in the absence of new thought.

Charisma

Part of the problem of vision, even when it is available, is an inability to connect with Canadians. While making public appearances, they certainly glad-hand everyone they can find with big, wide smiles … but this is not a connection. After such events, Canadians will no more relate to a politician as they will to the politician in a sound bite on TV. We relate better to actors in trashy B-movies than we do the people we’re supposed to trust with our future.

The leader of our nation, Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, has the personality of a cardboard cutout. Hon. Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the official opposition, is identifiable more by his beard than anything he has said or done. And our supposed saviour, Hon. Justin Trudeau, scion of Canadian political legend, has somehow managed to turn himself into a bizarre punchline, where lately his only defining attribute is reverse-parroting nearly everything the Prime Minister says. 

Nevermind our provincial woes: a recently-elected Premier who, starting off with supposedly open eyes, has turned a deaf ear; the official opposition imploded; and the polls show the province tearing itself down the middle, with divisions widening daily. There is not a single person who has stepped up within the province to show a new way to think, nothing beyond promises of old that have been broken time and time again. Not a single party who defines hope, not a single hope for the change we so desperately need. 

Sadly, our politicians appear to have started to ignore us. They only truly care when elections are in the wind, for obvious reasons. Otherwise, they’re more preoccupied with each other, with in-fighting, name-calling, petty one-up-manship, and throwing people under busses (figuratively speaking that is; if that ever turns literal, we’ll have bigger problems to solve). The net result isn’t even entertainment, anymore. It’s irritation.

Worse still, we Canadians still end up dividing on ideological lines, blindly painting ourselves Blue, Red, and Orange because … well, because that party is how I’d like to think. But that paint is a two-way street, and the actions and words of the politicians flows down to the people, tarnishing the ideal of what that paint was supposed to be, and the Painted People argue about what’s ideal, despite the reality.

It’s not like Canada has not seen charismatic, even idiosyncratic politicians before. I’ll sidestep an obvious one, largely because my province has a ridiculously long memory and a terribly short sight.

Instead, I’ll look to the late Hon. Jack Layton, who set a benchmark in Canada for the very things that Canadians were longing for: helping Canadians, not scaring them. He ignored personal attacks, choosing instead to inspire. He made fun of himself on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, engaged Quebecois in their language, and despite a strange police run-in (an unproven but suspected smear campaign), his trustworthiness amongst those polled topped out at 97%. In the following election, the NDP — the “left wing” party, formerly the butt of many political jokes — became the official opposition for the first time in federal politics. When Layton died in August 2011, the nation mourned the loss of our last great statesman.

Leadership

This leads me to the last major problem with our politicians: their inability to lead. They are defined as leaders of their respective parties certainly — they are elected from within the party for that very purpose. That does not, however, necessarily define them as leaders of Canadians.

Imagine, if you will, a crowd in a large field. A single person steps from the crowd, raises their hand, and promptly marches off in a direction. Some of the crowd will undoubtedly follow, either because they know the person or because they have a like mind. The rest may follow over time, some due to not wishing to remain in the field, some due to the pressure of others leaving. Some will remain, and possibly follow someone else who marches off in a different direction.

Now imagine that same crowd in a dark tunnel. There are two ways to go, and almost no-one knows the right way. One person, armed with a flashlight, walks ahead to look for dangers: open holes, tripping rocks, unstable walls, and so forth. Nearly all will follow, if just not to be left in the dark.

These are the two leadership patterns we see in Canada: follow by choice, or follow by fear. Both are problematic, though most people, when asked, would prefer the choice. It doesn’t matter whether or not your choice may lead you off a cliff, you just wish to know that you feel right about something. In both cases, the key missing element is education. With fear, you’re offering only the downside: follow me, or else. With choice, you’re selling only the benefits: follow me, for I have cookies!

So what’s best? Follow by understanding. Yes, we have cookies, and they are delicious, but some have raisins, and we know they’re not for everyone. Allow people to know what you stand for, why that matters, why you think you’ll make mistakes, where you will draw lines, and how much you’re willing to risk to bring your vision. A rare politician is one who does not worry immediately about the next election, but more about the people they represent.

But Where’s the Proof?

It took me a long time to realize that we had an example of how it could be done. And, somewhat ironically, it exists in a place we don’t expect to see greatness: in municipal government. I can look at my own city and see the proof. Calgary is a microcosm of Canada: a right-leaning, multi-cultural, fast-growing city that has, historically, had a lacklustre governing body.

Until 2012, the general impression of City Council was anything but transparent, ruled largely by old guard red tape, with but a few who fought for real change. Then in 2012, the change happened: a man with a vision of what Calgary could be, that flew in the face of some of that old guard, asked people to believe not necessarily in him, but with him. And people could, because he had a personality that was infectious, one that made you want to believe. He followed through, showing people how things could really be done.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi proved to a right-leaning city that had stopped caring, that you could do different. For his first term, Calgary became a very different place. It felt more energetic, more interesting and vibrant, more passionate. He did so well, that he got reelected. He continues to express his opinions, his vision, his desire for change, and his will to put himself out for public approval.

Is Mayor Nenshi popular with everyone? Of course he isn’t — he rubs some people badly, and they would love to see him unseated. And, to some degree, Mayor Nenshi doesn’t seem to care. Opposition is seen as a healthy thing, to foster debate, to find middle grounds, to develop long-lasting solutions. And despite perceptions of some city councillors working more for corporate interests than their constituents, the City of Calgary functions more like the Canada I knew as a child: with mutual respect, honest debate, and a desire to do Calgarians proud.

This is what our politicians are missing: pride. They’ve forgotten how to inspire through vision, engage through charisma, and gain a following through leadership. This Alberta election is a farce, and our next federal election will be like watching poo-flinging monkeys.

Our only hope is that someone recognizes this, and brings change.