Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Failures of Leadership

Leadership is a very difficult quality to quantify. It is entirely subjective, I suppose, especially in politics. One man’s leader is another man’s fool. Looking around the political scene it is hard to find individuals excelling at leading their constituents. The current trifecta of scandals on Parliament Hill, Queen’s Park and Toronto’s City Hall make the disaster all the more obvious.

As Andrew Coyne points out in the National Post, the failure of the Prime Minister, former Premier Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) and Mayor Rob Ford to accept even basic accountability has caused relatively minor scandals to spin out of control. As was said of Watergate, it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up. The sense that the public is being deceived, and that there are still more uncovered lies and theft, undermines public faith and the ability of the government to carry on. All three levels of government decided to avoid accountability rather than face consequences. As these events drag out the consequences only get worse.

Premier Dalton McGuinty may have done the best thing and resigned. While the method in which he did it was questionable at best it was at least a sign of some personal accountability for his flailing government. Meanwhile at City Hall Rob Ford and his administration has failed to adequately address the situation. In fact, he has not even denied it.

An even greater leadership crisis may be occurring in Ottawa. In light of the Senate scandal and the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office there is significant unrest among the Conservative backbenchers. Conservative MPs are getting a lot of heat from these scandals back in their constituencies. Last week in response to the obsessive control MP Brent Rathgeber (IND - Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) resigned from the Conservative Party to sit as an independent. As John Ivison reported, Rathgeber had introduced legislation to create a sunshine list for the federal government similar to what we have in Ontario. Rathgeber’s legislation was amended without his consent to water down its contents. The bill would have increased federal transparency for spending, which Rathgeber cited was one of the raison d’êtres of the Reform/Conservative Party.

What Rob Ford and Stephen Harper best represent is a failure of leadership. Together these two men have failed to build a coalition and lead it forward. In Mayor Ford’s case his adversarial and combative style, along with his personal embarrassments, have scared away allies and created staunch enemies both on City Council and elsewhere. By being unnecessarily antagonistic Ford has alienated himself and now he stands isolated.

Stephen Harper is also isolated, but his is by design. The Harper Conservatives came to power with a minority. At the time there was a certain expectation for tight discipline and a certain amount of a “bunker” mentality. It was an unstable political situation and there were many threats to his early governments. However, after they achieved their majority in 2011, by all accounts, the ruthless control only tightened. Reading Mr. Rathgeber’s post on his blog about why he left is informative enough. As a democratically elected representative, and merely as a thinking, mature adult, Rathgeber was fed up that he and his colleagues were being treated like children by the PMO staffers half their age, and given ludicrous talking points and told to behave as trained seals.

Stephen Harper, as the old cliché goes, rules through fear. His caucus is kept under strict control. However, as any historian can tell you, leaders who rule by fear are the most likely to face rebellion. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used to say his most important job was to keep his caucus happy. Harper doesn’t need his caucus to be happy, he needs them to stand and speak when needed.  

Through all this reflection it is hard not to appreciate the style that Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) has brought to Ontario. Her's is a more conciliatory and consensus style. However, she also appears to know that she ultimately makes the decision and while she receives input the burden ultimately falls on her. In addition, Wynne is actually tackling tough issues, such as congestion/transportation with boldness. There may be no greater contrast to Wynne than Harper in how to run a minority.

Ultimately the arrogance of power of McGuinty, the perpetual campaign of Rob Ford, or the bunker paranoia of Stephen Harper cannot create lasting governance. These structures are unstable and represent a failure to build coalitions. Politics is about bringing people over, by hook or by crook, and winning them over to accomplish big things. It’s a shame so many of our so-called leaders cannot do that. 

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