What do Canadians want and expect from a political leader?
On Cross Country Checkup:
As many in Canada mourn the loss of NDP leader Jack Layton, there are now three national parties without an elected leader. The Liberal Party is looking at what's next after a poor showing in the last election, as are the Bloc Québécois. At the same time, provincial voters in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and Northwest Territories are all going to the polls in the coming weeks.
What do Canadians want and expect from a political leader?
Join guest host David Gray.
Why do they do it, anyway? What makes a person choose to let their name stand on a ballot, for others to judge and weigh, accept or reject, in the most public forum imaginable, with results published for all to see?
We are, every day, literally surrounded by politicians. Federal leaders garner the most press, but add up provincial MLAs and MPPs and MNAs, then mayors and reeves, councillors and aldermen, school board chairs, trustees, commissioners, and chiefs...and the numbers swell well into the thousands. And those are just the winners. On some ballots, more than a dozen hopefuls vie for each job. And within parties, there are entire meritocracies established to determine who will get to run next.
There are numerous studies that suggest that politicians are at least as much a biological classification as a professional one. Many share common traits of gregariousness, a desire for control, a need to be needed, and an attraction to power. As well as an inner compulsion to make a difference.
Some are ideologues, defined cynically as having a greater interest in right and left than right and wrong.
Most in Canada, though, aren't. Within parties, there are usually enormous variances in opinions. And it is the job of the political leader to somehow shepherd all those attitudes into some kind of coherent message.
All are burdened, in the end, with the expectations of those who put them in power. Few jobs come with such inherent accountability.
Mess up big enough, and even your friends will conspire to throw you out.
All of which brings us to today's question. What do Canadians want and expect from a political leader?
As many in Canada mourn the loss of NDP Leader Jack Layton, there are now three national parties without an elected leader. The Liberals are looking at what's next after a poor showing in the last election, as are the Bloc Québécois. At the same time, provincial voters in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and Northwest Territories are all going to the polls in the coming weeks. And Alberta is in the middle of a leadership race.
I'm David Gray ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 159 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.
- Michael Bliss
Historian and author of Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien.
- Sean MacDonald
Professor of business administration at the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba
- Danny Williams
Former Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador
- Max Cameron
Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia
- Mike Blanchard
Wildrose candidate for the provincial riding of Calgary Buffalo
- The Leaders
Part of The Canadian Experience series, a series of 52 history columns written for newcomers to Canada.
A conference organized by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia
- MP Exit Interviews
Published by Samara, an independent charitable organization founded in 2008 to study citizen engagement with Canadian democracy.
What do Canadians want and expect from a political leader? This should be a question every politician asks and reflects upon. The legacy of Mr. Layton, and his ability to bring people together during his funeral, should be a hint of what Canadians expect from a political figure.
Mr. Layton has managed to bring the hearts and minds of people together in an amazing manner. People of all walks of life - young and old, white and brown - have put their differences aside and joined hands to mourn and celebrate the life of this honourable man. He had also done another amazing thing which no other politician has been able to achieve: he managed to convince members of the separatist movement to abandon their positions and join hands with the rest of Canadians to work for the betterment of the country and not for its breakdown.
Looking at Mr. Layton's legacy, and the massive number of people who have mourned his death, we learn that Canadians want an honest politician who is true to himself and who listens to people whether they are rich or poor. Canadians want a politician who is down-to-earth, who is humble and who does not look down upon others but listen to their concern and does something about it to bring a positive change. Canadians want to see integrity in politicians, something which has been missing in today's politicians who promise one thing during the election and do something else afterwards.
Abubakar Nurani Kasim
Jack Layton has left a bad taste in my mouth. Let me explain.
Thursday afternoon past found me cycling over the Interprovincial Bridge from Gatineau to Ottawa. Pumping up the Hull side, I could hear the sequence of military hardware kabooms letting loose from Parliament Hill. I reached the top of the bridge's arc I was engulfed in the collective haze of those fifteen parting shots. It stung my eyes and left a foul taste in my mouth. My throat has been a little sore all weekend.
This, among many other great memories, is one way that I will always remember Jack Layton.
It is a bogus assertion by political parties, politicians and self-deluded media that a politician should be granted both a public and private personality. This assertion is as groundless as "Our foxes can be trusted to guard the chicken coup, but theirs can't", or "Our lions, when they are hungry, won't eat your kids - trust us."
What made Mr. Layton stand out was that he did walk the talk and, apparently, he really was who he said he was. Being able to know the real character of those who are going to have the power to make social policy and institute laws which all of us will be held to account to should be a must for all voters.
Based on recent elections, we expect our political leaders to support exploitation for jobs and cheap goods, and to appease foreign oppressors, when it's convenient, for a few votes in Canada. We expect them to do nothing meaningful about climate change, and to redirect yet more of our wealth to those who are well off already, with endless tax breaks and subsidies. We expect them to dress conservatively, crack jokes, and now, it seems, play a musical instrument (and sing).
How could we expect any less from them?
(PS: I have a problem with using the word "expect", because we use it to mean what we think people should do, whether or not we think they will, and also to mean the opposite - what we think they will do, whether or not we think they should.)
Canada needs a better class of politician. One who will preserve democracy and not steer us into the racist, messed-up far-right regime that Europe is trying not to become. One who will be completely neutral in the Israel/Palestinan problem, not siding with any certain country. One who will not try to corrupt our youth. One will not be afraid to stand up for what's right. Someone like all of us free-thinking, rational-thinking Canadians. We are the future, everyone.
Long live Jack Layton, who tried to save Canada from something we do not want our country to become.
It may be wishful thinking, but I hope for politicians who will forego the recent divisive, partisan behaviour in parliament. One would hope they would raise the bar and show that politicians can be role models for everyhone, especially our youth. Do away with the American style personal attack ads and deal with policies, not personalities. If they so do, perhaps more quality people will aspire to this profession and be held in higher esteem.
I think the constant focus of the media, and most of the electorate, on party leaders does a disservice to our democracy. This is neither a dictatorship nor an absolute monarchy. During a federal election, there are 308 individual elections. There is no separate vote for prime minister. That we put so much stock in leaders and have allowed so much power to be concentrated in the offices of prime ministers and premiers exposes what, I believe, is a significant deficit in our democratic instinct.
What do I, as a Canadian, want from politicians? Integrity, honesty, vision and strong leadership qualities, while at the same time seeking and listening to others' opinions. I don't need a warm and fuzzy feel-good individual running the country. Tell me the truth and you got my vote.
Excellent subject, but we can't really discuss this without also asking what we expect from ourselves, the citiizens of the country.
There is an old saying that in a democracy, we get the government we deserve. In order to get the politicians we want, we need to be informed, engaged and thoughtful and we have to think about what the country needs as a whole. We can't vote only for the politicians who make promises to our personal group - students, seniors, big business, small business, union members, professionals, highly educated, poorly educated, etc. We need politicians who will work for the whole country. When the whole country benefits, the constituent groups will benefit. I believe that one of the causes of the HST debacle here is BC was that Gordon Campbell knew that if he used the word "tax" in a sentence that did not also include the word "reduced", he would be rejected because the majority of the electorate would scream about a few extra dollars out of their pockets without considering the total ramifications of the policy.
I think that if politicians knew that we were engaged, rather than reactionary, they would be more inclined to be forthright with us.
Mission, British Columbia
We have had a series of poor leaders in this country - in my opinion, Harper included. A good leader needs charisma, along with integrity and honesty. The last two liberal leaders lacked the latter, our current conservative leader lacks both. Regardless of party, everybody wants a leader that they can trust, and we have been sadly deprived of that in Ottawa for quite some time.
One quality I haven't heard today is the ability to deal with those you disagree with by sticking to the matter under consideration without making cheap personal comments. And also to request your associates to do likewise.
That eternal optimism that leads us during times we have no faith, and during times we lack the energy and trust to think beyond the cynical news reels of today. I need he or she to have the skin of a rhino because there's nothing stranger than folks on this beautiful planet of ours.
No doubt in my mind, a politician has to be a person we trust and has integrity. Canadians expect a stand-up person who looks out for all, as Jack Layton was.
A fine balance between that and a great outspoken person who believes in a set of principles that Canadians can relate too, as Jack Layton.
The next majority government will be led by such a person, of which we do not have at this point in time. I have never been a person who has stuck with a party but rather I look for a good leader. My historical voting has ranged from the old PC party to recently the NDP with some Liberal spatterings. Why? I look for a leader that speaks for all Canadians, not just the business world but also the down and out.
Wolfville, Nova Scotia
I feel that what most people want in a politician is someone who really has a sense of purpose and vision for a better country and a fairer society. Unfortunately, I suspect that too many politicians are seeking power and prestige. They often begin by becoming lawyers and than feel that they need more power. Too many politicians think within the box and waste money on armaments and prisons. Think how many problems could be solved with vision and a diversion of funds from these large expenditures.
Frankly, I think that the best type of political leader is one that does not want to be one in the first place.
I think that another possible solution for our democracy might be to invoke a sort of jury-duty type of politician. Basically, five average people per riding get selected to run in an election, where they are only able to be in that position for four years. They get paid well, they can take leave of their normal jobs, but they are required to learn and make decisions in these positions. I also dont believe that the public can spend enough time to make informed day-to-day political decisions, and hence I do not think that the public should be involved in each and every vote of every bill or proposal within the government.
Also, lobbiest and special interests would have a hard time getting their positions passed based on bribes or future incentives - they would actually have to convince the elected person. I realize that this idea might need some work, but I think that most people are tired of the egocentric appearance of todays politicians.
I expect a leader to represent the best qualities we would like to see in all Canadians, which turn out to be the qualities that were reflected in Jack Layton. Express differences but maintain optimism, integrity and work for others rather than themselves. It is disappointing to have politicians who protect the wealthy while cutting services that create greater inequality.
I would like to correct a few things I have heard. Jack Layton could not be called a career politician because he was a university professor for a number of years. Career politicians work in the political field all their lives.
Secondly, someone suggested that he had not accomplished much but he had potential. He actually accomplished a great deal as a Toronto city councillor, taking leadership on issues like homelessness, violence against women and climate change. His leadership on climate change led many cities to take action themselves through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. It is true he could have accomplished more as Prime Minister, but his accomplishments are not recognized by people who did not know him as a municipal leader.
A global ecological conscience. Simple as that.
Tofino, British Columbia
Different people would want different things in their political representatives. Charisma seems to be an attractive factor for many. However there are some effective MPs who are more low key who are also effective such as Joe Comartin of the NDP. No problem with big salary if the mosaic of skills is there to get the job done.
Wolfe Island, Ontario
My observation is that virtually everything an elected politician does or does not do in office is guided by the impact on his or her ability to be re-elected. This drive for re-election can only be eliminated by limiting the time any politician can serve in office. One term would be ideal, albeit impractical, but certainly two elections should be the absolute limit. This should apply to all elected offices, from prime minister to school board trustee. The result would be a cadre of politicians who truly have the best interests on the electorate at heart, rather than their own self-interest in sustaining themselves in office.
What do we want in a leader? They should actually listen to the people. They should have at least a minimal personality. And they should not be physically repulsive.
Canadians are looking for leaders dedicated to preserving Canadian democracy, not handing over the country to American and other foreign interests. This entails reinstating serious discussion of redistribution of wealth and not allowing the disparity between wealthy and poor to continue to widen (usually benfitting the wealthy of other countries).
The economy remaining Canadian is central to guarding Canadian democracy.
Enjoying the show but I keep hearing the callers saying that an effective leader is a "man" who does this or that. I realize this may be an unconscious slip, but it does offer a limited vision of who can be a national Canadian leader. Perhaps more diversity in the party leadership, as opposed to what we see now, would be a step forward.
Also, I'm very sad about the passing of Jack Layton. He was a real person who offered real hope.
Anne Marie Nakagawa
We need leaders who have a national vision that brings Canadians together to address the great issues of our time. This is in contrast to leaders who sanction the denigration of those who oppose them, and whose policies are designed to address sectoral, or wedge issues that divide the electorate for the primary purpose of garnering votes.
A. J. Diamond
I may not be the only party leader listening to Cross Country Checkup this afternoon, but I find the conversation interesting. Your review of statistics of women in various parties prompts me to write. Please remember that as leader of the Green Party and Member of Parliament for Saanich Gulf Islands, my caucus is 100% female.
There were, as always, many interesting opinions put forth during the program today but a couple stood out. The first was from the gentleman who suggested that Canadians should vote on all legislation. Wrong. It isn't simply a matter of voting on a piece of legislation; it is a matter of understanding the implications and impact of the legislation. There is an entire process where our politicians study and are briefed and are able to formulate opinions on the merits of a piece of legislation. That's what we pay them for and if I don't like the legislation from a government, the I can vote against that party in the next election.
I also don't agree with the professor who believes that paying more will attract "better" people. Many politicians are life-long political junkies and the pinnacle of their career is to be elected to a legislative body. To many it is an honour to serve as an MP and the compensation is less important. Think about it, my MP is one of 308 in Canada. And to saying that the lower salaries attract less-than-savoury people is again wrong. Look at the scandals that have plagued many businesses where executives receive seven-figure salaries.
One change I would like is to have Canadians elect the Prime Minister and not the members of a party. You have a select few who decide on their leader and if that party wins the election - voila, the Prime Minister. That is wrong.
Good topic. We here in the Saanich/Gulf Islands riding have sent an amazing woman to Ottawa. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, is clear thinking, articulate and an engaging personality. She knows who she is and what the party stands for.
When we celebrated her overwhelming victory in the last election, she spoke of two things she was going to do when she arrived in Ottawa: host a gathering of all the new MPs (all parties) that they might connect with one another and know them as people who want to make a difference, rather than and before becoming too entrenched in the party line. In addition, she wanted to bring the women of all parties together knowing that women networking can be very effective in solving problems. Like Jack Layton, she wants to work
to bring about consensus.
Outer Gulf Islands, British Columbia
Surely, what Mr. Jack Layton demonstrated over his career as a leader in his community (Toronto, Canada) is the essential need for compassion, understanding, and mutual compromise in the consultative process that the democratic process requires in generating solutions as society evolves and advances.
I heard the host list the numbers of women in the various parties, but he forgot the leader of the Green party of Canada. She is our MP and she is perhaps Canada's best politician in that she knows our system well enough to have written an excellent book on it: "Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy." Plus, she is in politics for the best reason - to ensure there will be a good, healthy world for our children. And her track record is awesome as well.
Please do not forget the Green Party of Canada and its leader! I know, personally, that people right across the country were thrilled when she was elected.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
What is most needed in a politician is the ability to create a consensus. Politics is the art of compromise. Getting just two people to agree on one thing can be almost impossible at times. A good leader has to be able to find the common ground that will allow us to move forward. One look south of the border will show what result too much ideological inflexibility gets you. In politics, as in life, it is possible for two people of good conscience to completely disagree on a proper course of action. It is the art of politics that allows us to respectfully disagree with each other and find a solution.
We look for ability,intelligence, honesty and integrity, respect for others, compassion, openness to ideas and ability to change. What do we have now is relentless negative criticism, personal attacks, secretive government, a need to control people and information, ruthless removal of anyone who dared criticize, removing safeguards to democracy and ideology trumping rationality. God help us all.