Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

Are you listening, Prime Minister?

Is anybody listening?

While Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair each had to clamp down on a whole party full of people who could say dumb things, Justin Trudeau only had to clamp down on one: himself. And he did it. He has mastered himself. He has shown self-discipline, a willingness to learn and the ability to listen. Will that be good enough for voters to make him our new Prime Minister?


In our constitution, each Province is allotted seats in Parliament. The allotment reflects population, with some adjustments for special cases. There is a principle that each Member of Parliament should have the same number of constituents as any other MP. That way, each constituent across the country – each citizen – has roughly equal representation in the House of Commons. We don’t do it perfectly, but we do it as perfectly as anyone else. Better than most.

Also in theory, citizens vote only for their MPs and their MPs represent only their constituents. If that were true, things would be quite different in government. But it’s not true. What is true, is that candidates and MPs are merely proxies for their leaders, and that votes are effectively being cast for the leaders of the various parties contesting for power.

Our party system is so strong and wields such a hold on the imagination of voters and on the loyalty of MPs, that once an individual leader has the confidence of the House of Commons, that leader wields extraordinary power. It has been said that almost no constitution on earth reposes so much power in the executive (Prime Minister and Cabinet) as does the Canadian one. Aside from delays created by the Senate or decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, or the language of the constitution itself, there are no limits on what the executive can do with the levers of federal authority. Indeed, many people want to change our electoral system to ensure that there is a greater diversity of MPs – meaning minority Parliaments – so that PMs have to listen.

And so inevitably, regardless of how the constitution was built or meant to work, it has become an engine for the selection of a temporary sovereign. We are electing a monarch.  Thus it has come to be, and to be understood, that the characteristics of the individual people selected by parties to leadership, are extraordinarily important – because if a leader becomes Prime Minister, she or he will have huge influence over policy and administration.

It is therefore rational for the parties and for the voters to dwell, heavily, on the characteristics of the leaders. We have seen, in Canada and elsewhere, the effect of leaders’ traits on their governments and the destinies of their countries. Margaret Thatcher and Pierre Trudeau were ideologues who trusted their own instincts over anyone else’s; combined with the power given them by the parliamentary system, they wrought wrenching change on their respective countries. Stephen Harper seems like such a person, but his stony personality seems stronger than his ideas, save perhaps for some shrinkage of federal influence.

Other types of personalities create different results in power: Joe Clark and Paul Martin seemed to lack confidence; neither lasted long and little can be traced to their tenures (but both were excellent Cabinet Ministers). John Turner and Kim Campbell were the unfortunate heirs of sinking ships, ill-equipped to avoid the shoals. Brian Mulroney was actually quite strongly motivated by ideas (inclusive federalism, human rights and free trade) and was a masterful handler of people, making much of his talented Cabinet and senior public servants. Jean Chretien had one idea – to win at everything – but he translated that into the public good, in fact it can be said that Chretien, by empowering Paul Martin to slash and burn public services in the mid-1990s, rescued Canada from two decades of fiscal imprudence.

We have come to know that the character, habits, brain power and for want of a better term, emotional intelligence, of a Prime Minister are all key to how he or she will fare. No single recipe guarantees success – several will, but one ingredient will make success or failure more likely, and that is the person’s ability to listen.

“Team of Rivals”, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s already classic study of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, is founded on the thesis that Lincoln succeeded by surrounding himself with people who thought they were smarter than he was. They weren’t, but they were very, very smart. Lincoln respected others’ intelligence and advice. He also trusted his own judgment. He was a great listener and as a result, brought about great things through other people. He also became better at what he was doing, by listening.

I would contend that a capacity to listen, to learn, to filter and to delegate has been the mark of our most successful PMs. The great listener among our modern Canadian Prime Ministers was, I would submit, Lester Pearson. He came by it naturally and developed the skill as a career diplomat prior to politics. Pearson had a bright intellect, humour and unimpeachable personal integrity. He could be indecisive (a risk of listening too much and too long) but in a very short and unsteady five years of minority government, Pearson was one of our most consequential PMs. (For a list of his achievements, see this 2013 piece about him).

Pearson wasn’t the only good listener. Chretien was too – he was Da Boss, but he never pretended to know more than he knew. He had to listen to make all those good decisions. People who listen tend to attract, and keep, the company of smart people. They cultivate strong Cabinets. Pearson left a stack of qualified successors behind him; Chretien might have too, had there not been a putsch by the Martin faction.

Among the listeners, Pierre Trudeau often seemed unimpressive. He followed his own compass in almost all things, ignoring the items that disinterested him and obsessing over his own pet concerns. When he spun off on his own tangents, like his one-man peace initiative or flirtation with Castro, he accomplished little. But even Pierre Trudeau, lone wolf if ever there was one, had to work with the pack and listen – long and hard – to advice from Cabinet Ministers and Premiers, to pull off his signal achievement in repatriating and re-writing the Constitution. There are few collective efforts that overcame more inertia and resistance than Trudeau’s constitutional initiative.

So it is reasonable to say that a PM’s capacity to govern hinges, somewhat, on her or his capacity to attract wise people and to listen to them. What does that tell us about the choices faced by Canadians tomorrow, Monday October 19, 2015? Which one of the major party leaders do we think, if given the massive authority of the Prime Minister’s office, would solicit and listen to advice on how best to exercise that power?

harper trudeau mulcair

Of the Conservative Party leader, we have a large stockpile of evidence to answer the question. The way in which Stephen Harper has treated Cabinet, combined with the way in which his PMO has sunk its claws into everything of interest, clamping down on information and inhaling power, is all the evidence we need of what kind of listener the PM is. He isn’t one. Mr. Harper listens to his own heart and his own head. Period. Over the past 12 years his party has become something unique: not the Reform Party or the Progressive Conservative Party or the Canadian Alliance or even the Conservative Party of Canada. It has become the Harper Party.

The fact that Stephen Harper is the only authority left that Stephen Harper listens to, makes him a hazardous candidate for the throne. No one person can know or do everything. Facing a thousand complex problems, one man or woman alone can only ignore or simplify those problems in order to cope.  Neglect and error will penetrate such an administration and rot it to the core. There isn’t a genius alive who could conjure up all the right ideas and decisions for a multi-billion dollar administration governing a country of tens of millions in the 21st Century. Yet from all the evidence, Mr. Harper trusts only himself and the people who say “yes” to him, to run the government.

We are left then to wonder what kind of listener the other party leaders might be. By all accounts Tom Mulcair is serious about policy, about broadening the NDP to different ideas and he has solicited input from smart people inside and outside the party to do that. That is impressive. But many who know him do not describe a man who listens. Two acquaintances of mine, both who know Mulcair well, said this to me in almost identical terms: “It is all about Tom.”  Former Quebec Cabinet colleagues found him difficult to deal with, it is said. Mulcair has trouble with dissent, which is a tell-tale sign of someone who has trouble with other people’s ideas.

It is hard to know how the current NDP campaign reflects upon Mulcair. Certainly the campaign is an utter catastrophe: it took a decent lead and a huge fund of good will, mixed it with lead, sucked all of the oxygen out of it and dropped it off a tall building to the sidewalk below. Splat. Maybe Mulcair listened to the wrong advice, maybe he ignored good advice, maybe both. The basic message of the NDP campaign was “forget about what the NDP usually says or does, just trust Tom.” It was, as they say, all about Tom. Would he govern like that?

Then we have the new Mr. Trudeau. No honest person can ascribe to him a strong set of political ideas or even deep interest in policy. What he seems to have is a sentimental, cottony feeling about the country, uncoupled from any particular ideology or philosophy. He has the unfortunate trait of sounding like a phony even when he is quite sincere (a symptom of constantly pretending to know and think things he may not be all that familiar with).

Early on Mr. Trudeau was persuaded by Liberal operatives that with his name and talents, he could revive the brand and restore the party to viability.  They – and he – decided that the party could be re-built from the outside in; essentially, that the package could be crafted that would make the party electable again.

And here’s the thing: they were right. He was right. Justin Trudeau chose the right people, at the right time, to listen to. And listen he did. While Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair each had to clamp down on a whole party full of people who could say dumb things, Justin Trudeau only had to clamp down on one: himself. And he did it. He has mastered himself. He has shown self-discipline, a willingness to learn and the ability to listen. Mr. Trudeau looks like a man who thinks he is very special, but insofar as he has shown a talent for seeking and absorbing good advice, he IS very special.

It would be preferable if Mr. Trudeau had a stronger personal filter for some of the advice that comes his way. Firing all the Senators was a terrible idea that was hatched among a tiny number of insiders. Banning anti-abortionists from caucus was almost as terrible. Throwing two MPs under the bus for unproven allegations of sexual hijinks was predictably self-serving but really kind of lousy – and it created a problem that didn’t actually seem to exist. Hiring Eve Adams and her boyfriend from the Tories was an incredibly bad idea – one so terrible and self-destructive that you wonder, “who the hell came up with that?”

If Stephen Harper doesn’t listen at all, and Tom Mulcair listens too selectively, it may be that Justin Trudeau listens too much and too well. In advertising parlance (an appropriate place to find metaphors for the Liberal leader), Justin Trudeau may be one of the best pitch men – or account executives – we’ve ever had. If elected the question will be, who is the creative director? Who will come up the ideas? Will it be the brains trust which summarily fired all the Senators for no good reason or effect, who hired Eve Adams? Or will it be a broader circle? Will it be real and experienced policy thinkers, or will it just be tacticians?

Tomorrow – Monday October 19th – Canadians will finish casting their ballots and those ballots will be counted. No one knows what will happen – it is one of the least predictable elections ever. The final pre-election polls tell us that Mr. Trudeau is most likely to finish in first place. If so, we may soon discover whether his talent for listening applies only to getting what he wants, or to something more. Like governing. Fingers crossed.


One comment on “Are you listening, Prime Minister?

  1. Pingback: Reason over Passion: the Case for Voting Liberal | Think Anew, Act Anew

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2015 by in Canada, Canada Election 2015, Decision making, Politics in Canada.
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