Wanted: Leaders with Big Ideas, Willing to Take Risks

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Canada needs risk-taking leadership that offers vision and creativity. However, there is little reward and much ridicule in politics for taking risks. The age of the 12-second news clip makes communicating complex ideas difficult and dumbing things down a requirement. Too many of us rely on an electronic media that is focused more on controversy than substance, because emotional tension makes for good television.

We seem to be more voyeuristic and less insightful as we tune into the Gomery inquiry and the Michael Jackson trial, like the latest reality TV shows. All this is contributing to a risk-averse, anti-leadership culture and a dumbed-down civil discourse.

Real leadership is about originality and vision. It involves doing things that have not been done before which means it is inherently more susceptible to failure for which we seem to have little tolerance. The status quo is so uncontroversial.

There is not enough serious attention being given to our aging population, the AIDS pandemic or the huge risk of our planet overheating. These issues don’t seem to grab our Parliament or us with the appropriate sense of urgency.

The fact that separatism is again a great risk to the survival of the Canada we inherited does not seem to provoke us to passion for the kind of nation we want to leave our children or the leadership we need to realize it.

In today’s climate, try to imagine hard-drinking, scandal-ridden Sir John A. Macdonald emerging from controversy to achieve such a magnificent accomplishment of the “National Dream” — the great transcontinental railroad. He survived the “Pacific scandal” which makes the sponsorship furore look like a sideshow. Macdonald was courageous and humorous. John A., so legend has it, was walking on a narrow wooden sidewalk on the front lawn of Parliament, then a muddy field, when an opposition MP walking toward him was unable to pass.

The MP shouted at Macdonald “I will not step aside for a drunk and a scoundrel.” Macdonald stepped off the sidewalk, stood ankle-deep in the mud and retorted, “I will!”

It is hard to imagine there would be a Canada without his vision, uncompromising determination and a wee dram of scotch.

Pierre Trudeau authored our modern civil society with the Charter of Rights and was always in the face of separatists.

Today’s “democratic deficit” dogmatists would have a field day with his “just watch me” approach to government. We have MPs opposed to the very concept of our nation, who want to break up the country. How much more generous, tolerant and democratic can we get?

What we need is more results, more leadership, and not more process from Parliament.
Brian Mulroney, the prime minister who forced the issue of free trade and authored Canada’s rise as a great trading nation and much of the foundation of our current prosperity, was reviled. Even his hated GST has given us the resources to fund our health-care system and has had little negative consequence. Most of us now acknowledge it was the right decision.

But leadership is about making the right, not necessarily the popular, decision. It is also about recognizing that some things are more important than winning elections.

These leaders had to live a long time to get any respect. They were largely uncompromising. Maybe they were even the authors of our faux democratic deficit. I am not sure some, like Mulroney, ever got their due.

We have been a country of big ideas. When thoughtfulness and reflection in leadership is dithering and constructive opposition is weakness, we are in trouble. Paul Martin and Stephen Harper deserve more respect.

I admire Martin’s thoughtfulness. He considers competing ideas, is not afraid to change his mind and engages us with the assumption that we get it. I think Harper demonstrated statesmanship when he supported a budget that contained many ideas he had publicly supported and saved the country an unnecessary election.

We should encourage such behaviour in our leaders and push them to think bigger. Let’s take a risk and not muddle through another decade. Let’s be a nation of courage and passion. It is time for a new “National dream.”

Glen Murray, a former Winnipeg mayor, is research associate for the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto where he is also a visiting scholar and urban policy co-ordinator.