Leadership in bad times
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 28, 2008

The biggest impediment to greatness for the Wayne Gretzky of politics is want of a capacity for transcendent leadership. It is also rapidly becoming the greatest impediment to his remaining in government.

The measure of leadership is not how well you do in the good times but how well you do in the bad. The spate of political upsets now nipping at the Achilles heel of a manifestly talented prime minister has rendered him dog tired and snarly. From Lukiwski to Mulroney-Schreiber to Cadman to Bernier to dealing with professional and procedural incompetence in Crown agencies and legislative committees, his beleaguered government has too often used the sledgehammer instead of the rapier.

Now, in concert with rising testosterone levels, his party's fortunes are plummeting in the polls. A recent Harris Decima poll has 37 per cent of Canadians supporting the Conservatives compared with 44 per cent for the Liberals but that is only part of the picture. Whereas in January 2006 the sex-and-the-city vote (young urban women) favoured Liberals by only five percentage points, in April of 2008 it was a 19-point lead. Less pronouncedly, the April Harris Decima poll also indicated movement by female voters in all demographic categories. In other words and despite varying ages and degrees of political literacy, women recognize rising testosterone levels when they see them.

Nowhere have these been on greater display than in the government's efforts to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board. Thanks to a government bestowed monopoly, the world's largest single marketer of prairie grown wheat and barley has helped stabilize farm income by paying farmers the same average sale price. No paragon of free-market competition, neither is its co-op approach a prairie socialist's haven. To the contrary, its product and its marketing skills are respected around the world -- so much so that the agrifood multinationals are skulking like vultures in anticipation of juicy pickings as the board, intent on protecting the right of farmers to decide its fate for themselves, continues in pitched battle with a government intent on "freeing" farmers from their wheat board "oppressor."

Last week, in the third of three court victories, the board succeeded in removing the government's gag order against advocating on its own behalf. Having successfully deflected 14 challenges in various NAFTA and WTO tribunals, this was hardly surprising though the last thing anyone expected was the CWB taking its own government to court. But what else could it do? Its chief executive officer had been fired, its government appointed directors replaced and its barley plebiscite gerry-mandered. And then a gag order prohibiting advocacy on its own behalf?

Little wonder private members' bills aiming to strengthen farmer control of the board are wending their way through the Commons and the Senate.

The prime minister has undergone a personal makeover; now it is time for the Conservative party to do likewise. Women should be drooling over their well appointed, handsome prime minister. Instead they are feeling sorry for Stéphane Dion and all the other victims this government's institutional wrecking ball appears to be leaving its wake.

Changes in the PMO are a good start; naked power plays and a bunker mentality should be next. Mandatory communications seminars that emphasize a business-like approach and invoke lessons from Barack Obama are the greatest necessity. Obama's successful rhetoric suggested the beginnings of the post-partisanship era voters everywhere crave though Canadians would be happy with a simple bit of optimism and courtesy in their politicians.

Better still, it's high time the party reconsidered the ability of populist politics to produce cabinet-worthy candidates. Given the success of Harper's hand-picked recruits -- David Emerson and Michael Fortier -- the prime minister should request and receive from his party at its November convention the right to appoint, with suitable compensation to incumbents, up to 10 candidates to run in winnable ridings.

In the meantime, he should ignore the imperatives of geographical correctness and shuffle his cabinet to admit his best performers. Under Liberal rule, Eastern Canada dominated politics for decades. There is nothing wrong with the West taking its turn.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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