Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hollow surprises may be cunning political theatre, but certainly not leadership or gravitas

Back in the mid-to late twentieth century, an orchestra and chorus under the direction of Ray Coniff produced an upbeat version of the song, "It's the Talk of the Town". Although the song was written in the 1930's, and describes the sadness one whose love has gone, it is nevertheless a fitting theme for yesterday's announcement from the Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, "There are no more Liberal Senators." His announcement generated all the "buzz" in Ottawa, both for its surprise value and for its apparent boldness.
His announcement "frees" the Senators who were appointed by liberal prime ministers, because of their loyalty to the party as bagmen, campaign strategists or whatever, will no longer meet in caucus with the elected Liberal members of the House of Commons and will not be under the thought control of the Liberal Party leader. If elected Prime Minister in 2015, Trudeau says he will appoint an independent committee to nominate "worthy" candidates, without party affiliation to the "senior" body in the bi-cameral legislature. Many consider the Senate an appendage, a relict from a former time, that has grown both redundant and in need of reform. The NDP wants it abolished; the Conservatives want it to be elected with term limits. Originally, it was intended to provide a sober second thought on legislation passed by the House of Commons, by representatives from each province, giving all regions representation.
National Affairs reporter Chris Hall, of the CBC put it this way, on the CBC website.
The Liberal leader sent jaws dropping and tongues wagging across Ottawa when he hoofed all 32 Liberal senators out of his caucus without notice, and promised a new, more transparent process for choosing members of the Red Chamber if he becomes prime minister.
As a political gambit, it was a corker. The proposals dominated political talk shows. Trudeau forced the other party leaders to respond to him.
In the process he repositioned himself and the Liberals from defenders of an institution discredited by scandal, to proponents of changes intended to make the Senate more effective, less partisan and ultimately less reviled. (By Chris Hall, CBC website, January 30, 2014)
However, while it may have been effective political theatre, it does not carry any significance except perhaps symbolically. Trudeau needed an announcement that would help to define his leadership; he needed to come out of the weeds on the Senate issue, given Canadians' disgust with the spending scandal stories of 2013; he needed to 'get out front' of the imminent Auditor General's report that could find some of the former Liberal Senators guilty of mis-management of their spending of public funds.
Nevertheless, the announcement says more about Trudeau than it does about the Senate...more about politics and public images, than about how legislation is either researched, drafted or brought into law. Striving for public profile, the sine qua non of any aspiring politician, while necessary can take a million different paths. One can write a serious policy, history or even a biographic portrait; or one can actually accomplish something worthy of the public interest, like a campaign to raise funds for cancer, by running across the country on one leg, as did Terry Fox back in 1981. Or one can teach at a university, having obtained graduate recognition for academic achievement; or one could practice law, and participate in significant legal cases,  building a portfolio of both accomplishments and reputation on which to mount a campaign for public office.
Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau has done none of these normal apprenticeships. He is merely the eldest son of a former prime minister whose gravitas, and intellectual grasp of the many issues, makes this announcement pale in comparison. In fact, this announcement, even with the political banter it generated, will turn out to be reminiscent of Chinese food in the stomach of a hungry person in a restaurant...relatively pleasant to the taste, leaving one feeling hungry only moments after the meal.
A little bit of political sugar, or mascara, or theatre...does not a political leader make.
Unless, that is, the people of the country have become so ready to throw garlands around the neck of what is really another 'rock-star' image-building strategy and the process of politics in Canada has become so bereft of public confidence and public embrace that mere empty rhetorical announcements, delivered as a surprise without prior warning even to the Senators themselves, qualifies as the new definition of "leadership".
And if that is the case, the country is in worse shape that many thought. And the election of 2015 will be just another act in a long-running piece of theatre that if it had to sell seats, and face artistic criticism as public theatre must, would have "closed" forever long ago.

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