Now's not the time to be a leader - Keith Roulston editorial
Canadians go to the polls in less than three weeks as more than 1,000 people seek public office and leaders of parties dream of becoming Prime Minister. I can’t help thinking the losers may be the luckiest.
The most relevant image I can come up with for leadership today is the carnival dunk tank – where the leader sits on a shelf and angry and frustrated citizens hurl balls seeking to hit the paddle that will douse him or her in the frigid water below. If they succeed, you can almost hear a vengeful cry of “that’ll show them!”
There’s always a tension in the way ordinary people regard their leaders, but after nearly two years of pandemic restrictions, people are angrier and more frustrated than ever. We just want it to be over and our leaders are handy people we can blame.
A line in the novel I recently read seemed so relevant to our current situation that it nearly leapt off the page: “Nothing is easier for people who never do anything than to criticize someone who actually makes an effort.”
On one hand, we grumble that politicians are all useless and never accomplish anything. On the other, we expect them to be all-powerful and get angry if they can’t solve every problem.
I grumbled at the apparent slowness of the current federal government to evacuate Afghans who had helped Canadians during the long conflict there. Yet even I was taken aback by an Afghan-Canadian who worried for the safety of her sister in Afghanistan and charged that if anything happened to her, one man would be to blame: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What was he supposed to do, strap on his Rambo gear, personally fly a jet to Kabul and charge through the streets spraying bullets until he found the woman and flew her back to Canada?
We are like the armchair hockey fan who knows exactly how the goaltender should have prevented the game-winning shot, even though he never played the game. I wish every Afghan who wanted out could have been rescued, but I have to admit I know nothing of the challenges our troops and diplomats in Afghanistan faced in accomplishing that job. Many blame bureaucratic paperwork, but other Canadians would also be furious if the government admitted Afghans without a proper background search.
Similarly, our provincial governments have been criticized if they closed businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19, then blamed if they lifted restrictions and the disease spread again. They are blasted for not imposing vaccine mandates for health care workers and teachers or implementing vaccine passports, but then hammered by others as soon as they do.
South of the border, you could almost hear relief in the voices of mainstream media commentators as they criticized President Joe Biden over the Afghan crisis after unusually, and uncomfortably, praising him for seven months.
And the mood is getting more vicious. The Prime Minister said he’d never in all his years in politics seen people as angry as the anti-everything gang that disrupted his rally in Bolton, Friday night. Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star wrote that it was frightening to see their faces contorted in such hatred and hear the vicious stream of invective.
Sometimes I can’t help thinking Trudeau had a deep-seated political suicide wish in calling this election when he did. I realize he’s too young to have had the lesson of former Ontario Premier David Peterson seared in his memory.
In the summer of 1990, Peterson headed a strong majority government and was perhaps the most popular politician in Canada. What could go wrong if he called an election? Everything, it turned out. From the beginning, Peterson was hounded by protesters at every election stop, just as Trudeau has been dogged by anti-vaccine, anti-mask protesters. Not only did Peterson’s Liberals lose the election to a surprised Bob Rae and the NDP, but Peterson even lost his own London riding.
To some extent, incumbents like Peterson and Trudeau face difficult odds, even if they start out ahead. As Peterson himself said, “To govern is to choose, and to choose is to piss people off. The longer you’re in, the more barnacles the ship of state accumulates.”
And as the destruction of statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson demonstrate, there is no forgiveness of leaders’ sins – and no credit for their accomplishments.
As soon as this election was called, I began to anticipate a change of government.
Recent polls show the Conservatives have already overtaken the Liberals with the NDP also eating away at Liberal support from the left.
Yet I can’t help thinking, given the public mood these days, that a loss for the Liberals may be a personal win for Trudeau and his family. On the other hand, a win for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole or NDP leader Singh might be a hollow victory.