Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On greatness

Plenty of commentators have pointed to Dean Beeby's report on public consultations about Canada's most inspiring people as evidence that Stephen Harper and his Cons couldn't be much further from the mark. And that point is fair enough on its own.

But it's worth noting something else as well: respondents to the Canadian Heritage Department's survey seem to have drawn a close link between political greatness, and signature achievements in institution-building:
The Canadian Heritage Department extracted a Top 10 list for an April 29 briefing note for the minister, Shelly Glover.

Only one clearly identifiable Conservative appears: Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, in eighth place.

The list was topped by former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by marathon-of-hope runner Terry Fox; NDP leader Tommy Douglas; former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson; astronaut Chris Hadfield; environmental activist David Suzuki; NDP leader Jack Layton; Sir. John A.; hockey legend Wayne Gretzky; and Romeo Dallaire, the soldier and Liberal senator who recently announced his resignation.

The consultation also asked which of Canada’s accomplishments of the last 150 years “make you most proud to be a Canadian?”

Medicare topped that list, followed by peacekeeping, then the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms at No. 3.

The Conservative government, which has recently been buffeted by a series of Charter-based losses at the Supreme Court of Canada, did not mark the 25th anniversary of the Charter in 2007, nor the 30th in 2012.

The rest of the accomplishments list, in order: contribution to the Second World War; the Canadarm; multiculturalism; contribution to the First World War; bilingualism; space exploration; and the Constitution Act of 1982.
And it's also noteworthy who's missing: relatively recent, long-serving politicians whose time was marked mostly by cuts and tinkering (Jean Chretien), or whose big plans produced few or negative results (Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper). In effect, with the exception of Jack Layton, respondents didn't see anything about the last 20-plus years of Canadian politics to be the least bit inspiring.

Which leads to an obvious question: if we're indeed inspired by big ideas and strong principles, then why aren't there more of those on offer in our current political system?

It's well and good to recognize in retrospect the importance of Medicare, the Charter, multiculturalism and bilingualism. But in recent election cycles, anything of comparable ambition has been not only left off the table, but labeled unfit for political consumption: anybody proposing a new social program or constitutional change is immediately shouted down for trying to accomplish something which isn't easy, quick and poll-tested.

Which serves Stephen Harper and his ilk fairly well in the long run. If Harper is doomed to the "uninspiring" pile (due to the fact that his plans for giant pipelines, climate obstruction and capacity slashing tilt distinctly toward the negative side of the ledger), he'll probably accept as a second-best outcome a legacy of chipping away at past accomplishments and salting the earth so that nothing inspiring can ever grow again.

But it's less clear why anybody else should be willing to accept that inspiring politics (as a matter of setting and meeting big public goals, not merely personal branding) should be a thing of the past. And any current politician wanting to join the list of leaders who have made a lasting impact should be laying the groundwork to do more than simply outlast one or two opponents an election at a time.


  1. If you look at some of the things that NDP offer they're big things, Porportional Rep, National Pharmacare, and Cap and Trade for example.

  2. I'm certainly a fan of those ideas. But pharmacare is the only one that rises to the level of the types of programs mentioned by the survey respondents - and there's a long way to go in making the kind of push needed to implement any of them as policy.