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Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

Where Have the Leaders Gone?

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Are the attributes of the politician and policy maker compatible?

A winning politician must be an effective salesman. His most vital asset is the ability to communicate. He displays humility and is non-threatening and approachable, while conveying confidence and competence, but never arrogance. He talks in clean, tight, and persuasive sound bites. A star politician is as good at listening as he is at talking and has the uncanny ability to connect with people on a deeply visceral level. A high pain tolerance level and thick skin are compulsory for any successful politician. Being target practice for personal attack, innuendo, gossip, and lies is a fact of life.

Once a policy maker, he must absorb reams of data that requires study, analysis and reflection. His perspective is necessarily broad-gauged. He must understand the complex interplay between public administration and its myriad actors locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. He needs to have a level of self-awareness and confidence that allows him to acknowledge what he doesn't know and solicit input from others who do. His vision is long term, not short term.

While he comes to the role with a value system and world view based on his knowledge and life experience, he is not blinded by ideology and prejudice. He is willing to be convinced that his views are wrong especially when confronted with uncomfortable facts and truths, and does not hesitate to adjust his course accordingly. An effective policymaker is a leader that possesses superior judgment, a solid inner compass, a sense of strategy, is cool and firm under pressure, and delights in making tough decisions. He has the ability to educate, persuade, and build consensus for action.

If this sounds like a tall order, it's because it is. Business, academe, the non-governmental sector, and senior public service are full of people like this. But it is a rare thing indeed to find them in the political realm. However, they do exist. A few come to mind such as John Manley, Bob Rae, Brian Tobin, Frank McKenna, Gary Doer, Paul Martin, and Jim Prentice.

I've met plenty of good politicians who are easy to like and are good and decent people, but are unfortunately lacking in policy substance and managerial experience.

David Emerson was a unique case of an accomplished chief executive with little patience for the gamesmanship and cynicism of politics. He was in Paul Martin and Stephen Harper's cabinets and was one of the strongest minister's in both governments he served. Our House of Commons needs more people of the caliber and experience of a David Emerson, not less. Perversely, we make it incredibly difficult for people like him to even consider running for office.

Some people run for office thinking that it is their duty to talk about fundamental issues, not ignore them altogether. But we have short attention spans and want quick fixes. We want low taxes. At the very same time we expect more and better services. The cost pressures of our demands are on a collision course with our capacity -- and desire -- to pay for them. There is no serious discussion on what we must do to achieve Canada's promise for the 21st century. We do not elect people who tell us what we need to know, but only tell us what we want to hear. We want them to have opinions, as long as they coincide with our own. We demand that they level with us, but penalize them if the news is bad.

Confidence in our democratic institutions has been diminishing at a steady pace. So too has respect and trust in our elected representatives. As a first-time candidate I was troubled to realize that most of us do not bother to take the time to develop a rudimentary understanding of the big issues that affect us all. Our knowledge of what governments deal with and the policy choices that it is our responsibility to confront squarely is alarmingly low. If we don't inform ourselves as citizens, what incentive does the politician have to be straight with the people whose vote he seeks?

Winston Churchill once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." I always thought he was wrong about that, but I'm not so sure anymore.

Whether you agree with them or not, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney were successful politicians and policymakers. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton were, too. In all these cases - albeit to differing degrees - theirs was a transformative type of leadership. They possessed a rich blend of political talent and significant policymaking that resulted in statesmanship of the highest order.

Sadly, we have not witnessed bold and galvanizing political leadership in Canada in quite some time. Our political culture has coarsened and cheapened in recent years, and that is largely our own fault. As citizens, we are willing consumers and politicians feed us what we expect of them, which isn't much at all. South of the border, Sarah Palin, a pretty celebrity-politician without much, if anything, substantive on offer, rivets Americans and is a potent political phenomenon.

In Canada, we've become increasingly polarized. The far left and the far right have officially gone mainstream. What passes for public discourse more that ever before resembles the dumbing down, divisive, winner-take-all gladiator political culture of the U.S. That's where nothing less than the destruction of the opponent by any means necessary is the acceptable outcome.

Those are the very same techniques that Stephen Harper has adroitly employed to kill his opponents, starting with the Progressive Conservative Party and culminated in the obliteration of Michael Ignatieff. Now a majority government, the numbing and corrosive operating mantra of 'gradual incrementalism' of the Harper Conservatives is entrenched.

Good politicians will never be hard to find. But in this environment, will inspiring and thoughtful politicians who are also shrewd policymakers emerge? I doubt it. Quality people will take a pass until we care enough to make it worthwhile for them to serve.

Mr. Veniez is a Vancouver-based businessman and was the Liberal Party of Canada's candidate in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

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