Among the most frequent questions I get is how Canada became saddled with its current crop of politicians. Where, my interlocutor ask, did all the leaders and statesmen go? How can we encourage visionary leaders to re-enter the political fray and help rollback the frontiers of the state? In short how do we get Wilfrid Laurier back on the ballot?
My short answer is that you don't get Laurier on the ballot. He's dead and so is the Canada he lead. A political visionary in one generation can easily become an irrelevant footnote in the next. Even if one accepts the view of small and limited government, the needs of a nation change over time.
Laurier's Canada was a rapidly growing agrarian colony, not a post-industrial G7 country. The political skills required to lead the former are mostly different than the latter. That does not mean they are mutual exclusive, but nevertheless different. Would Laurier have been able to master the economic and diplomatic complexities necessary to negotiate the scores of bilateral trade agreements that the Harper government has in play at the moment? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.
The contrast is striking and important. Leaving aside ideologies Harper and Laurier present too very different types of politician. Harper the cautious technocrat preaching, though not always practicing, prudence and restraint. Laurier was a visionary who could skillfully move between the Two Solitudes at a time when a clumsy ethnic grievance monger would have easily destroyed the country. Had these men switch places a century apart, it is unlikely either would have thrived. Modern Canada is too large, too diverse and too cynical a place for Laurier's rhetoric. Edwardian Canada was too young and too ambitious to have been sated by so dull a figure as Harper.
Different times require different leaders. This does not mean that you require different principles. Both Laurier and Calvin Coolidge were, broadly speaking, classical liberal politicians. Yet both were very different personalities, each well suited to their time and place. The quest for a Messiah figure who will reorient history is vain. History has other "plans," which are often apparent only decades or centuries later.
Then there is the electorate. To have leaders you need to have followers. The voters who elected the Laurier Liberals four times were modest in their hopes. Free trade, if they could get it, a government that kept the peace and the occasional sprinkling of patronage to the right people. It is easy to be a principled politician when your principles, and those of the voters, align pretty well. OK. So if voters today have different principles, then why don't we have politicians with matching principles?
Because voters today don't have principles or ideologies. Instead they have wants, desires and fears. This has always been the case, but in years past government could do little to assuage the fears and pretty much nothing in regards to wants and desires. Today government can and does try to be all things to all people. It is thus decreed that all shall have free top quality health care, free top quality education and free top quality infrastructure. All administered by a cadre of highly educated, non-partisan and wholly disinterested public servants.
The reason our politicians are of such a low grade compared to the past, even considering the nostalgia factor, is that they are asked to perform an impossible balancing act. When government was charged with maintaining the roads and the police, it was a job many competent and experienced people could do. When government is charged with being mother, father and best friend to every man, woman and child in the country, then what is required is not a leader but a secularized Messiah. Being left with mere mortals that compose any human society, we have leaders that fall short of those impossible expectations.
Now if you are an individual of some accomplishment and ability, someone who understands how hard it is to do things that can be done, what is the rational response to the prospect of political office? Shudder and move on. You cannot be all things to all people, therefore it is best not to try. Focus on problems that can be solved using the best methods available. In other words, stay out of politics.
An honest and intelligent observer of health care policy would conclude that Canada needs more private sector involvement. There are a dozen reasonably effective nation models that can be studied and adapted. Yet no politician dares suggest this openly. A very large portion of the electorate, and virtually all of the MSM, hold as inviolate the demand for excellent health care under a socialist system. This is a contradiction in terms. Most sane, honest and rational people will not spend their lives seeking an office in which they must, as a political necessity, tell lies.
When the politics of an age demands contradictions, it produces cowards. So uniquely awful a figure, and remarkably successful a politician, as Dalton McGuinty is the end product of the welfare state. What began with the soaring rhetoric of Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth ends with the current Premier of Ontario in all his oily glory. He lies and gets away with because all politicians lie, not just once in awhile as a matter of national importance, but routinely and casually.
The innovation which the Dalt has added to the Canadian political landscape is the lack of all pretense. He will contract himself without shame and without hesitation from one day to the next. He survives because the electorate assumes this is how politics works. But why does it work this way? Because the voters have made impossible demands. The only way to satisfy them is to spin lies and fantasies and hope no one notice until it is too late.
We have the bastards we deserve.