Some time after the last federal election, The Current on CBC Radio 1 was doing a feature on leadership, because there seemed to be so little of it in the campaign. Various guests from different walks of life offered personal comments about what they thought leadership was, and then a panel got down to discussion about political leadership itself.
“Where was it?” was the question or, as it was also framed, “Where was the vision one might expect in a political leader?” Well-known Toronto left-winger (and rabble.ca publisher) Judy Rebick opined that political leaders had become afraid to show vision with any leading ideas because, if they did, the media would crucify them. Jack Layton had a lot of good ideas, she said in so many words, but he’s constrained from talking about them because of the media threat.
Well, knock me down with a feather! Isn’t a true leader someone who isn’t so easily intimidated? Doesn’t Rebick’s statement amount to saying, “Jack Layton doesn’t show visionary leadership because Jack Layton doesn’t show visionary leadership?”
Wouldn’t a leader with vision take on that media power if it were such a constraining force? There are ways and means of doing it, especially in an election campaign. Election battles provide a relatively level playing field. Coverage of a leader, even of a third party like the NDP, is virtually guaranteed. There are also many unfiltered media occasions — appearances on open line shows, extended interviews (like the ones that CBC radio and television do during campaigns) and, now, four different leadership debates (two in English, two in French). Add to this an extensive advertising budget, helped along by the new public-funding formula for campaign financing.
For that matter, shouldn’t concentration of mass-media power be tackled as an issue in itself — for how it works against Canadians and undermines the chances of a truly vibrant democracy? Layton and his caucus have expressly avoided taking on that issue because, as they see it, media owners have just too much power. That’s exactly the reason, however, why the NDP should make it a leading issue. Indeed, if an anti-establishment party, as the NDP pretends to be, isn’t prepared to take on unequal power, then there’s not much point to the party’s existence.
Layton’s not being a visionary leader, then, isn’t because of external reasons, but because, although he may take a strong stand on certain issues such as equal marriage, he may simply not be a visionary leader. The political route he’s chosen reflects this. It involves avoiding even a hint of radicalism, using finesse with the media in the hope of sympathetic coverage, bending to media power, trying to gain an edge by differential policy fragments here and there, and playing tactical games.
Moreover, once you’re committed to that route or psychologically fixed in it, your mind closes off to doing politics in a different way. When by chance the occasion for elaborating a vision arises anyway, you either miss it or are constitutionally unable to follow through.
Perhaps the most telltale illustration of this pattern occurred in the 2004 campaign. There was only one interesting plank in the NDP’s campaign — an inheritance tax. In itself, it was an altogether respectable and conventional proposal, involving only the portion of estates over $1 million and allowing exemptions for in-family transfers of small businesses and family farms.
Most western countries, including the right-wing United States, had such a tax — often, as in the case of the U.S. and the U.K., with much more rigorous provisions. Layton, however, was hammered for the idea in newspaper editorials and other media comment. This media attack turned the proposal into something controversial.
Layton responded defensively. He didn’t much talk about the idea after the initial flurry of opposition. Then, a week before the election, he disclosed that the proposal would be sacrificed to other objectives if there were a minority government, since the NDP had been the only party interested in the idea.
“Cutting the policy loose,” was how the decision was described in one news report. Layton denied the tax proposal involved a core principle, explaining it was only put into the platform to ensure an NDP government could finance everything the party was proposing to do.
In a phrase, the plank generated static so it was jettisoned. It was seen as just one of a whole host of policy fragments that one could retain or discard depending on circumstances
A leader with vision, on the other hand, would have reacted in the opposite way, looking on the controversy as a political gift. What made the idea of the inheritance tax interesting was the premise behind it — the creation of a more egalitarian society. The controversy allowed for a high-profile elaboration of that vision and an appeal to liberal democratic sentiment going well beyond an inheritance tax.
It also allowed for a wide-ranging attack on the Liberals and the Conservatives whose right-wing fix had created such an unequal society in Canada — an attack with an edge that the NDP campaign lacked. It had the possibility within it of changing the whole tenor of the election. And, after all, only 2.5 per cent of Canadian families would have been affected by the tax and, then, in only a relatively minor way.
The media attack also gave Layton a hook to explain to Canadians, especially in his unfiltered media appearances, how Ã©litist, concentrated media ownership works against them. This opportunity was missed, too.
A phrase tossed out in the recent 2005-06 campaign illustrated the same pattern. Layton, during one of the leaders’ debates, was trying to refocus discussion from taxes to how government money is spent.
“The federal government has enough of your money,” he said animatedly to viewers, by way of prologue. This was an extraordinarily contentious statement for him to make. True, surpluses have become routine federally, and the budget worked out by the NDP for its campaign proposals was premised on no tax increases. If you thought through to the kind of society you wanted to create, however, you could easily envision a shift in the balance between taxes and the market.
After all, the societies that social democrats in Canada most admire, the Scandinavian countries, have considerably higher tax levels than we do, and we admire them for the very things the tax difference pays for. Looking ahead, one would always have that in mind — would indeed pointedly debunk the phony notion that taxes are inherently bad, debunk also the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ tax-cut boasting, and shift the political “frame” 180 degrees.
Regardless of the NDP’s projected budget, moreover, why would Layton make a statement like that in the first place, with its anti-tax ring, not much different in tone from Stephen Harper’s joking that every tax he had ever met was one that he didn’t like? The statement could only reinforce the anti-tax perspective inculcated by right-wing media dominance and lead to more Conservative voting and the downsizing and privatizing of things we do together as a community.
It also provided a glimpse of how intellectually sterile the NDP has become.
Layton, while traveling during the campaign, often listened to stirring speeches recorded for the purpose, including the one by Tommy Douglas with the famous phrase, “dream no little dreams.” He conducted his campaign, however, as if all his dreams were little and had to be checked against public opinion surveys for their validity. Alas, not even his energy and sparkle — the qualities that endear him to us — could offset that.