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DOBBIN: Fire the managers

 Where are the leaders?  It’s a question I hear from people more and more. People are looking for inspiration, hope, some sense that someone at least has some ideas of where the country should go — not this afternoon or tomorrow or next week but in the next 20 years or 50.

Someone who is at least partly a visionary and not just a strategist and tactician. Canadians, I think, are desperately looking for someone who can demonstrate that they have done some serious and thoughtful thinking about what kind of country we want to build.

But political leadership of that kind seems to be a thing of the past. They don’t make Tommy Douglases any more or even Pierre Trudeaus. Why?

Governing as business

The source of the problem goes back to the 1990s, the first decade of enhanced corporate rights (so-called free trade) where the mantra was “We have to run government like a business.” People should be careful what they ask for because the decline of democratic governance and the dilution of the ideals of leadership flow directly from that corporate imperative. Until we recognize it and reverse it we are unlikely to find our way out of the dilemma.


Stephen Harper does run the country like a business — with a ruthless disregard for any interests other than the fiduciary interests of those who want to see humanist, activist government dismantled. No other prime minister in Canadian history has shown such casual contempt for democracy, its ideals and its institutions.

UBC psychology professor Robert Hare has written about what he describes as the sub-criminal psychopath. When such people rise to the top, they serve the needs of a profit-driven organization ruthlessly well. Is it a stretch to say that, in that mode, Stephen Harper has become the quintessential, post-industrial corporate manager?

That’s what passes today for leadership.

What do our leaders stand for?

But it is interesting to note that Harper comes out on top in the leadership stakes because for many people the political culture has led them to conclude that at least Harper believes in something.

It’s the Ronald Reagan syndrome — Reagan, too, was ruthless and right-wing and most Americans disliked his policies. But the Democrats were shameless opportunists, political chameleons people had come to mistrust.

It’s not by chance that Jack Layton comes next in the leadership polling or that Ignatieff is dead last. The numbers are directly proportional to how Canadians see their capacity to reflect the values they themselves hold and to their assessment of how genuine they are in what they say they believe in. Voters don’t have a clue what Ignatieff stands for and get the feeling he doesn’t either. But everyone comes up short in this era of managing.

Don’t manage, envision!

The cultural context in which this quest for leadership credibility takes place reveals why there is such a desire for real leaders. Peopled are tired of being managed. They want some big ideas.

The new imperative of the 1990s did not encourage people to imagine just what they might get with a government run like a business. For example, just what business are we talking about? Enron? WorldCom? Goldman Sachs? BP? These were the model corporations, the ones worshipped by those declaring the imperative. All of the values they demonstrated were fatally hostile to those underpinning democracy.

I remember interviewing the head of the New Zealand Business Roundtable (the BCNI equivalent) while preparing a documentary for CBC Ideas in the early ’90s. He got angry just thinking about government and democracy. He was, of course, totally supportive of the free market revolution brought in by Sir Roger Douglas in 1984.

He railed against the notion of politics “interfering” in the economy — as if the economy was somehow completely separate from society and from the governance of society. These were parallel universes and in the economy only those who had skin in the game were qualified to comment, let alone act.

Dreams we can’t discuss

It was about this time, particularly evident with the coming to power of finance minister Paul Martin, that we quit hearing the phrase full employment. It had been something that all governments paid at least lip service to — it was a goal integral to the notion of democratic governance. But when the economy is wrenched away from society, hived off as a separate self-regulating, universe full employment has no place. It becomes a policy orphan.

It was replaced in the government-like-a-business world with a new imperative: inflation. This was the principal concern of the corporations and the wealthy as they had the most to lose. The economy — a euphemism for the most powerful corporations — took on more gravitas than society or democracy. Indeed, politicians began referring to their countries not as nations but as economies.

Nations need leaders, economies need managers. It helps explain why Harper, as authoritarian as he is, leads the leadership stakes. When the economy is front of mind, managers win. He has no policies to interfere in the economy.

The full employment goal implied that the economy was there to serve those who worked in it — it was supposed to function in such a way as to actually produce jobs for everyone who wanted them. But in the new inflation-centred world the question became “Ask not what your economy can do for you but what can you do for your economy.” How many times have you heard the phrase it’s not good for the economy?

The economy replaced the nation in the new globalized world. Paul Martin deliberately kept unemployment at close to nine per cent throughout the 1990s with high interest rates aimed at keeping inflation at an artificial level of just over one per cent. The logic? Labour flexibility — the driving down of wages and salaries (and workers’ power)  — in the interest of the “economy.”  Full employment went from being a national goal to being an economic threat. And Canada ended up having the second highest percentage of low-paying jobs in the OECD.

The interests of workers, their families and the nation were disappeared in this new Orwellian paradigm. EI was slashed because it was a “disincentive” to participate in the economy. Ditto social assistance. Labour standards are no longer enforced (unless you belong to a union).


The language by which we understood ourselves was reframed by the agencies of big business — the media, think tanks, complicit politicians, and senior bureaucrats. In an economy we are not citizens but taxpayers; not citizens or families but clients or customers. Schools and hospitals now offer products. Principals and hospital administrators are CEOs.

Then there arose the crisis in the global economy caused by greed, lawlessness and arrogance and suddenly government returned. Many hailed its return as an important institution, hoping that its long exile would be over. But the massive intervention was done, in the U.S. most dramatically, not on behalf of the nation or democracy or citizens but on behalf of the economy — that handy short-form for giant corporations, the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions that have become synonymous with the economy. The bailouts were so huge they now threaten the nations that implemented them.

This was management, not leadership. There was a hint of national policy in the stimulus program, forced on Harper by the NDP and Liberals. But Harper’s bank policy has driven millions of Canadians into unsustainable debt in the interests of the economy.

Canadian and Western political culture has been twisted out of shape by placing the abstract economy on a pedestal so that big ideas — pharmacare, robust tax revenue, a genuinely green economy, prosperity without growth, public ownership of resources, curbs on advertising, a shorter work week, free university education — cannot be talked about because they would be seen as interfering in the economy.

That puts us a long way from nation-building. The managers are killing us. Bring on the leaders.