Harper is hampered by his lack of vision

There are no 'big-picture' ideas in his government

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The Gazette, Saturday, May 16, 2009

Watching a television report of a Shuttle spacewalk the other day, I was reminded of a great speech by John F. Kennedy, which launched America's lunar program, the great adventure in space.

"We choose to go to the moon," he said in 1962 at Rice University in Houston, the city that became home to the space program. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard..."

And he concluded: "Many years ago, the great British explorer, George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, 'Because it is there.' Well space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And therefore as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

At the Kennedy Library in Boston a couple of years ago, I sat through this speech with my daughter, who was then 16. I found it as eloquent as ever, but more interestingly, she found it riveting and meaningful.

This speech, framed by a single powerful declaration - "we choose to go to the moon," is the defining moment of the Kennedy presidency, even more so than his famous "Ask Not" inaugural address, or his important speeches on civil rights and disarmament before his tragic death in 1963.

And here's why - it was about leadership, it was about vision, it was both inspirational and transformational. Because of American leadership, space has been explored for peaceful purposes. And the economic benefits of the lunar program, from computer chips to orange juice, are felt to this day.

While Kennedy's presidency was cut short by a bullet, his place as a transformational leader was secured by a single speech, not by rhetoric alone, though the words were uplifting, but by the core message of his vision. The American people agreed with him, they were with him.

The vision thing, the big idea, is the basic test of transformational leadership. In this country, in the last half century, we've had three transformational prime ministers - Pearson, Trudeau and Mulroney.

While Lester Pearson was not an inspirational figure, he left the most impressive legacy of all - the Canadian flag, the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact, the Canada-Quebec Pension Plan and universal health care. Pierre Trudeau's transformational legacy consists of the Official Languages Act at the beginning of his tenure and the Charter of Rights as the other bookend. Brian Mulroney's claim on transformational leadership is secured by the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the NAFTA, and the acid-rain accord, among other environmental achievements.

And where does Stephen Harper stand on the transformational front, three years and four months into his prime ministry?

The answer is that he doesn't, not so far anyway. His big idea to date has been the Federal Accountability Act, with its five-year post-employment ban on lobbying for former political staff, and its strict limitations on political donations. The FAA was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but in truth it's a mess. One of the reasons Harper's staff is so weak, in his own office and elsewhere, is that nobody who's any good wants to go into government. If anyone ever mounted a Charter case against it, the FAA would likely be found unconstitutional as an unreasonable limitation on freedom of speech and association as guaranteed in Article 2.

And on the fund-raising side, ways can always be found to circumvent limits of personal donors and prohibitions on corporate donations. For example, an executive can donate $1,000 to a party and receive it back from his company as a bonus. Oldest shell game in the book. Everyone knows how that game is played, even under this law.

After more than three years in office, Harper is looking increasingly like a transactional prime minister. There's nothing wrong with this - Jean Chrétien did very well at that level for a decade, and balanced Canada's budget on his watch. But it's a notch below transformational.

Harper is simply not comfortable with the vision thing. When asked at the launch of his re-election campaign last September about his vision of Canada, he visibly blanched. It's not that he doesn't have an idea of the country and how it works - he is a BNA prime minister, firmly in the camp of the British North America Act that gave us the division of powers and asymmetrical federalism. But the closest he's come to defining that sense of the federation is in his Quebec City "open federalism" speech of 2005, a theme he should be revisiting if he hopes to rebuild support in Quebec.

The economic moment we are living in, this synchronized global recession, is also a compelling leadership opportunity for Harper. While Barack Obama takes his economic show on the road, Harper has made only one major economic speech on the current context, and that was two months ago. He was falsely accused of talking up the economy, when after all that is his job.

But there's no rhetorical lift coming from Harper. And his entourage's idea of smart politics is to try to define Michael Ignatieff with a flight of attack ads. What a pity, to waste such a leadership moment.

It's sad for Harper, a leader in need of a big idea. And it's sad for our country, which is crying out for unifying, not divisive, leadership.

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