Canadian elections: Why did inexperience triumph?

October 22, 2015 10:55 AM (UTC+8)

 

As in the United States, Canadians voted for “Hope and Change” on Oct. 19, 2015.

These are exactly the words Justin Trudeau, the 43-years old elected head of the Liberal party, repeatedly used in his victory speech in both English and French.  I could not avoid wondering if Mr. Trudeau’s team used the same public relations firm that Mr. Obama used in his first campaign, or if he just borrowed the slogans.  But to Mr. Trudeau’s credit — at least to my ears — he sounded genuine, humble and gracious – what Mr. Obama never sounds, always striking me as glib, arrogant and a horrible speaker.  Mr. Trudeau also did not look into a teleprompter, rarely glimpsed at his notes, whereas Mr. Obama has been pathetically lost without notes or when unable to read text on a screen.  Agree or disagree: Mr. Trudeau appears to be a “natural.”

Trudeau gives victory speech in Montreal
Trudeau gives victory speech in Montreal

However, there are  some similarities between these two North American leaders, the main one being that neither of them had much work experience, but made their living either from donations or taxpayers’ money.  Though journalists often refer to Mr. Obama as a “scholar” since he lectured for a few years on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, he never was.  He never wrote an article while there, and, based on interviews with colleagues (posted on YouTube); he never participated in debates either during seminars, or when these colleagues tried to engage him privately.  Perhaps he was planning his political career all along, and did not want any paper trails: Who knows?  Whatever the motives, a scholar he was not.  A community activist/organizer he was — but this means having been paid by other people’s money for — whatever.   There is no problem with this, except that such background does not prepare anyone for understanding fundamentals of a “an entrepreneurial, business society,” which made the US uniquely what it has been, and about principles of creating and using negotiating powers in particular.

Mr. Trudeau’s work experience is as limited, reduced to working a bit — according to some sources only few months, according to others a bit more — as a substitute art teacher, and later creating a voluntary organization warning of avalanches, following the tragic death of one of his brothers.  What put him on the political map was his truly touching, beautiful speech at the funeral of his father, Pierre E. Trudeau, a previous Prime Minister.

Why would North American voters elect over the last decade two such inexperienced people, inexperienced even in political life, and even a second time with Mr. Obama’s dubious track record during his first term?  One may say perhaps that voters perceived the alternatives as worse. Perhaps.

But it appears that something else is going on as the level of political discourse in all the Western world has been rapidly going down the drain.  With the distance of time, historians will be able to give better answers. At this stage, mine is a simple speculation.

North America, as well as Western Europe, decided to give up on selecting people as they advance in their schooling and university studies, and keep them on educational real estate well into their twenties, and often beyond.  The 18-year-old inexperienced kids go to business schools to be taught by faculty that most never worked in any business even a day in their lives either.  The result?  The kids learn words, jargons.  And, what in many universities are the largest departments, education, the 18 year olds study theories of education, but hardly any math or history – to later become teachers in both. Yet teaching, accounting, finance are “trades” that one can better learn by practicing, rather than by passing multiple-choice exams. Indeed, until the 1960s, one could become an accountant (or a lawyer, another trade) by working, rather than studying at university.  All the social sciences and humanities have fallen prey to the nonsense.  The smarter — but smaller — crowd navigated into tech and the sciences.

By now three generations have grown up in North America (and Western Europe too) in such relatively easy and heavily subsidized (not-quite) educational environment:  By extrapolating from jargon-polluted frames of mind, theories and speculations came to be valued over experience.  It is this superficial frame of mind that relatively good times induce, which appears to be extrapolated to political life filled mainly with mediocrities, with then “Hope and Change” and much academia-created nonsense becoming perceived as being preferable to experience.

There are some who blame social networks for such election outcomes, since those are places where people exchange words, words, words (OK, occasionally selective pictures and videos too), and fall into comfortable group think. Maybe. But comparing a unique Canadian experiment yesterday, Election Day, when 850,000 under-voting-age students took part in a mock election tends to discard this view.

The kids’ vote turned out to be close to their parents’ and grandparents’ eventual voting patterns – except being a bit “greener,” and a bit less “conservative.”  The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, took 37.5% of the kids’ popular vote – and 39.5% of the real one.   The Conservatives got 26.0% of the kiddies’ votes, and 31.9% of the real one.  The “leftist” party took 19.8% of the schoolchildren’ votes, and exactly the same percentage of the real one; the separatist Quebec party got 4% in both the real and experimental election.  The big disparity was for the “Green Party,” getting 12% of the kids’ votes, but only 3.5% in the elections.

Briefly: the kids were voting exactly as their parents and grandparents eventually did.  This implies that, surprisingly perhaps, social media — where youngsters are far more active than older generations — does not appear to have an impact in Oct. 19 elections.  Something else must shed light on this triumph of inexperience. My conclusion remains: inexperienced politicians reflect the wishes of equally inexperienced, spoiled by easy life, voters. It is a broader implication of the saying: “three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves”: the first generation creates, the second expands, the third, spoiled one, goes awry.  In resource-rich-endowed Canada, the chances of going awry may even be more severe.

Which now brings us to the question: What may Mr. Trudeau now do?

Hopefully, he may have learned from Mr. Obama’s gravest mistake and he will not surround himself with inexperienced people, while creating illusions of using experienced ones by taking pictures with them.  Remember the advisory committee he put in place when he was first elected, headed by Mr. Paul Volcker?  The committee rapidly disappeared into oblivion – some pictures excluded.  Instead, his administration consisted of inexperienced people like Mr. Obama himself – or worse perhaps, Mr. Tim Geithner, his Treasury Secretary, is a good example. He was previously at NY Fed, where the events leading to 2008 crisis escaped him.  Fine, one can say: the credit expansion leading to the crisis escaped smarter observers too.  True: but still, why reward him then to become Secretary of the Treasury?  But then the frame of mind in politics today is: Who cares about experience?

Let us hope that Mr. Justin Trudeau will.  He does not appear to be an egomaniac as some politicians south of the border do by surrounding themselves with people of dubious, if any achievements.   Let us hope too that he would learn from one of his father’s big mistakes, which led to the serious weakening of accountability in the Federal governments – and correct some.

Here is what happened: In 1969, during the first year of the Trudeau Sr. administration, he and his entourage were impressed with the Great Society programs in the US, built on the assumption that good times would never end. The problem for Trudeau’s ambitions for Canada was that large-scale spending for all the new programs required at the time scrupulous vetting by the parliament prior to approval. So he changed these rules.

Before, the House of Commons discussed spending estimates. With the change, the deliberations were moved outside the House to “standing” committees, stipulating that if these committees did not vote on spending measures by June 15, they automatically pass.  Paul Dick, then Parliament member and later Cabinet Minister in Brian Mulroney’s government, recalled that once this rule passed, “people started arguing and discussing policy at the standing committees, but they didn’t discuss the finances of a department anymore. And we lost public scrutiny of parliament … Nobody was taking a look at the beans anymore. Nobody was taking a look at what was happening with the dollars and cents.”  The change of rules allowed then to circumvent the office of controller general, and politicians no longer had to follow budgets for which the controller general held responsibility.

The auditor general’s office did not fare better. Max Henderson, who occupied that office during 1960-73 when big-spending academic theorizing got translated into budgetary reality, exposed the government’s waste and extravagance.  Trudeau Sr. cabinet’s reaction was to introduce a bill in the House of Commons cutting staff salaries in the Auditor General’s office and freezing its size.

There was sufficient uproar across Canada at the time – Henderson ending up on front pages — that Trudeau was forced to withdraw the bill later in the year.  But following Henderson’s 1973 retirement, the measure was revived and pushed through. In an interview before his death in 1997, Henderson observed: “They curtailed the fellow in that office so he would behave himself. That was a tragedy … I hate to brag, but I prophesied what was going to happen. The depreciated dollar, the incredible size of the national debt, the terrifically high taxes that would sap the incentive of our people.” Though subsequent governments repaired some of the damage, the repairs have been rudimentary.

Perhaps Trudeau Jr. would correct some of his father’s grave mistakes.  There is no shame in that. Nobody is perfect. Hope and change indeed.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.  The article draws on his 1998 Report: “Canada: Failure of a Promised Land.”

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