Chairman's Desk

Canada tests the dynastic waters

The article appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 26, 2016.’

Hillary Clinton’s victory in the June 7 California primary represented more than just establishment political forces prevailing over a Bernie Sanders insurgency. It was yet another notch in the belt for dynastic political families.

Dynastic politics are often challenging: the idea of politicians rising to power under the steam of a family name challenges the ideal of meritocracy we praise in democratic systems. It seems like a revival of the monarchies of the past: sweeping tales of glory, pride and redemption, or, sometimes, rejection.

In recent political history, there have been a number of political dynasties. The Clintons, the Bushes, the Le Pens, the Notleys, the Trudeaus: the list of families in democratic nations that have heavily influenced modern politics is long and growing.

It’s not a particularly difficult phenomenon to understand: voters become intimately familiar with high-profile political figures, and lionize (or demonize) their name and brand. The goals, values and aspirations that voters associate with the parent or spouse who came first in the dynasty are superimposed over the public image of the successor.

Many of these dynasties began decades ago, and almost all were initially headed by men. Those in the family who follow as politicians must embrace the legacy of their parent or spouse, and simultaneously forge their own independent legacy, highlighting differences and divergences.

Recent history shows just how tentative that dance can be.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right National Front party in France, ignited controversy with inflammatory speeches and anti-immigrant sentiment that appealed to right-wing French voters. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, took over the party in 2011 and has taken it to new heights by adopting many of his ideas, but she has taken steps to highlight a softer, kinder approach. This shift has been reflected in French politics, with Le Pen leading some recent polls on the 2017 French presidential election.

In the United States, George H.W. Bush was elected president as a continuation of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. However, his policy-heavy approach and struggle to connect with average Americans led to his eventual defeat. A little less than a decade later, his son, George W. Bush, was elected as a two-term president. He followed his father’s right-wing agenda, but complemented it with a folksy charm and an easy manner in connecting with Americans.

Closer to home, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s father, Grant Notley, served as leader of the moribund Alberta NDP for 16 years. His daughter’s sweeping victory last year would have been unimaginable to a man who had spent decades fighting conservative hegemony. Premier Notley’s centre-left agenda has all the trademarks of her father’s cautious, yet populist-left wing views.

No one need be reminded that our Prime Minister himself is the product of dynastic politics — the son of one of Canada’s most memorable prime ministers. Pierre Elliott Trudeau left an indelible imprint on our society, with his personable charm and his commitment to socially and fiscally liberal policies. Not surprisingly, Justin Trudeau has benefited immensely from his father’s legacy.

The current prime minister followed in his father’s footsteps in many ways. He has pursued many of the nation-building ideals credited to his father. He has inspired a generation of younger voters to engage in the political process. And he has attacked Canada’s economic travails with the same Keynesian strategy his father followed.

But there are also palpable differences. While his father was often described as unbending, our current Prime Minister prides himself on flexibility. Pierre Trudeau enjoyed sparring, while Justin Trudeau prefers co-operation. Trudeau senior was dismissive of giving MPs independence, while Justin Trudeau has promised to empower them.

The politics of dynasties are fascinating — and a relatively new phenomenon in Canada. It remains to be seen how far Canadian voters are willing to allow a brand to stretch. However, it was certainly a harbinger of things to come when, just two months ago, a 19-year-old Ben Harper, the son of former prime minister Stephen Harper, took his first tentative steps into the political arena by penning an op-ed piece criticizing Justin Trudeau for his deficit spending.

Plus ‘a change.