This article argues that although a minority Parliament might cause us
to rethink our understanding of leadership, the principles of effective
leadership in a democracy are equally applicable in a majority or minority
A few years ago, I read an article that has stayed with me, about the changing
skills that leaders of multinational corporations need to succeed in the
New Economy, and what change might mean for Canadians. The article said:
the traditional [leadership] style of leading the troops over the hill
to conquer is out of favour in an economy increasingly marked by mergers,
joint ventures and co-operative networking. Being able to work collaboratively
delegating responsibility and appreciating diversity is becoming the
way of the New Economy
Canadian senior executives are in the enviable position
of being leaders in this approach.1
According to this article, business leaders now think that the traditional,
tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners kind of leadership belongs in the past.
By contrast, todays corporate leader is expected to excel at teamwork,
relationship building, negotiation and communications. This article went
on to say that in the New Economy, those countries whose culture and values
encourage collaboration are more likely to succeed in leadership positions.
Canada, it concluded, is such a country.
In other words, in an increasingly diverse and complex world, the best
way to succeed is not by trying to steamroll the competition. Working together
is often a better way to get results.
To me, this shows that there are two competing views of leadership. One
emphasizes the power to issue commands and rules, usually from a remote
location. It regards involvement with othersespecially competitorsas
interference that only diminishes the power of the leader.
The other emphasizes collaboration. In this view, far from being diminished
by working with the competition, leadership can be enhanced and strengthened
Over the last decade, I have been involved in many debates about leadership.
Now, as the Leader of the Government in the House of Commonsin a minority
ParliamentI find myself in a unique position to test some of the ideas
and see where theory meets practice
The answer to the question What kind of Leadership do we want in Parliament
depends on who you askor, perhaps, on how you look at democracy. Let me
explain with an example based on personal experience.
Our government recently tabled its Speech from the Throne, followed by
the Prime Ministers Address in Reply to it. Two opposition parties, the
Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, proposed amendments. As a minority
government, we had some hard choices to make.
There were some tense moments. At one point we were poised to hold a confidence
vote on the amendments. But we worked hard with the other parties. We all
met, talked and, in the end, found agreement on wording that satisfied
them and met the governments objectives without compromising its core
principles. Today, there is a sense among the parties that together we
were able to demonstrate we can make this Parliament work.
Nevertheless, there is an alternate view, which says that we should have
pushed ahead with the confidence vote and that working together with the
opposition only serves to weaken the government. As House Leader it has
been my job to lead many of these negotiations. So let me take this occasion
to comment on how I think we should proceed.
In my view, the genius of democracy lies in its ability to help us live
with our differencesand to do so respectfully. It is a way of making decisions
on issues of the highest importance, when others around usour family members,
friends and neighboursmay disagree with our views.
Democracy does this through a two-step process. First, we discuss and
debate our views. Ideally, we propose options and alternatives, we provide
arguments and evidence and, in the process, we all listen and learn. Then
In Parliament, of course, this happens by a vote. In a Westminster system
such as our own, a political party with a majority can gain control of
this second step. When it does, it effectively controls Parliament.
What questions does this pose for our two views of leadership? If you believe
that leadership is defined by who controls the most votes then the answer
is clear. All that really matters is whether or not I have the power to
decide. If I do, you do not. If I share some of it with you, my power as
a leader is diminished. Looked at this way, the logic of power is brutishly
simpleas is the kind of leadership that follows from it.
But now let me shift back to the first stage of democracy: deliberation
and debate. Suppose that I have more power than you. Suppose that I am
part of a majority government that has the votes to ensure the final decision.
If the debate and discussion between us is meaningfulif I really listen
to youit may change how I think. It may even change how I use the power
that I have.
So, while you may not have the power to decide, you can still have some
influence over me. But that is possible only if I am willing to listen
to you and seriously consider what you say.
It is this basic belief that democracy is about listening to one anothereven
when the number of votes is in someones favourthat makes it so appealing.
It allows us to accept the final decision as legitimate, even when it goes
against our views. It allows us to live with our differencesand to do
There is nothing in democracy, however, that forces us to talk and listen
to one another. It is a choice and a commitment that each party and each
individual must make, if democracy is to be anything more than the quest
Even in countries with a long history of democracy, this does not come
easily. It must be cultivated, practiced, learned and reinforced. We are
all very much part of a tradition in which leadership has been practiced
as a game of control. We all need to contribute, if we are going to change
Leadership in A Minority Government
This brings me to the subject of minority governmentsone on which, I am
fast becoming an expert.
Canadians have decided that this Parliament will be governed by a minority.
Although I might have preferred otherwise, I fully accept that judgment.
But what lesson should we learn from it?
In my view Canadians want Parliament to be about more than the quest for
power. They want to see that debate is meaningful and that we are listening
to one another when we engage in it. They want to see more collaboration
and less confrontation.
Finding myself in the situation of managing a minority government is proving
very instructive. Most of the Houses activity must be negotiated beforehand.
It is not always easy. There are times when I would prefer to say to my
colleagues across the table: Take it or leave it! rather than What do
Believe me, What do you think? can be a lot harder. The opposition parties
often have very different views from those of our government. As a result,
even at the best of times, governing with a minority can be a trying and
messy business. But overall there are fewer surprises, procedural shenanigans,
and games, at least for now. People have to agree to make it work.
Still, let me be very clear: If anyone thinks that this means that we do
not have a bottom line, they are wrong. As a government, we have an agenda
based on a substantive policy direction. We have goals. We fought an election
campaign on them. And we will stand by them.
So, yes, I am listening to the oppositionand so is the government I represent.
But I regard that as a gain for Canadiansand I think that they will too.
This brings me back to the question of working together with the opposition:
Should it be seen as a sign of weakness? As you may have guessed, I disagree
with that view.
It is based in a view of leadership that I rejectone that sees Parliament
as little more than a game of power and who controls it. From this angle,
our success as a government will be judged by whether we can get our agenda
through without blinking or caving in or backing down or some other
of a dozen tired metaphors.
From where I stand, this is just wrong. I have metaphors tooones that
I think do a much better job of explaining what we are trying to do, like
finding a balance, looking for middle ground or just plain working
From my perspective, what looks like an effort to make room for other voices
may look to others like weakness or having no bottom line. As always, so
much depends on how we choose to see things.
Interestingly, some commentators have taken the opposite view from the
one I just discussed. They think that Parliament is working remarkably
wellso well, in fact, that they may wonder why we would ever want a majority
My answer is this: While we are learning from this experienceand that
is a good thingthe right lesson to draw here is not that minorities are
better than majorities. It is rather that collaboration is better than
Moreover, there is a cost that comes with minority governments and we should
recognize it. Let me remind you that there are deep differences between
the views of our government and those of the other parties. In a minority
situation, we must be careful about how far we tread into this territory.
That means that it is more difficult for us as a minority government to
pursue some of the goals that I believe a majority of Canadians support.
For the moment, however, we must accept that they have a higher priority.
They have signaled the parties in Parliament that they want them to learn
to work together better.
Our government accepts that judgment. The challenge that it poses for us
is to take steps that will help change the culture. Changing our views
around leadership is a very important part of that.
Over the last ten years, I have been a part of many discussions about how
to make Parliament more democratic. My colleagues and I have debated procedures
and rules, processes and practices of all sortssometimes late into the
night. While I certainly would not want to say that the exercise has been
unhelpful, I see nowevery daythat it does not get to the heart of things.
In the first instance, democracy is not about rules and procedures. First
and foremost, it is about voice. Democracy works when people feel that
their voice countsthat it is being listened toin the political process,
whether as a citizen or as a parliamentarian.
This brings me to my central point. Far from being a weakness, collaboration
should be recognized as a core value in a democracy. It is one that I have
made part of my bottom line in politics. Indeed, I think the central message
that Canadians sent in the last election is that all parties had better
do the same.
1. "Canadian team builders turn U.S. heads", Globe and Mail, August 28th,