MacDougall: Competence a rare commodity in social-media-driven politics

Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef: How much is she paid again?


What is the price of competence?

Well, it certainly isn’t the $289,000 being paid to cabinet minister Maryam Monsef, Justin Trudeau’s minister for Women and Gender Equality/Rural Economic Development, who was recently caught musing about her salary on a hot Zoom mic during a vote in the House of Commons. Given that Monsef low-balled her enormous salary by approximately 15 per cent, it’s safe to assume the taxpayer isn’t receiving much value for money on the equality agenda.

Nor is Monsef alone; watching Health Minister Patty Hajdu flap around during the pandemic has been disheartening. Bar Chrystia Freeland, no one in the entire Trudeau cabinet is demonstrating their chops at this critical time.

Nor is the price of competence whatever astronomical sums are being earned by tech svengalis such as Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. On the very day Dorsey was appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to answer why his company took the decision to limit the spread of an article critical of Hunter Biden, the now president-elect’s son, in the run-up to the presidential election, he decided to launch a new feature called “Fleets” that will turbocharge the disinformation war now currently underway in much of the democratic world. The message appears to be: Sorry, society, but there is money to be made out of your misery.

Given the current low-talent, high-misinformation, “I’m-all-right-Jack” environment, it is perhaps no surprise that governments are struggling to come to grips with the coronavirus pandemic. Can anyone bank on a cast of characters who play daily to the rhythms of social media, all with fairly uniform views of society, to grasp the complexity of the challenges now on offer?

Looked at another way, is it any surprise that Donald Trump thrives the best in this polluted environment? Sure, Trump lost this month’s election, but he was elected on the back of massive frustration with do-nothing élites, and has succeeded in making American politics into even more of a circus. Even now, with his lawsuits contesting the election results failing like Monsef and her sums, Trump continues to bend the Republican establishment to his will. The President of the United States of America is right now firing officials who contradict him on the sanctity of the election and ranting like a crazy man, and no one is willing to tell him it’s wrong, out of fear of the online mob. More worryingly, no one is speaking truth to power on the virus as infections surge and hospital capacity dips.

And while Canadians can take comfort in the fact that things are nowhere near as bad in Canada, the virus is spreading rapidly in many provinces and the foundation on which the federal government exists is as narrow and equally leader-driven as in the United States. Indeed, the way Liberal MPs are debasing themselves in the service of Dear Leader in the various committee hearings into the WE scandal is horrifying. Why would anyone volunteer for public life when this is the thanks you get?

If competence is to be identified and properly valued again, the work will have to be done away from the hyperactive hum of today’s 24/7 public life. The current information environment is turning everything – from candidacies to policy-making to news – into sausage-making and carnival-barking. Getting things right when you have time to think is hard enough; trying to forge a path when everyone, qualified or not, is second-guessing you in real time and is able to raise a visible stink about their third-rate second-guessing, is not an environment conducive to strong decision-making. It is an environment that rewards the fierce partisan, not the thoughtful critic.

The trouble is, right now we need more diversity of thought, not more loyalty and uniformity. We need policymakers from different walks of life, people whose connections and interests are stronger with their constituents than they are with their compatriots in Parliament or their leader. Leadership needs to learn to reward a respectful challenge, not to shut it down. This is the path to better results.

To put it in Trumpian terms: competence will only come when we make compromise and collaboration great again.

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based communications consultant and ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

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