Former presidents vs. former prime ministers

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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170409.

Canada and the U.S. treat their retired political leaders much differently.

It’s an elite club that many long to join, and it never meets.

With only a handful of living members at any given time, the President’s Club often looks more like a dysfunctional family than a collection of the most powerful men in history.

In the United States, former presidents retain a certain prestige after they leave the Oval Office. The Former Presidents Act, a law passed in 1958, ensures that past presidents receive a pension of $203,000 a year, an office and staff, medical insurance, lifetime Secret Service protection, and unlimited access to the most prestigious hangout in Washington — the Presidential Townhouse at 716 Jackson Place, just steps from the White House. With this comes the pomp and circumstance only Americans know how to deliver.

In Canada, former prime ministers are not so lucky. They are returned to civilian life with a thud. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark has shared that it’s not infrequent that telemarketers call him asking for Mr. R.T. Hon.

However, it appears that the role of former Canadian prime ministers may be changing, for good reason.

When Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he quickly convened a very public meeting in the Oval Office of all former living presidents. This meeting, the first of its kind, served to counter Obama’s image as an outsider, and it demonstrated his willingness to listen and learn from those with experience, something that proved beneficial to him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is similarly criticized by opponents as lacking experience, also seems to be calling on his predecessors in a way not seen in recent years in Canada.

It is a smart tactical move for the prime minister.

Earl Wilson, the famous American gossip columnist, accurately remarked that, ‘the fastest way for a politician to become an elder statesman is to lose an election.’

In 2013, Gallup found that presidents’ job approval ratings are almost always more positive after they leave office than while they were in office. Like a good bottle of wine, former leaders age well — or, like a bad relationship, the memories fade. Present-day leaders often find their relationship with these senior statesmen and women becomes increasingly valuable.

For leaders of countries, there are no more promotions. They are no longer political opponents of someone else, no longer gunning for someone else’s job. They have the top job.

On top of this, partisan colours start to fade after a while. In fact, soliciting support or advice from a former leader from an opposing political party demonstrates a current leader’s willingness to co-operate with the opposition, without angering his or her own partisan base.

And finally, former leaders often become distinguished experts in a given field. For former U.S. vice-president Al Gore it is climate change. For former prime minister Brian Mulroney it is trade. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin has become a veritable expert on Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples.

This reservoir of wisdom and experience, so rarely called upon, can be of great value to a current leader’s success. There is no expert more legitimate than a well-respected and well-liked elder statesperson.

Canada’s former leaders are being called upon more often and are becoming increasingly relevant.

On Thursday, Mulroney was on hand to brief members of the Trudeau government’s cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations. Who better to brief the team? Mulroney negotiated NAFTA, has acted as an early go-between with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and has a close personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a sound decision from a strategic perspective, it’s also a dazzling political move by Trudeau and his team. By calling on Mulroney, Trudeau appears to be a team player as someone who is willing to listen to a Conservative politician. It showcases his ability to bring people together to find solutions, and highlights how seriously he is taking the risk posed to Canada’s interests by the Trump administration.

Similarly, Trudeau called upon former prime minister Kim Campbell to chair his independent and non-partisan advisory board to recommend candidates for the Supreme Court of Canada.

Of course, there are limits. Don’t expect Trudeau and former PM Stephen Harper, or Trump and former president Bill Clinton to be buddying up any time soon.

However, if the past few months have been any indication, it won’t be too surprising if Canadians start to feel a bit of d’j’ vu as prime ministers of the past pop up along the way.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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