Rahim Mohamed: Canada's aversion to tall poppies strikes again
We have a particularly nasty habit of hacking down those of us who stand out from the herd.
By: Rahim Mohamed
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upended Ottawa’s political landscape last week with a massive cabinet shuffle. The near-total overhaul of Trudeau’s cabinet, which looked more like the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones than a routine shakeup, saw nearly three-quarters of portfolios change hands. Seven ministers, including David Lametti and Marco Mendicino, were shuffled out of cabinet altogether.
One of the most talked about moves from last week’s cabinet shuffle was the reassignment of standout minister Anita Anand from the high-profile Defence portfolio. Anand, who’s earned solid reviews for turning around a Defence department in disarray, will now head to the Treasury Board, a technocratic cabinet post which has resembled the Bermuda Triangle under Justin Trudeau. (Anand will be the sixth Treasury Board president to serve under Trudeau; joining a list of has-beens that includes Scott Brison, Jane Philpott and the soon-to-be-retiring Joyce Murray.)
Coming amidst heightened geopolitical tensions, Anand’s surprise exit from the Department of National Defense has left many a pundit scratching their heads. Pundits were left equally baffled by the announcement of controversial ex-Toronto police chief Bill Blair as Anand’s replacement at Defence. (See last week’s emergency dispatch for a list of reasons why it is a bad idea to put the organizationally-challenged Blair in charge of Ottawa’s single largest, most complicated bureaucracy.)
Some observers have speculated that Anand’s cabinet demotion comes as a sort of punishment for being too open about her aspirations to one day succeed Justin Trudeau as leader of the Liberal party. (Anand was reportedly admonished by members of the prime minister’s inner circle last summer for her “clumsy and unsubtle” attempts to organize for a future leadership bid.) Indeed, Anand’s migration to the decidedly unsexy Treasury Board means that she’ll no longer have splashy photo-ops of her standing next to shiny new fighter jets and rubbing shoulders with senior NATO officials to catapult her into the top tier of the next Liberal party leadership race.
Setting aside the Liberal party’s notoriously cutthroat internal politics, Anand’s unceremonious shunting from the Defence portfolio reflects, more foundationally, a quintessentially Canadian affliction. The talented Mrs. Anand is, in fact, just the latest casualty of our national struggle with tall-poppy syndrome.
As a collective, Canadians have a particularly nasty habit of hacking down those of us who stand out from the herd. Victims of this unfortunate national reflex abound across politics, commerce, and popular culture; ranging from multi-platinum-selling rock band Nickelback, to internationally renowned former Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, to global literary icon (and friend of The Line) Margaret Atwood. We Canucks love ourselves a scrappy underdog, but chafe at those who grow too big for their proverbial britches. (It’s probably not a coincidence that beloved domestic musical act, The Tragically Hip, never achieved mainstream success outside of Canada.)
And a cursory glance at Anand’s sparkling pre-political résumé places her squarely in the “tall poppy” camp. Prior to putting her name on a ballot, Anand earned four post-secondary degrees, including law degrees from Oxford and the University of Toronto. She also spent three years in the mid-1990s as an associate at prestigious corporate law firm Torys LLP (a firm whose alumni include John Tory, Frank Iacobucci and Bill Davis.) After pivoting to academia later in the decade, Anand went on to hold academic positions at Western, Queen’s and Yale Law. At the time of her election to parliament in 2019, Anand held concurrent appointments at Massey College, the Rotman School of Management and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (all affiliates of the University of Toronto).
(Anand is, in fact, part of a family of insufferable overachievers. Her sisters, Sonia and Gita, are, respectively, a physician and medical researcher at McMaster University and a Toronto-based employment lawyer. Coming from an overachieving South Asian family myself, I can’t help but wonder which of the three girls was the spelling bee ace growing up.)
Throw in Anand’s inspirational first-gen Canadian narrative (her parents, both Indian immigrants, moved to Nova Scotia to practice medicine in the mid-1960s) and you have a political bio that would have any strategist in the country salivating.
With Justin Trudeau growing long-in-the-tooth at the helm of the Liberal party (he celebrated a decade in the role earlier this year), what sense does it make for him to go out of his way to hold back someone who’d otherwise make an ideal heir apparent? Trudeau, a professed champion of inclusion, should be jumping at the prospect of helping to elevate Anand. Paving the way for Canada’s first prime minister of colour, and just its second female prime minister, would be the perfect way for Trudeau to cement his political legacy (and, just maybe, consign his blackface scandals to the dustbin of history).
Anand’s shoddy treatment from the PMO is all the more conspicuous when contrasted with the far more comfortable ride enjoyed by another Oxford-bred overachiever with South Asian roots. I’m speaking, of course, of the United Kingdom’s 57th (and current) prime minister Rishi Sunak.
The 43-year-old Sunak shares a number of surface-level similarities with Anita Anand. Like Anand, Sunak was born to South Asian immigrants who found work in the medical field (his father was a general practitioner and mother a pharmacist). The two also share similarly lofty educational credentials, including bachelor’s degrees from Oxford and Fulbright fellowships to the United States. (Sunak picked up an MBA from Stanford during his time stateside.) Sunak also followed Anand’s footsteps into employment at a prestigious professional services firm, spending three years in the early 2000s as an analyst at investment banking giant Goldman Sachs (also a one-time employer of ex-Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney).
But the respective paths of Sunak and Anand diverged once each crossed the Rubicon of elective office. After being recruited to stand for office in 2014, Sunak quickly rose up the ranks of Britain’s Conservative government, maintaining an upward career trajectory under three different prime ministers. By the end of the decade, Sunak positioned himself as the clear heir-apparent to prime minister Boris Johnson. (Johson made Sunak chief secretary to the Treasury shortly after becoming prime minister in 2019, before promoting him to Chancellor of the Exchequer — the government’s number-two position — just months later.) Sunak would later have a personal falling-out with Johnson over the latter’s lockdown-defying social gatherings, but would retain the backing of the Conservative party caucus. (Sunak swept five parliamentary ballots before falling to rival Liz Truss in the final run-off vote of last year’s Conservative party leadership race. He was subsequently appointed prime minister by acclamation following Truss’ disastrous 49-day tenure at the helm.)
Looking at Sunak’s steady march to the pinnacle of British politics, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to attribute Anand’s more tortured path to our well-established national aversion to overachievers — especially ones who lack the proper Laurentian bonafides (read: a comfortable upbringing in Central Canada and a surname that includes either the prefix “Mac” or an accent aigu). While Sunak has been handed the keys to the kingdom by his Conservative brethren, Anand is now inexplicably being asked to forfeit the keys to her Leopard 2 tank. The contrast between the two career trajectories could not be any more jarring.
Having made the cardinal sin of flying too close to the sun, Anita Anand will now have to drag herself up from the political graveyard that is the Treasury Board to get her prime ministerial ambitions back on track. If nothing else, her demotion is proof positive that tall-poppy syndrome is still alive and well in Canada.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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