Is Canada sliding towards a “one-and-done” party leader model?
This is an excerpt from Minority report, a weekly bulletin on federal politics. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can do so by clicking here.
When Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said he would step down following last week’s provincial election, he became the latest addition to a large group of Canadian party leaders to have only a single kick in the electoral box.
Conservative leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole only got one chance. Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff each had only one chance. Iain Rankin in Nova Scotia and Andrew Wilkinson in British Columbia each had only one chance to win.
Almost all of these leaders have resigned. But it certainly appeared that they were quitting, amid internal party pressure, to avoid the embarrassment of being ousted.
This is not the case for all leaders. The same night Del Duca resigned after an election as leader, Andrea Horwath resigned after four elections for the top of the Ontario NDP. Stephen Harper lost his first election, before winning the next three. Robert Stanfield got three strikes before Joe Clark took control of the Federal Conservatives. The most extreme examples, Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, each led their party in seven elections, with a few losses strewn among the victories.
These days, party leaders who lose elections often (but not always) resign. Winning undoubtedly aids longevity, but for those who lose, is the ruthless one-and-done model on the rise?
According to Cristine de Clercy, a political scientist at Western University, while there is a general lack of patience with leaders these days, it doesn’t make sense to view it as a one-way trend.
« I think we’re just in another period, like we’ve had in the past, where public and party expectations of leaders are very high. And if leaders can’t win, then they’re out. “, she said.
The reason, de Clercy says, comes down to expectations. Leaders who fail to deliver on the promise they represented to the party are being left behind, which is why Del Duca has bowed out, she says.
The Liberals fell from seven seats in 2018 to just eight seats in the recent Ontario election, and again finished third.
« The magnitude of the results last week was just not expected, » de Clercy said. « Just to sketch an alternative hypothesis, if the Liberals had thought they won’t get any seats last week and they got eight, he would look like a hero. »
She points out that the expectations set by the parties aren’t always « necessarily reasonable » — so it’s not just about the leader’s performance.
Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, agrees that expectations are the main variable that determines whether a party leader has to face the music after a lost campaign.
But he also says the stakes are now generally higher for leaders, given their expanded role in politics and their closer connection to the party brand.
And with the advent of social media and more political coverage overall, Canadians might just be overexposed to leaders who then « lose their shine » faster, he said.
“Political leaders have a shorter lifespan than before,” he said. « People are tired of seeing the same leaders all the time. »
They are also subject to the simple ebb and flow of partisan popularity or voter fatigue with a certain leader or party, he says.
And, usually, different parties have different expectations. While their respective supporters may expect federal Liberal or Conservative leaders to form government in a given election, the same may not be true for New Democrats, which will cause some relative stability.
« A large number of [the NDP’s] the leaders suffered terrible losses, but fought a principled campaign. And the members expect that and are happy with that,” de Clercy said. “Whereas on the other hand, for the liberals and the conservatives, it is a question of power, it is a question of victory.
Marland says each party has developed its own culture of leadership, with the NDP often happy to be the « moral conscience of Parliament. »
Women tend to have more precarious leadership
De Clercy also says that not all leaders receive the same level of charity when it comes to meeting expectations. Women, she says, tend to be more insecure in their leadership.
“They are not always, but often, more prone to being challenged and let down,” she said. « And once there’s a case to replace them…things happen pretty quickly. »
Many female politicians also face what is known as the “cliff of glass” phenomenon – being handed the reins at a particularly weak time for the party.
Marland says the Conservatives have recently become particularly ruthless towards losing candidates. The party will choose a new leader this fall. And whoever it is, their fortunes will greatly depend on who leads the federal Liberals in the next election.
If Justin Trudeau decides not to run, the future of the new Conservative leader will be a bit of a wild card, Marland says.
But if Trudeau once again leads the Liberals, as he said, the stakes are even higher because, after 10 years out of power, the Conservatives feel they must win.
« If Trudeau runs in the next election… and is re-elected Prime Minister, I think the Conservatives would be so angry that they should blame someone, and they would blame whoever is the leader. »