They have dominated the politics of our two largest provinces for the past decade, a pair of pragmatist colossuses bestriding the centre of the country.
The less kind might call them a pair of weather vanes, shifting with public moods in order to maintain power. In any event, it’s been a remarkable run. The only leaders in Canada who’ve been at the helm of major parties since the last century, they’ve combined to win six straight elections, and one of them is gunning for a seventh.
Whether Quebec’s Jean Charest and Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty have actually done their parties a favour, by sticking around so long that they’ve become those parties, is a different matter. When they finally move on, they’ll leave behind gaping holes that could provide other leaders – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper – with a lesson about the potential downside of longevity.
For Mr. Charest, it could be this fall, if his Liberals lose Quebec’s Sept. 4 election. For Mr. McGuinty it could be whenever the opposition parties choose to bring down his Liberals’ minority government. Even if they continue winning elections, there’s only so long that Mr. Charest’s addiction to politics and Mr. McGuinty’s weird ability to not age will keep them around; sooner or later, they’ll take their walks in the snow.
This is not something their parties are eager to discuss. From their perspective, they owe their leaders loyalty. Mr. McGuinty brought his party out of the wilderness and projects a certain Catholic selflessness that makes his time in office seem like a burden he’s accepted on fellow Liberals’ behalf. Mr. Charest, who rode in from Ottawa as a white knight, is a master of playing the political game, especially fundraising.
What neither has done is make any serious attempt to groom potential successors. What happened to the federal Liberals in the 1990s – when Paul Martin took over while Jean Chrétien wasn’t paying attention, to eventually disastrous effect – seems to have caused the pendulum to swing the other way. Mr. McGuinty, in particular, has left his most ambitious ministers little room to manoeuvre and eventually driven most of them away.
Nor has either done much to build a lasting identity for his party. Other than support for federalism, Mr. Charest has had so inconsistent a policy agenda that it’s difficult to figure out what his Liberals stand for. Mr. McGuinty’s somewhat paternalistic view of government as a force for good gave him a more discernible governing philosophy. But Ontario’s deficit woes have recently compelled him to blow up his own brand by picking fights with teachers and other erstwhile allies.
On top of that, both continue to accumulate all sorts of baggage. A scandal around Ontario’s air-ambulance service, Ornge, continues to raise questions about the government’s competence, and it was recently confirmed that the Liberals spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last election to save a couple of seats by stopping the construction of gas-fired power plants. The Quebec Liberals’ ethical issues dwarf those: It’s widely acknowledged that Mr. Charest called the current election to get ahead of an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry.
Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Charest are comfort blankets. Leaning on their experience and general professionalism, they’ve been able to fend off all comers. But what happens when they exit and someone else inherits all that baggage without the accumulated credibility?
Recent history is littered with parties that have fallen apart under those circumstances. The federal Progressive Conservatives are the most obvious example; the federal Liberals are a special case, but aren’t far behind them. Just ask British Columbia’s Christy Clark how much she’s enjoying answering for Gordon Campbell, whose dishonesty around his HST plans set the gold standard for winning an election to your own party’s detriment.
If some of these involved avoidable pitfalls, there’s a broader phenomenon that’s harder to get away from. The well-documented centralization of power – neutered ministers, disengaged backbenchers, extreme message discipline – can create a house of cards. Take the leader away and the whole thing can collapse.
This is where Mr. Harper, known for wanting to build a lasting Conservative coalition but also for excessive control, has to worry, too. Perhaps the experiences of the country’s second- and third-largest governments will prove instructive – that is, whenever Mr. Charest and Mr. McGuinty extricate themselves from parties that have come to need them more than they ever should have.