David McLaughlin was chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s smashing victory in the June election has been rightly heralded as a significant personal political success. But it really is not that surprising.
In the past 10 years, every Canadian premier seeking re-election following a leadership change in their party has won.
Although Ms. Wynne was actually the first Ontario premier to win re-election after a leadership race since Bill Davis in 1971, this historical oddity obscures what has now emerged as a more common political reality. New leadership improves a party’s re-election chances more often than not. In fact, it is proving the best guarantor of ongoing electoral success.
Historically, every province but one has had at least one successful example of a party winning an election after a leadership change in the past 50 years. That province is New Brunswick, which failed to reward Liberal Camille Thériault after he replaced Frank McKenna. (Instead, the 1999 election saw Progressive Conservative Bernard Lord swept into power with his party’s biggest majority ever.)
Alberta’s PCs have been the most successful with this approach since Peter Lougheed first brought them to victory in 1971. Four successive premiers went on to win election in their own right. Now, they’re trying for their fifth.
Ontario enjoyed a similar storied history with three successive PC premiers winning re-election after commencing their dynasty in 1943 under George Drew. Frank Miller brought it to a crashing close in 1985, winning a minority government but finding himself unseated via a Liberal/New Democratic Party pact that brought David Peterson to power. By the time of the next Ontario election in 2018, the PCs will have held power in only eight of the past 33 years.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the cycle worked three times. PC premier Brian Peckford succeeded Frank Moores in 1979; Liberal premier Brian Tobin succeeded Clyde Wells in 1996; and PC premier Kathy Dunderdale won re-election in 2011 after Danny Williams departed. It looks like it will fail a fourth time, though, as the next PC party-selected premier, Frank Coleman, chose to resign before he could even be sworn in.
British Columbia can also lay claim to this leadership phenomenon three times. The most spectacular was Liberal Christy Clark succeeding Gordon Campbell with her come-from-behind victory last year. But NDP premier Glen Clark also won an election in 1996 after taking over from Mike Harcourt, while Bill Vander Zalm kept the Socreds in power in 1986 succeeding Bill Bennett.
Tiny Prince Edward Island has done it twice. Catherine Callbeck followed Liberal premier Joe Ghiz in 1993, winning her own majority that year and PC leader Jim Lee succeeded Premier Angus MacLean in 1982.
The other provinces are all one-timers. Quebec did it once under the Parti Québécois, when Lucien Bouchard won re-election in 1996 after taking over from Jacques Parizeau, who had resigned in the wake of the 1995 referendum results. Nova Scotia gave a renewed but slim majority to PC premier Rodney MacDonald in 2006 after John Hamm’s two election wins. Saskatchewan NDP premier Lorne Calvert squeaked out a thin majority in 2003 after taking over Roy Romanow’s job two years earlier. Finally, Manitoba’s current NDP Premier Greg Selinger won his re-election bid in 2009 upon succeeding Gary Doer, now Canada’s ambassador to the United States.
From these seeds, a pattern emerges.
Since 2004, six premiers have successfully navigated a leadership transition while in power, winning not just re-election but majority mandates. Two of these were in Alberta (Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, who since had to resign themselves); one in Manitoba (Mr. Selinger); one in B.C. (Ms. Clark); one in Newfoundland and Labrador (Ms. Dunderdale); and now one in Ontario (Ms. Wynne).
But there’s a catch. No recent premier has gone on to win a subsequent election after winning that first one as a new leader. We have to go back to the 1970s and ’80s under the Ontario PCs and the 1990s and 2000s under the Alberta PCs for that experience. All others either lost or resigned before their next election.
Time is no friend to governments. It ages and wears them together with their leaders.
But the formula for political renewal today appears clear: Choose a new leader before voters choose a new party.