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Former prime minister Jean Chrétien gives an interview at his Ottawa office on April 16, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien gives an interview at his Ottawa office on April 16, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Number Cruncher

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The rumours are swirling as potential Liberal leadership candidates mull their chances at a run for the top job. But how will the slate of aspirant leaders compare to the other men and women who have put their names on the ballot?

The Liberal Party of Canada has held eight contested leadership conventions in its history. While Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Blake and Wilfrid Laurier were selected by members of the Liberal caucus, William Lyon Mackenzie King was the first to be chosen as leader at a convention in 1919. Including those candidates who made multiple attempts at the leadership, 41 names have made it to the first round of balloting over those eight conventions.

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Geography

A majority of leadership candidates, 21 in all, were born in Canada’s most populous province. Trailing Ontario at a distance is Quebec, where seven candidates were born, and Nova Scotia, where five were born. Prince Edward Island (three), British Columbia and Manitoba (one each) make up the rest. No candidates born in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, or Newfoundland and Labrador have put their names in the hat long enough to make it to the convention. Another three candidates (counting John Turner twice) were born outside of Canada.

Winning candidates have also come primarily from Quebec and Ontario. Four of them, Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and Stéphane Dion hailed from La Belle Province while three, Mr. King, Lester B. Pearson and Paul Martin, were born in Ontario. Mr. Martin represented a Quebec riding when he sat in the House of Commons, however. Mr. Turner was born in the United Kingdom but lived in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia before running for the Liberal leadership. He also represented a riding in each of those provinces during his time on Parliament Hill.

In terms of where the leadership candidates ran for election to the House of Commons, Ontario and Quebec were the choice of more than three in four: 21 represented Ontario ridings for either the majority of their time in Ottawa or when running for the leadership, while 11 were elected in Quebec. Another five candidates occupied seats from Nova Scotia, while one was elected in Saskatchewan and another in British Columbia.

Political experience

The vast majority of candidates were sitting Members of Parliament at the time of their leadership run. Fully 30 of the 41 candidates had a seat in the House of Commons when they were at the convention. Another eight were former MPs, some of them having given up (or lost) their seat in Ottawa shortly before the leadership campaign. In all, 93 per cent of Liberal leadership candidates since 1919 were sitting or former Members of Parliament, including all eight winners (five were sitting MPs, three were former MPs).

Experience at the provincial level was not necessary for any of the eight winners, though it has been relatively common among candidates. Nine names on the convention ballots since 1919 had previous experience in provincial legislatures, though only one (Eric Kierans) could claim that as his only political experience.

The historical list of candidates includes three former premiers: William Stevens Fielding from Nova Scotia, James Gardiner of Saskatchewan, and current interim leader Bob Rae, former NDP premier of Ontario. No former premier has ever won a Liberal leadership convention, however, and none has ever become prime minister of Canada – with the exception of John Thompson of the Tories, who was Premier of Nova Scotia for less than two months in 1882 and Prime Minister from 1892 to 1894. With Robert Ghiz, Dalton McGuinty, Frank McKenna, and Mr. Rae all having ruled themselves out as candidates, that streak looks like it will remain unbroken.

The list of candidates who have declared their intention to run is so far limited to people who have not been elected to public office before. Whether they will still be candidates when the convention is held in April remains to be seen.

But among those most widely seen as likely candidates, the majority are – as in the party’s past – current or former Members of Parliament from Ontario and Quebec. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the two provinces where the Liberals have their highest hopes for a comeback in 2015. Whoever does win the leadership race will have a lot of history to carry on his or her back, including what kind of history is still to be written for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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