Of the 165 MPs sitting on the government’s side of the House of Commons, 87 were part of the Conservative cohort that took over from the Liberals in 2006. Of those 87 MPs, 35 have yet to be given any important role in Stephen Harper’s government and, if history is any guide, the odds are good that most of them will remain on the backbenches indefinitely.
The Conservatives formed government seven years ago, and over those seven years 35 MPs have always sat on the backbenches. They have never been promoted to cabinet, given a parliamentary secretary position, or been given some other responsibility within the House (i.e., as a deputy speaker or whip). There are other MPs who sit on the backbenches who have held titles in the past, while still others were first elected in 2008 or 2011 who have yet to be promoted.
Few prospects after seven years
Those MPs who were given an opportunity had their chance to shine and probably have a good idea whether or not they will be given a second chance in the future. And those MPs with fewer years of experience may have more time to put in. But those career backbenchers have few prospects for advancement after seven years.
Since 1947, only 26 per cent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted. That means that there is a 74 per cent chance that each of these 35 Conservative backbenchers will never be promoted to cabinet or given a parliamentary secretary position. Only one-in-four have a good shot at a bigger role in the future – or about nine of the 35.
Those who do get promoted are usually first given a shot as parliamentary secretary. About 20 per cent of seven-year backbenches went that route, or almost 75 per cent of those that were promoted. A very small proportion, less than two per cent, get promoted directly into cabinet from the backbenches, while similar numbers get sent to the Senate from the House (a much rarer practice these days than in the past) or are given another role (as deputy chair of the committees of the whole, for example).
A change of leader
The odds of being promoted from the backbench improve with a change of leader: when a government was in power for seven years or more under two different prime ministers, roughly half of backbenchers were promoted under the new leader. But when a government is led entirely under the same prime minister, less than one-in-five backbenchers are ever promoted. In other words, the odds are slimmer that the current seven-year backbenchers will be promoted under Mr. Harper than they would be if he was replaced.
But turnover has been higher in recent years than it was in the past. Under Louis St-Laurent and William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1940s and 1950s, few backbenchers were ever promoted. The main reason would seem to be the size of cabinets. Mr. King never presided over a cabinet of more than 20 members, while St-Laurent’s was never larger than 21. By comparison, the cabinets of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s ranged in size between 26 and 33 ministers (and subsequently grew in Mr. Trudeau’s second stint as prime minister in the 1980s), while Brian Mulroney’s cabinet topped out at 39 members. Mr. Harper’s currently stands at 38.
If we only look at the fate of seven-year backbenches after St-Laurent, the odds improve: almost 40 per cent were eventually promoted. That represents 14 of the government’s current crop of 35. But that number of long-term backbenchers under Mr. Harper is actually quite high. At 40 per cent, it is the largest proportion since the St-Laurent years of MPs with that degree of experience that have been overlooked. At the seven-year mark of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, for example, only 19 per cent of those who had been elected in 1993 had yet to be given any role in his government.
How a backbencher can make it to cabinet
Are any of the current backbenchers more likely to be promoted than others? Having acted as the chair of a committee appears to be a major predictor of future promotion. Of those who were promoted in the past, 72 per cent had prior experience of being the chair of a committee, while only 13 per cent of backbenchers who had never chaired a committee were subsequently promoted. Of the current 35 backbenchers, 21 are currently chairing or have previously chaired a committee. Perhaps 15 of them, then, have a good shot at higher office. But again, Mr. Harper has a larger number of backbenchers he has yet to even appoint to chair a committee than his recent predecessors.
On average, after reaching the seven-year point those backbenchers who do get promoted have to wait another 1.6 years for the good news, meaning that they sit on the backbenches for almost nine years. For some Conservative MPs, however, the wait will be even longer: of the 35 career backbenchers, 12 were elected as opposition MPs in 2004. Three were first elected 20 years ago.
But the longest waits since 1947 of an MP on the government benches appear to belong to Sarto Fournier and Léonard-David Tremblay. Both were first elected in 1935 and sat on the government backbenches for almost 18 years before they were appointed to the Senate by St-Laurent in 1953.
Though it is possible that the Conservatives will still be in power in 2024, which would require them winning at least three more federal elections, the odds are that the current backbenchers will have been promoted, resigned, or booted out of government before then. But many will see their time on the backbench stretching to nine years or more before that happens. With the odds of advancement relatively slim, one cannot help but wonder why more do not break rank with their more privileged colleagues.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .