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How do leaders without seats reach the Commons?

While new Bloc Québécois Leader Daniel Paillé and former New Democratic Party president Brian Topp do not have much in common, they both are without a seat in the House of Commons. If Mr. Topp wins the NDP leadership race, this will put him and the Bloc chief squarely in the minority of Canada's political leaders since Confederation.

While Mr. Paillé has stated he is not in any rush to win a seat, Mr. Topp has said he will try to enter the House at the first opportunity. Among the nine NDP leadership hopefuls, only he and Martin Singh are not sitting MPs.

Since Confederation, 29 of the 47 non-interim leaders of the four largest parties currently in the House of Commons (and in the case of the Conservatives and the NDP, their predecessors) were sitting MPs when they were named to the top job. Another three, all Conservatives, were senators.

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Only 15 leaders were chosen from outside Parliament. Among them are Mr. Paillé and three former New Democrat chiefs: Tommy Douglas, Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton.

This puts Mr. Topp in good company. Half of the leaders of the NDP have been chosen from outside of Parliament, though that number drops to one-third when the three leaders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP, are included.

For Mr. Paillé, he was the first Bloc leader to be chosen from outside the House of Commons. Lucien Bouchard, Michel Gauthier, and Gilles Duceppe were all sitting MPs when they took over the sovereigntist party.

The Liberals have historically been the least likely to choose a leader from outside the House – fully three-quarters of their leaders were MPs when they got their party's approval. The last non-MP Liberal chief was Jean Chrétien, who was elected to the House of Commons in the riding of Beauséjour in a by-election held six months later.

That actually made Mr. Chrétien the Liberal leader who waited the longest to run for office. John Turner was elected as Liberal leader in the 1984 general election held three months after his leadership win, while Mackenzie King was acclaimed in a 1919 by-election in Prince Edward Island two months after he was named Liberal leader.

Most non-sitting leaders, nine out of 15, have chosen the by-election route to enter the House of Commons for the first time as head of their respective parties. Five others have waited until the subsequent general election, while the route Mr. Paillé will choose is yet to be determined.

Almost two-thirds of leaders chosen from outside the House ran for office within six months, many of them contesting by-elections immediately after being named leader. But several others waited for much longer periods of time, making the average interval between being named leader and entering the House of Commons 9.1 months.

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Mr. Topp, however, is unlikely to wait that long. This would put him at odds with the three NDP leaders who were not MPs when they took over the party. It took Tommy Douglas 14 months to be elected to the House, after first being defeated in the 1962 general election. Jack Layton, named leader in January of 2003, waited 17 months until June of 2004 to be elected, while Ms. McDonough, after being named leader in 1995, waited 20 months for the 1997 election to come around.

Aside from a few exceptions, Conservative leaders have always run for election almost immediately after taking over their parties. When Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000 and 2002, they both immediately put their name forward in by-elections within two months. And in both of those cases, the Liberal government of the time did not put a candidate up against them.

Often, new leaders of major Canadian parties that run in a by-election are not opposed in order to ensure they can enter the legislature. A recent example is the Charlevoix by-election in 2007 that was Pauline Marois's, at the time the new leader of the Parti Québécois, attempt to enter the National Assembly as leader of the opposition. Jean Charest's Liberals did not oppose her, and neither did Québec Solidaire. Often one or another party does take the opportunity to put up a fight, and the ADQ did in this case.

This convention is not always followed, however. Christy Clark, Premier of British Columbia but not an MLA when she won the leadership of the B.C. Liberals earlier this year, was opposed by the NDP in the subsequent by-election.

This is nothing new for the New Democrats. Even going back to the days of the CCF, the party has almost always put up a candidate against a new leader running in a by-election. In all, they have run a candidate against a new leader in seven of eight opportunities since the 1930s. Mackenzie King in 1919 and Robert Stanfield in 1967 were unopposed by all major parties in their by-election attempts, while only Brian Mulroney in 1983 was not given the courtesy by both the Liberals and the New Democrats.

Considering that the NDP was the only major party to oppose Stephen Harper's by-election campaign in 2002, if he wins the NDP's nomination a Brian Topp by-election run might also be deprived of that same courtesy.

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Eric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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