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owen & loewen

Party president Brian Topp speaks to reporters before an NDP caucus meeting in Ottawa on July 27, 2011.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

With the passing of Jack Layton and the resignation of Michael Ignatieff two of Canada's three principal federal parties are searching for new leaders.

While the dynamics of the Liberal Party leadership race have yet to emerge, the NDP race is shaping up to be a contest between Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair.

With Mr. Topp gaining significant early support, the NDP has begun a debate over whether a candidate with no parliamentary experience can be expected to head a party contending for government.

Beyond a few notable exceptions – think Brian Mulroney and Mr. Layton – very few people have become leader of a major political party with no parliamentary experience. The logic, therefore, appears to be against Mr. Topp: a leader of the opposition and of a largely rookie caucus should have the parliamentary experience necessary to stare down a prime minister at the top of his game.

What does the evidence say? Do parties perform better after electing a new leader with no parliamentary experience? Or, does longer parliamentary experience prior to leadership lead to greater electoral success?

This is ultimately an empirical question, so we collected data on every leader of the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois, and Reform/Canadian Alliance, with the exception of John A. Macdonald and George Brown (as neither could have had experience in Canada's Parliament prior to its creation in 1867).

We determined how many years each had served in the House of Commons and in provincial parliaments before being elected leader. We likewise observed how many seats they won in Parliament in each election in which they were leader. For fair comparison, we converted this to the percentage of seats in the Commons, as the number of MPs has increased over time.

What do the data say about the importance of parliamentary experience prior to being elected leader? On average, those with federal experience prior to their selection as leaders are not obviously more successful than those without this experience. Those with experience win on average 12 more seats (in a 308 seat Commons). If we control for the effects of which party leaders head, there is still no obvious bonus, with experienced leaders winning a statistically indistinguishable 12 seats less than those without parliamentary experience.

If we consider only the first elections in which these individuals are leaders, there is still no obvious effect. Leaders with experience, on average, win 12 fewer seats, but the data are too scattered to draw firm conclusions. If we consider provincial legislative experience, there is still no obvious advantage or disadvantage.

Finally, if we consider the length of time that individuals have spent in Parliament prior to their elections as leader, no clear trend emerges. The median leader (in this case, Alexander MacKenize and Louis St. Laurent) has spent just six years in parliament prior to their selection as leader. Those above the median in prior experience win no more seats than those below the median, either across all elections they contest as leader or in their first election.

So what this tells us unambiguously is the amount of parliamentary experience a leader has, plays no determinative role in the political success of their tenure as leader. Brian Topp should be smiling.

So what previously developed skill sets do translate to electoral success? Take four recent examples.

Mr. Mulroney became leader with no parliamentary experience. What he did have, however, was the network, strategy and temperament to bring Quebec into a national conservative coalition. This proved to be exactly what was needed to govern in the late 1980s.

Jean Chrétien on the other hand was an MP for 24 years before becoming leader. He took over a struggling but not wiped out party, divided around major policy issues, which needed a champion to rise from within. His extensive caucus experience turned proved invaluable to holding the party, and his majority governments, together.

With little time as an MP, Mr. Ignatieff found it immensely difficult to translate his academic and journalistic experience into political success. Several more years as an MP would likely have given him the authority and inside party knowledge he needed to be the reform candidate he desired to be.

Finally, Stephen Harper's keen tactical sense of the political landscape, deep knowledge of the then fractured conservative movement, and cautious strategic patience, proved to be precisely what was needed to bring the conservatives together, and then slowly build a new majority coalition. Lengthy parliamentary experience in one of the Conservatives' antecedent parties would likely have tainted his ability to build a party that could govern.

The lesson then for both the NDP and Liberal Party is to look not at parliamentary experience as the principal metric of leadership qualification. But instead to look at the strategic challenges their parties will face over the coming decade, and to choose a leader whose specific qualifications are tailored to these needs.

Whatever constitutes these challenges, the evidence does not suggest that experience in Parliament is necessary for electoral success. Party members should not be constrained by such a belief.

Taylor Owen is a Banting post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. Peter Loewen is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto (Mississauga)