Greg Donaghy is director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.
As the federal election campaign heads into its final days, the smart money in Ottawa is already looking ahead. Defeated heads will surely roll. Veteran Liberal strategist David Herle recently argued that two of the three main leaders would have to go. According to Conservative operative John Capobianco, there’s also support being rounded up to replace Andrew Scheer with Peter MacKay. Some are even asking if Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants to come back to Ottawa.
And the pressure on Justin Trudeau to step down as Liberal Leader if he loses would be enormous. No losing prime minister has stayed on as leader since Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker lost in 1963 – and that didn’t end well for the Chief, who was humiliated and deposed by his former friends and allies on national TV, when he offered himself up at the 1967 leadership convention to succeed, well, himself.
Yet leaving – whether pushed or jumping – would be shortsighted and wrong. Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are still young politicians with much to learn and much to give. Although populists today make an easy living denouncing professional politicians with promises to “drain the swamp,” politics is no place for amateurs. “I am not afraid to be called a politician,” Paul Martin Sr., Canada’s health minister in the 1950s and foreign minister a decade later, often declared. “Next to preaching the word of God, there is nothing nobler than to serve one’s fellow countrymen in government.”
With a recession looming, relations with the United States and China badly frayed, and the country sharply divided over pipelines, climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, Canadians can hardly afford to turn Parliament over to rookie leaders – on either side of the aisle.
Like children, political leaders benefit from learning from the occasional setback. Defeat builds leaders. It gives them empathy and resilience, perspective and vision, as well as purpose and depth. As my spin coach likes to remind us, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” And Canada’s history is chock-full of prime ministers and political leaders whose most significant work emerged in their second acts, in the wake of bitter loss.
Of the top five prime ministers ranked by Carleton University historians Norman Hillmer and Stephen Azzi, only Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, who ranked second, did not return from defeat to form a second ministry. Laurier alone enjoyed a steady string of unbroken electoral successes before losing the top office to Sir Robert Borden – himself no stranger to defeat – in 1911. Yet, even then, as opposition leader during the First World War, Laurier’s principled and judicious resistance to conscription both reinforced his reputation as a liberal and secured his party’s solid hold on Quebec for the next four decades. Indeed, his sunny ways still reverberate.
The storied career of the top-ranked prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is even more encouraging. Elected Liberal Party leader in 1919 at 45 years of age, and prime minister in 1921, King was an inexperienced leader with shallow political roots and many debts to an aging party establishment. Progressive in outlook, but cautious by temperament, King muddled along for most of the decade, barely leaving his mark. When stock markets plunged in 1929 and the Great Depression ravaged the country, King and his governing Liberals were roundly trounced in 1930 by R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives. Few would have blamed King if, at 56 years of age and after nine years as prime minister, he had simply packed his bags and left, happy with a legacy distinguished mostly by its longevity.
But King stayed on as leader. Over the next few years, he rebuilt the Liberal Party and indisputably made it his own. Cautiously – for he was always so – he armed it with new ideas and modern policies from a 1932 “thinkers’ conference” in Port Hope, in an effort to address the global economic crisis. He attracted a new generation of Liberal activists, too: Men such as the veteran engineer C.D. Howe, and younger reformers such as Brooke Claxton from Montreal and Paul Martin Sr. from Windsor. With the Liberals re-elected in October, 1935, King was prime minister in September, 1939, when Canada marched to war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
This was truly King’s moment. By now an experienced and masterful political tactician, he skillfully kept anti-war French Canadians and their English cousins on side through two conscription crises and six years of war. With Howe, soon dubbed the “minister of everything,” at his side, King enlisted more than a million Canadian men and women in the armed forces and transformed Canada from a rural backwater into a modern industrialized and urbanized nation.
As the war ended, King wisely backed measures to secure the peace at home and abroad, as well as his re-election. With Claxton, and then Martin, he set about building the modern welfare state, introducing family allowances in 1944 and laying the foundations for universal health care and pensions. With Louis St. Laurent, whom he recruited in 1942, and Lester B. Pearson, whom he promoted from the senior ranks of the foreign service to cabinet in 1948, he launched Canada into a new era of active postwar diplomacy.
Not a bad second act. And perhaps, if we really want the best and the brightest leading our country, we shouldn’t be so allergic to political defeat – and all the lessons it uniquely offers.
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