Leadership races can make or break egos, ambitions and rivalries, not to mention the very existence of any party.
Stephane Dion, second from left, celebrates his victory as new leader of the federal Liberal Party with former leaders Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and John Turner in 2006 in Montreal. Interim party leader Bill Graham is behind Chretien. (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)
Focusing on the Canadian political landscape is difficult as the world turns with unprecedented geopolitical twists. However, irrespective of whether Canadians are paying attention, a changed roster of federal political actors is imminent.
In just over a month, a new leader of the Conservative Party will be elected from a wide field of 14 candidates — the first time their leadership has been held since Stephen Harper was chosen as leader of a new party created by the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives in 2004. And by the end of October, the New Democratic Party will also have selected a new standard bearer.
Both parties are feeling the effect of the 2015 voter smack down in favour of the Liberal Party and both are anxious to pivot to the future with updated brands. However, a formidable obstacle stands in their way. Leadership races can make or break egos, ambitions and rivalries, not to mention the very existence of any party.
Taking place in the glare of an unrelenting media spotlight, drama heightens over months, if not years, of posturing and positioning. The final ballot marks the end of one phase and the beginning of another in the life of a party.
Ideological and regional differences, emotions and events contribute to these internecine wars as friends and colleagues are suddenly at odds, realigning their relationships and sometimes irrevocably “breaking up” with each other, occasionally to the detriment of the party.
The 1971 Ontario Progressive Conservative party’s convention wins hands down for chaos when “new age” voting machines malfunctioned. As Steve Paikin notes in his book on Ontario’s former premier Bill Davis, voting began at 3 p.m. in Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 12, not ending until 2 a.m. on Feb. 13 with the announcement of the fourth and final ballot results. A new beginning was delayed.
External pressures infiltrated the 1990 federal Liberal leadership convention when Jean Chretien battled main contenders, Paul Martin and Sheila Copps for the victory. The tentacles of the Meech Lake Accord reached onto the convention floor, causing two Liberal MPs to wear black armbands, leave the Liberal Party and co-found the Bloc Québécois with Lucien Bouchard. A new beginning was temporarily marred.
Similarly, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, both considered establishment figures, were side swiped by Stéphane Dion in the 2006 Liberal convention. New beginnings can have new players.
But betrayal is the most dramatic characteristic found in many leaderships.
According to Game Changer, the American political bestseller, the Clintons’ reaction upon discovering that Hillary’s Senate colleagues were secretly urging Obama to run in the 2008 Democratic primary “hit them like a ton of bricks in their psychic solar plexus.” A new beginning never happened for her, in spite of a valiant second attempt in 2016.
In May 2003, Peter MacKay, while still a Progressive Conservative, was falling short of votes at their convention and worried about losing to Jim Prentice. MacKay stunned everyone by making a deal with Saskatchewan’s David Orchard, a party outsider, who controlled about 25 per cent of the vote by promising not to merge with the Alliance Party, a promise that was broken months later. The rest was political history as the two parties merged and went on to form a decade of power. A potential disaster became a new beginning.
And so these current leadership races begin with stories yet to be told.
Rona Ambrose, as interim leader, has managed to keep her Conservative Party together. So has the outgoing leader of the NDP, Thomas Mulcair. But the gloves are off now. Can they keep their respective brands alive? Will their parties revive, thrive and survive? Can the Conservatives find a new beginning without the command and control of Stephen Harper? Can the NDP reenergize and regain their lost soul? And can either of them mount a serious opposition to the Justin Trudeau juggernaut?
We really should pay attention!
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.