Ottawa isn't kind to premiers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 January 2006)

Those who are now promoting Frank McKenna of New Brunswick or Bob Rae of Ontario or Brian Tobin of Newfoundland as Paul Martin's replacement have either forgotten, or rashly decided to ignore, the great unwritten rule of Canadian politics: We never make premiers into prime ministers. It's not something we do.

Sometimes it sounds like a good idea -- a politician has achieved national prominence while running a province, and in name-recognition polls he may well score ahead of everyone else who wants the job. Sometimes, like McKenna as ambassador to Washington or Rae in a variety of tasks, he's polished his c.v. with publicity-generating post-premiership assignments. Nevertheless, the record suggests that none of this helps. Since Confederation, no one has achieved prominence as a premier and later become prime minister.

The Americans find it natural to recruit former governors as presidents. In the 20th century Woodrow Wilson from New Jersey, Franklin Roosevelt from New York, Jimmy Carter from Georgia, and Ronald Reagan from California all arrived in the White House; and of course George W. Bush from Texas resides there now.

Ambitious American governors build powerful local machines and money-raising committees, then carefully expand them onto the national scene. When governors become nationally known they often campaign for local candidates outside their state, hoping for reciprocal support when they need it.

But that system of creating national leaders has no parallel in Canadian politics. The obvious reason is that regional antagonism means far more to us than to the Americans. Anyone who serves as premier becomes so closely identified with one region that people elsewhere in the country have great difficulty seeing him as a national leader. For one thing, we assume that the work of a premier includes frequent and severe criticism of the federal government, even when the premier and the prime minister belong to the same party. In the late 1930s the Liberal prime minister, Mackenzie King, had no more ferocious enemy than the Liberal premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn.

A premier must claim that the feds are cheating his province. It's in the job description, and premiers who fail to perform this task will probably be considered eccentric at best. The confrontation can reach the level of hysteria. When Premier Danny Williams celebrated Christmas week in 2004 by announcing the removal of Canadian flags from Newfoundland provincial government buildings (pending resolution of a financial dispute), he was merely giving a particularly vivid performance as premier and defender of his people.

Many of our most popular and successful premiers have understood that their very success in their home provinces probably limits their future in federal politics. Peter Lougheed, Bill Davis and Ralph Klein have all resisted the followers who suggested they run for the Conservative federal leadership.

In the period 1942-1976, the Conservatives tried three times to translate a successful premier into a prime minister. John Bracken, a professor of agriculture and premier of Manitoba for 20 years, was chosen federal leader by the Conservatives in 1942, even though he insisted they rename themselves the Progressive Conservatives. Under his leadership they lost in 1945.

Even so, when he resigned as leader in 1948 the Conservatives again chose a premier, this time George Drew. He had been premier of Ontario since 1943 and had founded the Tory regime that ran the province for more than four decades. In 1948 he became federal leader but lost two elections and resigned in 1956.

That same year Robert Stanfield was elected premier of Nova Scotia, and after a dozen years of provincial success he became federal leader. He came closer than any other premier in Canadian history, nearly beating Pierre Trudeau in 1972. But in 1976, after three defeats, he also resigned. In 1979 Joe Clark, not a premier, finally gave Trudeau his one defeat.

The only exception to this chronicle of failures, so tiny that it barely rates being mentioned, was the career of Sir John Thompson. He was prime minister for a while in the 1890s and had been premier of Nova Scotia in 1882, but just briefly; he was defeated almost as soon as he took over the premier's office.

If the Tories have failed to make a premier into a prime minister, the Liberals usually haven't even tried. Not once in the 20th century did they choose to be led by a former premier. Perhaps they remembered their experience in the 19th century. Premier Edward Blake of Ontario, one of the intellectual stars of the Liberals in the 1870s, moved into federal politics and established a national reputation by serving as minister of justice and then president of the Privy Council under Alexander Mackenzie. After Mackenzie and the Liberals were defeated, Blake became opposition leader and led the Liberals to defeat in the elections of 1882 and 1887. He remains the only Liberal leader since Confederation who never became prime minister.

There were specific reasons for his lack of success (he was up against Sir John A. Macdonald, for one) but there are always specific reasons. The one reason always lurking in the background is rivalry and distrust between regions.

If Canada were to elect McKenna or Rae or Tobin as prime minister, it might demonstrate that Canadian voters have put regionalism behind them and adopted a truly national view of national politics. It would signal a new maturity. Is there anyone who thinks that likely?

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