National Column: Failed transitions from provincial to federal politics are common

by Chantal Hebert

Pressed this weekend to say whether he would run federally if he failed to become national NDP leader next fall, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh was studiously noncommittal.

“I will continue to fight in the provincial level. I’ll continue to fight in other provinces. I’ll continue to fight on the federal level, as I have done before,” he said at an all-candidates debate.

That generic statement will not put the issue to rest.

Singh’s leadership rivals will inevitably continue to probe the depth of his commitment to a federal career. It is a fair question to which the New Democrats are entitled to a clearer answer.

When he announced his bid to succeed Thomas Mulcair, Singh did not resign his seat at Queen’s Park. The next Ontario election will take place a year from now. In the event of a leadership defeat, he could stay put in Ontario.

In keeping his options open, Singh is not breaking any rule – tacit or otherwise.

Former Ontario education minister Gerard Kennedy was the last Ontario politician to run for a federal leadership position. When he set out to try to succeed Paul Martin as federal Liberal leader in 2006, Kennedy resigned his provincial seat.

But former Ontario MP Patrick Brown resigned from Parliament only after he won the provincial Tory leadership.

And Bloc Quebecois leader Martine Ouellet – even as she leads a federal party – is hanging on to a seat in the Quebec national assembly until a provincial election is called in the fall of 2018. For the record, that is not working well.

It is not rare for a Canadian politician to trade one political arena for another. But the road from Parliament to a provincial legislature has been the less rocky of the two paths.

Lucien Bouchard, Jean Charest, Bob Rae, Brian Tobin all left federal politics and eventually served as premiers of their respective provinces. These days, Brian Pallister – a former Conservative MP first elected to the House of Commons under the Canadian Alliance banner – leads the Manitoba government.

The next Ontario election could be Tory leader Brown’s to lose. In Alberta, former MPs Brian Jean and Jason Kenney are fighting for the chance to lead the province’s reunited Conservative forces.

A productive life in federal politics is no guarantee of provincial success. The late Jim Prentice had earned kudos for his performance as a federal minister. As Alberta premier, his name will always be associated with a historic Conservative defeat.

But at the end of the day unsuccessful transitions from provincial to federal politics are more common than the reverse.

As long as the list of contenders was for Stephen Harper’s succession, it did not include an active provincial politician. It is hard to build a national base from a provincial legislature, especially under a
weighted-by-riding voting formula such as that used by the federal Conservatives.

Winning the leadership from a strong regional base is comparatively easier under a one-member-one-vote system of the kind the NDP has in place to select Mulcair’s successor.

It was under such a system that Stockwell Day beat Reform Party founder Preston Manning for the job of leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. Day was Alberta treasurer when he switched to federal politics. That is as senior a ministerial position as one can get. But in hindsight his Alberta tenure had not prepared him adequately for the realities of federal opposition.

As the member of a governing dynasty, Day had no opportunity to develop the skills that help opposition leaders survive from day to day. Some of the policies he promoted were popular in Alberta but not easily applicable to the whole of a diverse federation. He seemed tone-deaf to the nuances that attend most federal policy debates.

As for Kennedy – a former Dalton McGuinty leadership rival and subsequently a star Ontario minister – he finished fourth in his 2006 federal leadership bid, settling for the role of kingmaker in the Liberal crowning of StÈphane Dion.

Like Singh, Kennedy felt that his French was up to the task of dealing with federal issues effectively in both languages. It was not. It also did not alone make him as streetwise in Quebec as a federal leader needs to be to connect with that province’s voters.

The Canadian Parliament is more than a larger version of Queen’s Park or any other provincial legislature.

Given all of the above, it is possible to understand Singh’s wish to hang on to a provincial insurance policy, but to still feel that his vague answer as to whether he will run in the 2019 federal election leaves him open to allegations of political tourism.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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