National Column: Premiers at election crossroads

by Chantal Hebert

It is always risky to judge a gift by its wrapper.

For very different reasons, the pre-election dynamics shifted in Ontario and Quebec this week, possibly in a way favourable to the ruling Liberals in either province.

In both places, the official opposition has been forced to sort out its leadership at a time when it should be focusing on convincing the electorate that it has a credible government-in-waiting on offer.

Still, it will take a while to determine whether the past week was a watershed moment that decisively strengthened the hand of the central Canada premiers who will be seeking second mandates later this year.

Start with Ontario: At first glance, the abrupt demise, only months before a provincial vote, of a leading opponent should be a positive development for any incumbent.

For all the talk about party branding and team building, campaigns are ultimately leader-centric
exercises. The Ontario and the Quebec Liberals know that first-hand. A change in leadership worked wonders for both of them four years ago.

But in a competitive election, knowing what one is up against and preparing accordingly is also an ingredient of success.

It was not just the Ontario Tories whose upcoming campaign was based on Patrick Brown’s persona.

The fact that scores of Ontarians were not yet sure what to make of the ex-leader this late in the game offered the other parties, and in particular Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, an opportunity to use the campaign to define him to their advantage.

As of this week, Wynne’s Liberals have a store full of past-its-expiry-date ammunition. They will have to wait for the dust to settle in the Tory camp to replenish it.

That is not to underestimate the challenge facing the Ontario Tories in the wake of Brown’s exit.

The notion that a party serious about forming a government could successfully offer voters a leader who lacks a formal mandate from its members is an untested one.

There are also few examples of a party changing leaders so close to an election and going on to win it. In the past, the opposite has been more likely to happen.

Think of John Turner and Kim Campbell, two federal leaders who had their backs to the election wall when they became prime ministers. Stephen Harper went from winning the Conservative leadership straight into his first losing campaign as leader in 2004.

That being said, as brutal as Brown’s treatment at the hands of his palace guard and caucus may have seemed, it did minimize damage to the Tory brand and to the party’s unity.

It is a rare Ontario leadership crisis that beats the soap operatic travails of the Parti Quebecois. This one did. But until events took the turn they did at Queen’s Park, it was the Quebec party leader – Jean-Francois Lisee – whose pre-election future was a topic of heated speculation.

Earlier this week, media mogul Pierre-Karl PÈladeau used a radio interview to confirm that he is itching to come back to politics. The family complications that saw him return to the Quebecor empire in 2016 after only a year as PQ leader have apparently been resolved.

With polls suggesting LisÈe could lead the sovereigntist troops to an unprecedented rout next fall, it is not hard to find PQ supporters who believe the party could do better with PKP back at its head.

Quebec’s sovereigntist parties have written the book on changing their generals on the way to or in the heat of battle. In 1995, Bloc QuÈbÈcois leader Lucien Bouchard replaced premier Jacques Parizeau as chief campaigner with only weeks to go to a referendum vote. In 2015, the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe took back his leader’s job just in time for the federal campaign.

For Premier Philippe Couillard, who faces an uphill battle in a one-on-fight against the leading Coalition Avenir Quebec next fall, the notion that PKP could be back in the PQ election picture in any capacity is potentially good news.

For the Quebec Liberals, anything that stands to divide the non-Liberal francophone vote is a welcome development.

But what if PKP’s musings end up being little more than idle talk? If that were the case, he might only have further weakened LisÈe’s leadership this week and, in the process, solidified the CAQ’s lead on Couillard’s party.

The ruling Ontario and Quebec Liberals ended the week contemplating opposition fields of ruins. But that does not automatically make the grass greener on their side of the fence.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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