National Column: Is a name enough to win the leadership?

by Chantal Hebert

To measure the high leap Caroline Mulroney will attempt should she, as expected, run for the leadership of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, consider that she would have four months to do what Justin Trudeau accomplished over seven years.

More than half a decade on the watch of two Liberal predecessors elapsed between the moment
Trudeau entered politics by winning a seat in the Montreal riding of Papineau and his 2015 majority victory. Two of those years were spent in the leader’s office preparing his first national campaign.

For all the glamour of the Trudeau name, it is far from certain that a plurality of Canadian voters would have considered handing him the reins of the federal government on the morning after he won his first Liberal nomination.

One can only wonder how Trudeau would have fared – absent any previous experience in the lions’ den of the House of Commons – on a leaders debate platform featuring seasoned rivals such as Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe.

Watching the question period travails of Bill Morneau last fall, one was reminded almost daily that effectiveness in partisan politics requires some acquired skills. Morneau had never seen action in the House before he became finance minister.

By the time Trudeau became leader five years after his own entry in the political arena, many, including more than a few Liberals, still believed his selection amounted to little more than a dubious Hail Mary pass for a party fast running out of options to avoid being consigned to the margins.

There is one recent example of a candidate with no experience in elected political office taking on the leadership of provincial party and securing a governing mandate a few months later. But for a variety of reasons, that example may be more useful to collectors of political trivia than to those who want to map a credible quick path to power for Mulroney in Ontario.

Prince Edward Island’s Wade MacLauchlan left academia to become his province’s Liberal leader and premier in 2015. Only a few months later, he led his ruling party to re-election.

But P.E.I. is hardly a microcosm of Ontario. Moreover, MacLauchlan did not have to fight for his party’s leadership. He was acclaimed to the role. He did not go into his first election licking fresh leadership campaign wounds.

By comparison, next month’s Ontario leadership campaign is lining up to be anything but a cakewalk for whoever wins it. From a distance, it comes across as the sort of family reunion in preparation for which the host locks away the kitchen knives.

The transition from delegated conventions where party insiders were mostly in charge of choosing a leader to a one-member-one-vote formula has significantly increased the market value of celebrity candidates.

When it comes to selling membership cards, a well-known last name can go some way to trump proven political experience and/or demonstrated leadership skills under fire. The reverse is not necessarily true once one becomes party or government leader.

Still, the fact is that in Canada there are more examples of political neophytes failing to parlay their pedigree into a shortcut to a major party’s leadership than the opposite.

On that score, the recent history of the Conservative movement in particular has featured some spectacular failures.

At this time last year, fans of businessman Kevin O’Leary still believed his reality television fame would propel him to the top of the federal Conservative party and, eventually, to the prime minister’s office.

Not only did he not go the distance, he also came up short in his self-appointed role of kingmaker.

In 2004, then-Magna CEO Belinda Stronach brought many of the same assets as Mulroney to her leadership bid against Stephen Harper. But neither her charisma nor her business background nor a last name that resonated in international corporate circles translated into the kind of presence one associates with a candidate ready for political prime time.

Those two recent episodes will not prevent many battle-hardened veterans of the Tory backrooms from lining up behind a Mulroney leadership bid.

If she does run, there will those who will serve her campaign out of loyalty to her father, Brian. Others will be drawn to the many qualities that make Caroline Mulroney a promising political neophyte.

Some may even be the same people who tried unsuccessfully to cast Stronach and/or O’Leary as natural-born political leaders.

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

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