Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s surprise resignation last Monday sparked rumours that he will launch a bid for the federal Liberal leadership. Whether McGuinty enters the race or not, the idea of a provincial premier entering a federal leadership contest is unusual in Canadian politics. Few premiers have launched federal leadership campaigns, fewer still won leadership, and not one has become prime minister. By contrast, many American governors have run for president — including former Massachusetts governor and current Republican nominee Mitt Romney — and several have been elected, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among them.
The differences between the American and Canadian political systems help explain why governors do what premiers are seemingly unable or unwilling to do. The federal and provincial wings of Canadian political parties are not well integrated compared to the Democratic and Republican parties. Many have overlapping membership and some — particularly the NDP — share resources. But they also jealously guard political talent. Unlike in the United States, where political candidates often begin at the local level, then pursue state office and move on to federal campaigns, Canadian politicians tend to start at one of the three levels and stay there for much of their career.
Regionalism also plays a big part. Premiers are far more tied to their province than MPs. That means that premiers have to work especially hard to shake the impression that they are only getting involved in federal politics to get a better deal for their part of the country. Premiers also have records, which makes it a lot easier for opponents, both during a leadership race and in an election campaign, to blame and shame them for all the things they did wrong while in government.
But premiers also have a remarkable amount to bring to the table. Premiers, and to a lesser degree mayors of large cities like Toronto, have the closest thing there is to the experience of running something as big as the federal government. The subject matter is different, but a lot of what it takes to be a good premier overlaps with what it takes to be a good prime minister. Canada is putting a lot of good political talent to waste by keeping former premiers out of federal politics. They are not the only people qualified to run governments, but they certainly should be considered.
Thankfully, this is not an issue that plagues one political party more than another. There are talented former premiers who could easily play a big role in any of the three major parties, from Bernard Lord of New Brunswick for the Conservatives, to Gary Doer of Manitoba for the New Democrats, and perhaps premier McGuinty for the Liberals. This would not be unprecedented for either the Conservatives or the New Democrats. The legendary former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas served as New Democratic leader from the party’s founding in 1961 to 1971, and Robert Stanfield of Nova Scotia served as leader of the then-Progressive Conservatives from 1967 to 1976.
While there may not be a place for Dalton McGuinty in the federal Liberal leadership race, there certainly should be greater space made for premiers to enter federal politics and particularly, to lead federal parties. They would bring extraordinarily valuable experience to Ottawa and might lead their parties not only to campaign well, but to govern well too. Not all premiers have what it takes to make the leap into federal politics, but those that do could make a significant contribution. Their parties would do well to ensure they get that chance.
Patrick Baud’s column appears every two weeks