Column

WHY MARTIN CAN’T LOSE

The Liberals always go for an outsider— such as a former finance minister

Peter C. Newman July 15 2002
Column

WHY MARTIN CAN’T LOSE

The Liberals always go for an outsider— such as a former finance minister

Peter C. Newman July 15 2002

WHY MARTIN CAN’T LOSE

The Liberals always go for an outsider— such as a former finance minister

Column

PETER C. NEWMAN

THE OFFICIAL DECLARATION by Paul Martin that he intends to run for Canada’s top political job ranks as the season’s leading non-news event. Much more fascinating is the unexpected circumstance of the Governing Party’s leadership contest, which has cast the former finance minister as its natural winner. History dictates it.

Unlike the Tories, who choose leaders by drawing straws, with the loser taking on that unruly political burden, the Liberals follow strict precedent. The seven diverse individuals who assumed command of the Governing Party during the 20th century and beyond, were picked according to two iron rules. The first was that the party would recognize our twin cultural roots by alternating between French and English leaders—from Laurier to King to St. Laurent to Pearson to Trudeau to Turner to Chrétien.

The second rule, which is much more obscure but equally unbreakable, is that no matter which party veteran most clearly deserves a shot at the top spot, the Liberals always go for an outsider. That’s political sorcery of the highest order. Instead of having to defend his predecessor’s corruption, patronage and other forms of skulduggery, the freshly-minted leader can innocently protest, “Hey, I wasn’t part of that Old Gang. This is moi, a new guy with new ideas.”

Simplistic? Of course. But it works. Using the tactic of recruiting capable and politically unsoiled outsiders, the Liberals have governed Canada for 76 of the past 106 years. The pattern began with Sir Wilfrid Laurier. His main opponent was William Stevens Fielding, a former Nova Scotia premier who was so troubled by his province’s precarious economy that he vowed to lead its citizens out of Confederation. But after having won an election on that platform, the issue receded. Fielding later stepped down as premier to become minister of finance in Laurier’s cabinet in 1896 after the Liberals swept

out the federal Tories. It was Fielding who negotiated the fateful reciprocity treaty with Washington that cost Laurier the 1911 election. Fielding then left Ottawa to become editor of Montreal’s Daily Telegraph, but remained so active in Liberal politics that he was considered Laurier’s natural successor.

Instead, the 1919 leadership convention chose King, who was considered a Liberal party outsider. While King had been a Liberal backbencher 10 years earlier, he left politics to become a labor consultant, acting mainly for the Rockefeller family in the U.S. By 1921, King led the Liberals into office and served as prime minister for most of the next three decades.

As it came time for King to join his spiritual ancestors, Defence Minister Brooke Claxton and finance minister Doug Abbott were regarded as the best of the party regulars who deserved the gold ring. Instead, King had recruited Louis St. Laurent, an obscure Quebec City corporate lawyer into the party, first naming him justice minister, then secretary of state for external affairs. Ignoring his loyal lieutenants, King manoeuvred the 1948 leadership convention to assure St. Laurent’s victory. Ten years later, although Paul Martin, Sr. was the party insiders’ obvious candidate, the party went for Lester Pearson, a political neophyte who had been a lifelong public servant, recruited by St. Laurent to fill his former external affairs post.

The transition that followed supported

Unlike the Tories, who choose leaders by drawing straws, with the loser taking on that political burden, the Liberals follow strict precedent

the outsider theory with a vengeance. In 1968, when Pearson felt ready to retire, eight members of his cabinet ran to succeed him. The most serious contender was Robert Winters, the handsome diplomatentrepreneur who looked like a colouringbook executive and had served with distinction in the St. Laurent cabinet, then gone on to become one of Canada’s most powerful corporate bigwigs before returning to Ottawa as trade minister. The problem was that not only would his leadership disrupt the English-French alternation, but the Liberals were determined to choose a more exciting leader. Ignoring Winters and the half dozen other party worthies vying for the crown, the party faithful chose the ultimate outsider: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a Montreal academicactivist who only a few years before had been a devoted member of the NDP, and had viciously attacked the Pearson government’s defence policy.

The next leadership choice was a little trickier and not as effective, but followed the same rules. By June, 1984, Jean Chrétien had been a loyal Liberal for more than 20 years, serving effectively in half a dozen portfolios. But he didn’t fit the pattern. Like Winters, his succession to Trudeau would have broken the FrenchEnglish pattern, and worse, he was too much of an insider. Luckily for his opponent, John Turner met both of the qualifying counts. He had served in the Liberal party as long as Chrétien in equally senior portfolios. But in 1976 he had suddenly resigned from the Trudeau cabinet and turned himself into an outsider by practising law on Bay Street and deliberately staying away from party involvement. The Turner incumbency lasted only 78 days, but at least it maintained the pattern.

Chrétien’s succession in 1990 occurred almost seamlessly. He had become an outsider after resigning from the Commons in 1986, following Turner into the chasms of Bay Street where he became a successful legal adviser and corporate director.

By firing his finance minister earlier this month, Chrétien achieved the impossible: he instantly turned Paul Martin into an outsider, and thus the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. M

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca