Spouses of Canadian party leaders play key role, although very different from U.S.

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen Harper arrive at Rideau Hall August 2, 2015. (Reuters)
Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen Harper arrive at Rideau Hall August 2, 2015. (Reuters)

Laureen Harper’s pep talk to Conservative party workers in Toronto last week probably won’t be the last time we see the prime minister’s wife making solo appearances in the Oct. 19 election campaign.

Working the small crowd of volunteers and lauding their willingness to sacrifice the rest of their summer because of the early election call, Harper fulfilled a couple of important roles of a political spouse: She was somewhere Stephen Harper couldn’t be (he was prepping for the first leaders’ debate), and she showed a facet that he generally doesn’t (personal warmth).

Laureen Harper is a key asset in the Conservatives’ bid to win a fourth term in government, more so than the wives of Liberal Leader Justice Trudeau and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.

Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and the couple’s three young children were on the campaign bus this week, while Catherine Pinhas-Mulcair’s only major appearance was to stand near her husband when he responded to Harper’s Aug. 2 election call.

A Conservative party presentation on election strategy leaked last year to the Toronto Star suggested Laureen Harper would have a prominent role in the campaign, leveraging her popularity and helping connect the prime minister with average people.

Whether that plan remains in place will become clearer as the long campaign rolls out, especially in the final weeks before the mid-October vote.

“I’m not sure [Stephen] Harper’s gone along with it,” University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman told Yahoo Canada. “We’ll find out as this campaign goes on.”

Conservative officials are said to consider Laureen Harper their secret weapon. There’s no doubt Harper, who used her maiden name Teskey until Stephen Harper first won power in 2006, softens the hard edges of her wonkish husband.

Related:

Laureen Harper interrupted by Toronto activist at cat video festival

Sophie Gregoire: the woman behind Justin Trudeau

Margaret Trudeau comes to son Justin’s defence over political ‘bullying’

Harper’s image as stiff and aloof famously crystallized on his first day at 24 Sussex Dr. in 2006 during a photo op of him walking son Ben and daughter Rachel to school, seeing them off with a handshake.

“I thought the media was unfair in that first photo because I didn’t think it indicated much,” said Wiseman, U of T’s director of the Canadian studies program.

Canadian spouses normally stay in the background

If Laureen Harper takes a prominent role in what’s expected to be a tightly fought campaign, it will be a significant departure in Canadian politics, where spouses mostly have stayed in the background except to stand quietly beside their partners in a photo op or offering smiling waves at a rally.

Except for maybe Margaret Trudeau, wife of Pierre and mother of Justin, Canadians probably are hard pressed to remember the wives of past prime ministers and major party leaders.

Olive Diefenbaker kept a low public profile while her husband, John, was prime minister from 1957 to 1963, but advised her husband behind the scenes.

Lester Pearson’s wife, Maryon, was known for her sharp wit. When a journalist reportedly asked her during a campaign event if there was anything she’d like to bring up, she responded: “Yes, three doughnuts and six cups of coffee.”

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (center) with wife Maryon Pearson (right) in Ottawa April 21, 1976. (CP)
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (center) with wife Maryon Pearson (right) in Ottawa April 21, 1976. (CP)

The political capital of Pierre Trudeau’s tempestuous marriage to much-younger flower child Margaret drained away as their union disintegrated. After they separated she became tabloid fodder, famously dancing the night away at Studio 54 while her estranged husband lost his parliamentary majority in the 1979 election.

Maureen McTeer, the lawyer wife of Trudeau’s successor, Joe Clark, controversially kept her maiden name but otherwise is little remembered for her political role. She did run unsuccessfully herself for a Commons seat as a Tory in 1988.

Brian Mulroney’s wife, Mila, who like Margaret is much younger than her husband, was more of a traditional political leader’s spouse, content in the background except when needed for official events.

It’s unlikely much will change if either Trudeau or Mulcair move into 24 Sussex. That’s in part because prime ministers’ spouses have no official position. They don’t have separate staff and offices, unlike U.S. presidential first ladies. While most take on good works, they generally don’t act as stand-ins for their elected partners.

By contrast, modern U.S. presidential hopefuls make as much use of their spouses as possible.

“As the voting rolls increased and population increased you need to reach more and more voters,” said Susan MacManus, a University of Southern Florida political scientist who co-authored a study on the effectiveness of surrogates in the 2004 presidential campaign.

“If you have two on the campaign trail instead of one, obviously you can be two places at once instead of just one.”

Spouses seen as providing personal insight into would-be leaders

The rise of TV, and now social media, plus increased public interest in celebrities’ lives have combined to create a hunger for personal narratives that spouses can help supply, said MacManus. They provide insight into their partners’ personality.

“You start usually with your own historical background,” she said in an interview. “There’s always interest in how people met and what drew them together.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the Kiss Cam July 16, 2012. (Getty)
U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the Kiss Cam July 16, 2012. (Getty)

They also help engage women voters, who now turn out in greater numbers than men on voting day, she said.

Interest in candidates’ spouses and families also began increasing in the 1970s and ‘80s as more professional women ran for office, said Jill Vickers, a Carleton University political scientist who focuses on women in politics. It raised questions from the political establishment and the media.

“What was going to happen with their kids and were their husbands going to be upset and hostile, or were they just going to be surrogates of their husband?” said Vickers, who ran in the 1979 federal election to gain experience in the process.

Reporters wanted to know who would look after her three young children.

“They did also ask me if I had the permission of my husband,” Vickers added.

Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and Justin Trudeau arrive at the 'ETalk Festival Party'on Friday Sept. 5, 2008. (CP)
Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and Justin Trudeau arrive at the 'ETalk Festival Party'on Friday Sept. 5, 2008. (CP)

Gender roles have eroded in Canada since then, she said, and few people now question career women who stand for election. Likewise, candidates’ spouses with their own professional lives, such as Pinhas-Mulcair who is a practising psychologist, don’t have to immerse themselves in a campaign if they chose not to.

The picture is a little different in the U.S., where traditional family roles are considered more politically acceptable. Handlers tried to reshape lawyer Hillary Clinton into a cookie-baking mom when Bill ran for president in 1992. 

Spouses are not expected to drill deeply into a party’s platform or policy positions, said MacManus. If there is a policy message to communicate, it’s to provide assurance the candidate is knowledgeable and attentive to the audience’s concerns.

“She becomes basically the mediator … of a policy, the link between the candidate’s policy perspectives and the audience’s policy preferences,” MacManus said.

Like anything involving people and politics, some spouses are better at this than others.

In the 2004 contest between incumbent George W. Bush and challenger Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats rolled out Theresa Heinz-Kerry. But the Mozambique-born widow of Sen. John Heinz and heir to the condiment fortune could not connect with ordinary American voters so handlers quickly pared down her appearances.

“She didn’t exude warmth and to some women’s groups she seemed like she was aloof and arrogant,” said MacManus.

Sen. John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry (R) January 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Getty)
Sen. John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry (R) January 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Getty)

Bush, on the other hand, had Laura, who seemed more accessible than Heinz-Kerry, the former UN translator. How much that influenced Bush’s re-election is unclear, but it certainly didn’t help Kerry.

The Clintons are maybe the most famous political and matrimonial partnership in recent history. Hillary was a very active campaigner when Bill defeated George Bush Sr. in 1992. Some saw her almost as a co-president, though her part in crafting his failed universal health-care initiative forced her into a more traditional role.

The Bill and Hillary factor

Many political observers wonder just how Bill will figure in Hillary’s presidential run.

“There are some who feel that she will use him extensively, that he’s still more popular than she is,” said MacManus. “There are others who say there is danger in him upstaging her because that would suggest she does not have the strong leadership and that he would just be president again.”

Most Canadian leaders’ spouses accept some role in campaigns.

“Virtually all political spouses recognize that there might be political value in their presence and they want their husbands to succeed,” said Wiseman.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair with his wife Catherine Pinhas (L) in Toronto August 6, 2015. (Reuters)
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair with his wife Catherine Pinhas (L) in Toronto August 6, 2015. (Reuters)

He doubts voters will see much of Catherine Pinhas-Mulcair.

“I think she’s a reticent political spouse,” he said.

Gregoire-Trudeau, on the other hand, may be an important asset for Trudeau, said Wiseman.

“There’s the greatest potential,” he said. “It would signal generational change, which is what a large part of his message is, especially if he gets his kids up there.”

Gregoire-Trudeau could also make a difference in francophone Quebec, where she is a well-known French-language TV presence as a cultural reporter.

Whether the campaign will get to exploit her probably will come down to a Trudeau family decision, and perhaps a calculation on whether her involvement could tip the balance in a close race.

Regardless of how closely fought it is, Vickers said candidates feel the pull from their campaign strategists to involve their families, as she did in her unsuccessful election bid.

“The pressure is always there to exploit whatever assets the candidate is thought to have,” she said.