Is Canada slipping into a 'one-and-done' party leader pattern?

·5 min read
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca tells supporters during a speech on election night that he's stepping down as party leader, on June 2. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC - image credit)
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca tells supporters during a speech on election night that he's stepping down as party leader, on June 2. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC - image credit)

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When Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said he would resign in the wake of last week's provincial election, he became the latest addition to a big group of Canadian party leaders to get only one kick at the electoral can.

Conservative leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole only got one shot. Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were afforded just one opportunity each. Iain Rankin in Nova Scotia and Andrew Wilkinson in B.C. each only had a single chance to win.

Almost all of those leaders resigned. But it certainly appeared they were quitting, amid internal party pressures, to avoid the embarrassment of being ousted.

It's not so for every leader. On the same night that Del Duca resigned after one election as leader, Andrea Horwath resigned after four atop Ontario's NDP. Stephen Harper lost his first election, before winning the next three. Robert Stanfield got three strikes before Joe Clark took over the federal Tories. The most extreme examples, Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, each led their parties in seven elections, with a few losses sprinkled in among the victories.

These days, party leaders who lose elections often (but not always) resign. Winning no doubt helps with longevity, but for those who lose, is the cutthroat "one-and-done" model on the rise?

Western University political scientist Cristine de Clercy says, while there is a general lack of patience with leaders these days, it doesn't make sense to think of it as a one-way trend.

"I think we're just in another period, as we've had in the past, where public and party expectations around leaders are very stringent. And if leaders can't win, then they're out," she said.   

Great expectations

The reason, de Clercy says, comes down to expectations. Leaders who fail to live up to the promise they represented to the party are left by the wayside, which is why Del Duca bowed out, she says.

The Liberals went from seven seats in 2018 to only eight seats in the recent Ontario election, and again came in third.

"The magnitude of the results last week simply were not expected," de Clercy said. "Just to sketch out an alternate hypothesis, if the Liberals had believed that they would receive no seats last week and they got eight seats, he looks like a hero."

She emphasizes that the expectations set by parties are not always "necessarily reasonable" — so it's not all about the leader's performance.

Major federal party leaders by elections contested, 1900-

Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, agrees that expectations are the main variable that determine whether a party leader has to face the music after a losing campaign.

But he also says the stakes are now generally higher for leaders, given their expanded role in politics and being more tied up with the party brand.

And with the advent of social media and more political coverage overall, Canadians may simply get overexposed to leaders who then "lose their shine" more quickly, he said.

WATCH | Horwath steps down: 

"Political leaders have a shorter shelf life than they used to," he said. "People just get tired of seeing the same leaders all the time."

They're also subject to the simple ebbs and flows of partisan popularity, or voter fatigue with a certain leader or party, he says.

And, generally, different parties have different expectations. While federal Liberal or Conservative leaders may be expected by their respective supporters to form government in any given election, the same might not be true for New Democrats, leading to some relative stability.

"Many of [the NDP's] leaders have suffered terrible losses, but fought a principled campaign. And the membership is expecting that and is happy with it," de Clercy said. "Whereas in contrast, for the Liberals and Conservatives, it's about power, it's about winning."

Marland says each party has developed its own unique culture of leadership, with the NDP often happy to be the "moral conscience of Parliament."

Women tend to have more precarious leaderships

De Clercy also says not all leaders receive the same level of charity when it comes to meeting expectations. Women, she says, tend to be more precarious in their leadership.

"They are not always, but often, more prone to be challenged and jettisoned," she said. "And once there's a case to replace them ... things unfold pretty quickly."

Many female politicians also face what's called the "glass cliff" phenomenon — being handed the reins at a particularly weak moment for the party.

Marland says Conservatives have recently turned particularly unforgiving toward losing candidates. The party will pick a new leader this fall. And whoever that is, their fortunes will depend greatly on who is leading the federal Liberals into the next election.

If Justin Trudeau decides not to run, the new Tory leader's future will be a bit of a wildcard, Marland says.

But if Trudeau leads the Liberals once more, as he's said he will, the stakes are even higher because, after 10 years out of power, the Conservatives feel they're due for a win.

"If Trudeau is contesting the next election ... and is returned as prime minister, I think the Conservatives would just be so angry that they would need to blame somebody, and they'd blame whoever is leader."

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