Why do leaders overstay their welcome?
Is it possible that their egos actually exceed their intellect? Does the responsibility rest solely on the shoulders of the leader, or should others also be held to account? Some long-term leaders are wise enough to accept the inevitable and resign. Others insist on going down with the ship or take the ship down with them.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne overstayed her welcome and by extension as leader of the Liberal party. How do we know? Look at the election results. Seven seats. Not even enough to qualify as an official party, and the funding that goes with that status. Less than 20 per cent of the popular vote for a party that has a solid base of 30 per cent. None of this should be a surprise to anyone. The polls have shown the support for the party has been dismal for at least the last 18 months. What was the Ontario Liberal party executive doing during that time frame?
Let’s examine the not-so-distant history to see if there are any lessons that could have been learned.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, after 11 years in office, was trailing the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark. Did he resign? No. He ran and lost, albeit to a minority government. Why? Because after 11 years the people of Canada wanted change.
How badly did the people of Canada want change? They voted for Joe Clark. After taking a walk in the snow, Trudeau did what he should have done a year earlier. He resigned. The Clark-led government presented a fundamentally stupid budget for a minority government, counting on the leaderless Liberals to capitulate. The Liberals and NDP voted against the budget and before we knew it, Trudeau was PM again. By 1985, Trudeau resigned again, knowing full well that the Brian Mulroney-led PCs were going to steamroll the Liberals. He didn’t leave his replacement John Turner any time to put a new shine on the party before the country had to go to the polls.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne packs it in.
Mulroney ran two successive majority governments but read the tea leaves and knew that he could not pull off a three-peat. His PCs were so unpopular that all of his strong cabinet ministers, the likes of Michael Wilson and Perrin Beatty, took a look at the polls and decided that it was time to cash in their chips for corporate board seats.
Kim Campbell decided to run for the leadership, with a view of becoming the first female PM. The party had to cajole Jean Charest to pretend to be interested in running against her. Again, the reigning PM stayed too long for his successor to do much more than smile and ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament.
Jean Chretien was successful in winning three consecutive majority governments but was forced out in a coup organized by then-Finance Minister Paul Martin. Putting aside the ethical issues, at least Martin’s supporters were capable of learning from recent history.
They knew that Martin had a strong following in Canada, but that he would need some time to put his stamp on the government. As it turns out, that was the equivalent of the dog-catching the bus and it wasn’t long before the people of Canada had tired of more than a decade of Liberal leadership, and Stephen Harper took the PMs seat in Parliament.
Stephen Harper also overstayed his welcome after a decade in power. Rather than taking a walk in the snow, a la Pierre Trudeau, he insisted on leading his Conservatives to a resounding defeat at the hands of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
All of which takes us back to the Ontario Liberals of 2017 and 2018. Why did the party executives think that, notwithstanding Wynne’s poor personal popularity and the party’s abysmal standing in the polls, would lead to a different outcome? How delusional were they?
Wynne has accepted her fate. Time is on the Liberal’s side. Before the party contemplates a new political leader, it needs to make some serious renovations to its executive offices. Allowing, or perhaps insisting, that Wynne run had only one possible outcome – disaster.
That was a fundamentally flawed strategy. For that, more than Wynne and her cabinet need to be held accountable.
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