There is no middle ground in Canadian federal leadership. Our prime ministers either enjoy long-lived dynasties or are voted out almost as quickly as they were voted in, according to a new book co-authored by political science professor Judith McKenzie.
McKenzie, who is a self-confessed political junkie, wrote Dynasties and Interludes: Past and Present in Canadian Electoral Politics with colleagues Lawrence Leduc, University of Toronto, and Jon Pammett and Andre Turcotte of Carleton University.
The book provides an analysis of the history of Canadian federal politics, our electoral system and our voting behavior.
“The history of Canadian politics has repeatedly followed the pattern of long periods of political hegemony under successful political leaders, punctuated by short, sharp interludes,” says McKenzie. “Nearly all of Canada’s successful political leaders have had this experience. Macdonald, Laurier, King, Trudeau and Chrétien all had their dynasties interrupted by short interludes of defeat. This shows how quickly things can change in Canadian federal politics.”
Canada’s periods of electoral dominance are much longer than those of other countries, says McKenzie. William Lyon Mackenzie King served 22 years as prime minister before handing power to Louis St. Laurent, who served nine years. Jean Chrétien spent 11 years in power before handing the job over to Paul Martin.
Between those long reigns are shorter interludes, which the new book attributes to Canadians’ relatively weak affiliation to political parties, and to our multi-party federal structure and voting system.
“There is very little party loyalty among Canadian voters, and the number of Canadians who do not identify with any federal political parties continues to increase,” says McKenzie. She says Canadians vote based on short-term factors, including the issues of the day, their assessment of economic conditions, party leaders’ traits and the likely performance of local candidates.
“This explains both the periodic tendency toward sudden and sharp electoral reversals but also the ability of parties over time to recover from adversity and adapt to new political circumstances,” she says. “We will continue to see the dominance of Liberals and Conservatives because these two parties have learned to change and adapt in order to survive.”
Canadian voting behaviour has led political parties to emphasize leaders over party policies or programs, adds McKenzie. Abrupt leadership changes are also spurred by Canada’s multi-party system and by an electoral system that encourages strategic voting.
“The larger political parties frequently capitalize on public awareness of the tenuous position of smaller parties and appeal to strategic voting,” she says. “This lends to the potential for sudden and dramatic change in leadership and a high degree of electoral turnover. It has also led to more minority governments.”
She predicts that we won’t see a return of yesterday’s dynasties anytime soon. “Unless a leader emerges who is really dynamic and able to attract young people or people currently voting for parties other than their own, then Canada will continue to be in a period of interlude governments.”
Dynasties and Interludes: Past and Present in Canadian Electoral Politics is McKenzie’s third book. In 1999, she published a biography on Pauline Jewett, who ran first as a Liberal and then NDP candidate in the 1960s and later became president of Simon Fraser University. In 2002, McKenzie published a book titled Environmental Policies in Canada.
“I find writing so rewarding because it’s about creating new ideas and examining things from your own point of view rather than regurgitating someone else’s thoughts,” says McKenzie. “It’s like having a baby, only it takes longer than nine months.”