CANADA’S (federal) PRIME MINISTERS © David Watts 14’03/2004
As a group as much as individuals, Canada’s twenty-one prime ministers tell us much about the country they lead and serve.
Three of them—Alexander Mackenzie, RB Bennett and Joe Clark—led governments that provided one-term Time Outs for those who preceded them and came back next election.
Another seven were interim leaders who never faced an election. They came at the end of long serving governments for a few months before the voters opted for a change of party.
These two groups—the One-Timers and the Transitionals—make up one half of the list of our PM’s. They’re important because they help to make our democratic system work.
But their time and influence was limited. There’s little reason to study the governments of Thompson, Abbott, Bowell and Tupper, Meighen, Turner and Campbell in the way some countries number and study their kings, queens and presidents.
At the other end of the scale, four of our Prime Ministers—Macdonald, Laurier, King and Trudeau—served a total of 72 years: more than half the years since Confederation.
Another six—Borden, St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, Pearson, Mulroney and Chrétien—are middleweights. Each won two or more elections and held power for five or more years.
No provincial premier has ever become a successful Canadian prime minister. Only two ever made it to the Prime Minister’s Office and these—Sir John Thompson and Sir Charles Tupper—were transitional leaders in the wake of Macdonald’s death.
A larger number of premiers have served as cabinet ministers and opposition leaders in Ottawa, including our present Minister of Health Ujjal Dosanjh, a former BC Premier.
Premiers’ failure to make it in the top federal job is significant. It may be that the features and policies that make a leader popular in one province will be liabilities in other regions.
There are also specific skills and experience needed to lead a country as diverse as Canada. Certain occupations and backgrounds may be an advantage, others are irrelevant.
Unlike our American neighbours, we’ve never had a general or senior military officer as head of government. Two Prime Ministers, Pearson and Diefenbaker, fought in the wars but this was not a major factor in their political careers.
No clergyman has become Prime Minister, but some have become provincial premiers.
No business person or financier of standing has become PM. One or two were rich, the rest were not. Sir John A. grew up on the edge—his father was bankrupt twice—which may explain Sir John’s need for short term cash.
An evangelical style, military decisiveness or business acumen have not been qualities of successful Canadian prime ministers.
Of the six who won three or more elections, four—Macdonald, Laurier, Diefenbaker and Chrétien were small town lawyers and two—King and Trudeau—were labour lawyers.
Labour law and diplomacy, the background of King, St. Laurent, Pearson and Trudeau, involve bargaining, conciliating differences, building consensus. These are essential tools in a country whose name means “meeting place” and a population like the United Nations
Canada’s prime ministers have few guidelines on how to do their job. They have no fixed term or retirement age. They can become very powerful if they keep winning elections.
Unlike American presidents who must bargain with congressional leaders, Canadian Prime Ministers control the legislative agenda: what goes on in the House of Commons. They do not have to submit proposals or appointments to an independent body for review
Unlike Britain’s PM’s, Canadian Prime Ministers do not report weekly to a Queen who has been on the job much longer than they and has greater experience and public respect. The Governor General they report to is usually in office for only five or six years.
Canada’s prime ministers have a lot of power but they do not have the glory of presidents and queens. They can serve a long time and still be turned out of office suddenly.
Canada’s four longest serving prime ministers were defeated at the polls at least once after they first became Prime Minister. Three of them came back to lead again.
These upsets keep our leaders accountable and send a reminder that they are servants, not rulers. “Minister” means simply “to serve.” A Prime Minister is therefore a First Servant.
In choosing and directing the other ministers of the government, he or she needs to remember the biblical injunction “Whoever would be first of all must be servant of all.”
Canada led the world in developing the system called “responsible government.” What became responsible or answerable then was the Governor’s Council. From that time on it had to answer not just to the Governor but to the elected representatives of the people.
That group of “responsibles” became the Cabinet. Today Cabinet centres around the Prime Minister who has five levels of responsibility:
As a Member of Parliament he or she is responsible to the voters of his or her riding.
As leader of the governing party, he or she answers to the other members of the caucus.
As head of government, s/he is answerable to the Members of the House of Commons.
And as first of the Ministry, he or she reports to the Governor General.
Unlike in a presidential system, a Canadian Prime Minister is not responsible to all the people of the country. Responsibility to the electorate is indirect, through Parliament.
In theory, that means a PM can be forced from office by his fellow parliamentarians without an election—as happened to Sir John A. Macdonald in the Pacific Scandal.
In the last 35 years the Prime Minister’s Office has grown so much in power it seems the responsibility has become reversed. Sometimes we hear talk of an elected dictatorship.
Two things so far have kept our leaders from becoming outright tyrants: the fact that they are still elected and can be dismissed when they forget this, and
The fact our country is so diverse it would probably break up under dictatorship.
Our longest serving leaders have had a sense of accountability and remembered this.