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John Ibbitson: If past is precedent, McGuinty would not fare well at federal level

In 1872, when a new law made it impossible to sit in both the House of Commons and the Ontario legislature, Edward Blake chose to keep his seat in the House of Commons, and resigned as premier of Ontario. Bad move.

Blake became the first (and until Stéphane Dion, the only) Liberal leader who never served as prime minister, setting a precedent that Dalton McGuinty should bear in mind.

Mr. McGuinty is allegedly pondering a run for the federal Liberal leadership, now that he is stepping down as Ontario premier.

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He would be a formidable candidate. But history teaches us that the move would be ill-advised.

Unlike the United States, where presidents are often drawn from the ranks of governor (in modern times: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and possibly Mitt Romney) no provincial premier has ever been elected prime minister.

Language has something to do with it; English-Canadian premiers are often not bilingual.

Sectional resentments could have more to do with it; being strongly identified with one region of a country could be more hindrance than help in other regions.

And provincial premiers, since there are only 10 of them, generally become national figures – unlike, say, the governor of Arkansas or Georgia – which means they already have baggage, some of it cumbersome, if they move into federal politics.

Regardless of the reasons, if past is precedent, Mr. McGuinty would not fare well at the federal level.

The most recent Ontario premier who tried for the prime ministership was George Drew, a Progressive Conservative. In 1948, he won a third term as premier but was defeated in his own riding. So Colonel Drew, as he liked to be called, went up the road to become federal Opposition leader. He got whupped by Louis St. Laurent in 1949 and again in 1953, and three years later gave up.

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Other provinces have also sent favourite sons to Ottawa, to no avail. Tommy Douglas stepped down as Saskatchewan premier to lead the New Democratic Party in 1961. Though Mr. Douglas was much respected on both sides of the aisle, he never achieved the popularity with voters outside Saskatchewan that he had enjoyed in it.

Robert Stanfield, who won four consecutive elections as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Nova Scotia, lost three consecutive elections as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, before ceding Stornaway to Joe Clark.

Going further back, John Thompson served briefly as premier of Nova Scotia before being recruited by John A. Macdonald for federal office. After Macdonald's death, and John Abbott's retirement, he served as prime minister for two years, before dying of a heart attack.

Charles Tupper, another one of those prime-ministers-consigned-to-trivia-questions who served after the death of Macdonald and before the election of Wilfrid Laurier, served as premier of Nova Scotia for three years, but that was before Confederation.

Of course, precedents are made to be broken. We note that Alberta Premier Alison Redford is bilingual. The interesting question is: if the Progressive Conservative leader did run federally, which party would she choose?

And B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix is likely to become premier of British Columbia next year. He speaks excellent French.

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Either of these two, or someone else, could one day govern the nation. After all, the historic proscription on premiers becoming prime ministers makes little sense. Running a province is the best possible background for running the country.

Nonetheless, Mr. McGuinty should be forewarned: at least up till now, trying to become prime minister after sitting as a premier has been a one-way ticket to an appearance in Trivial Pursuit.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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