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Here’s why Liberal leaders score well in popularity, performance

A recent survey ranking the best and worst of Canada's longest-serving prime ministers was enough to induce apoplexy among Conservative supporters: Liberal PMs occupied six of the first seven spots.

At the bottom end, Tory PMs took five of the six positions. Stephen Harper finished 10th. To find a Conservative prime minister held in high esteem required going back to the 19th century's John A. Macdonald, according to a Maclean's magazine survey of 123 political specialists.

Baloney! retorted Conservatives in online posts about the survey's findings. Nothing but codswallop! The so-called experts, they complained, were mainly academics who are chiefly Liberal. There was some basis for that complaint; academics Stephen Azzi and Norman Hillmer, who conducted the survey in late summer, told me that most of the respondents had indeed voted Liberal. But the responses from Conservatives who took part weren't all that different, they said. For example, Mr. Harper finished ninth among Conservative responders, only one spot better than the overall finding.

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While some may dispute these particular results, other soundings, including public opinion polls about the popularity of prime ministers, have yielded roughly similar results.

Among reasons why Conservatives fare so poorly, we might consider leadership personality. In two weeks, we'll be marking the first year of Liberal PM Justin Trudeau's governance. There's been much comment about his personification of power and how the charm offensive has struck a chord with the public, compared with the approach of Mr. Harper.

But rather than being an exceptional case, this is part of a pattern. Having prime ministers who are an uncomfortable fit for the people is a problem that has long plagued Tory leaders; their personas came to grate on the public. Most left office unliked, unwanted. Consider the vainglorious Arthur Meighen, or R.B. Bennett, who was derided, sometimes not unfairly, as a pompous ass. John Diefenbaker began on a high note but came to be viewed as a messianic blowhard bordering on the unhinged. Young Joe Clark was green and gawky, Brian Mulroney too slick by half, Mr. Harper needlessly malevolent.

Liberal PMs, an exception being the lugubrious but successful William Lyon Mackenzie King, had personal styles that worked better. Think of Wilfrid Laurier, or Louis St. Laurent (who went by Uncle Louis) or Lester Pearson, Jean Chrétien and the Trudeaus.

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The Maclean's survey ranked the long-serving PMs (those who held office for at least four years) as follows: 1) Mackenzie King; 2) Laurier; 3) Macdonald; 4) Pierre Trudeau; 5) Mr. Pearson; 6) St. Laurent; 7) Mr. Chrétien; 8) Mr. Mulroney; 9) Robert Borden; 10) Mr. Harper; 11) Mr. Diefenbaker; 12) Alexander Mackenzie; 13) Bennett.

A separate ranking was done for the 10 PMs who held office a short time. Aside from the incumbent Justin Trudeau, it's not a list one craves to be on and here again Conservatives come out on the short end: seven on the list are Tories. Of the three Liberals, Mr. Trudeau and Paul Martin are ranked highest.

Beyond the question of personal appeal, scholars cite other reasons for the big Liberal-Tory divide. The sweet spot in Canadian politics is neither left nor right, but the progressive centre. And that has usually been the Liberals' natural habitat. There is, Mr. Azzi said, "a distinctly Canadian style of leadership that involves compromise and accommodation." Liberal PMs, an exception being Pierre Trudeau, have been better at that.

Conservative PMs, in the view of Mr. Hillmer, could never get it right with Quebec the way Liberal leaders did. Mr. Mulroney was a welcome deviation; he got Quebec aboard the Tory train until his alliance with Lucien Bouchard derailed it.

Liberal prime ministers benefited from the luck of timing. Laurier and St. Laurent governed in unusually prosperous times. How could they not fare better than an R.B. Bennett who served in the Great Depression?

It all started so auspiciously for the Conservatives: Macdonald, our first prime minister, was a leader of compromise and accommodation. His vision was national. He set the template for the governing of the disparate country.

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But it was the Liberal PMs who picked up on that template more so than the Tories. Both from a personal and policy point of view, they've melded more comfortably into our mainstream political culture.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More


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