Ontario PCs have had last-minute leaders before and it didn't go so well

The Ontario PCs entered 2018 looking like the favourites in the province's upcoming election, but historical precedent suggests they could struggle with a leader installed so close to the vote.

Historical record federally and in Ontario has not been kind to leaders installed so close to an election

On Friday, Vic Fedeli was chosen by the Ontario PC caucus as its new interim leader. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

No later than March 24, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives will choose the person who will lead them into the next provincial election, leaving that person as few as 75 days in the job before Ontarians go to the polls on June 7.

But this won't be the first time the Ontario PCs meet voters under a last-minute leader. And when it has happened in the past, it hasn't gone so well.

After the resignation of former leader Patrick Brown following allegations of sexual misconduct, the PC caucus selected MPP Vic Fedeli to be the party's new interim leader on Friday. Though Fedeli was hoping it would be a permanent position, the party has instead decided to kick off a leadership campaign — and allow Fedeli to be a candidate.

If Fedeli wins it, he will have had just 132 days to get the PCs ready for the election. Only five other provincial party leaders in Ontario have had less time before being tossed to the voters. If another candidate is successful, that person will have the shortest time in the position before a vote of any major party leader in the province's history.

Examples of last-minute Ontario Liberal leaders date to before the Second World War: Newton Rowell and Hartley Dewart in the 1910s and Harry Nixon in the 1940s. 

But the two Ontario PC examples are far more recent: Frank Miller in 1985 and Mike Harris in 1990. But even they had a comparatively luxurious 96 and 117 days in the job, respectively, before being judged by voters.

That differs significantly from where the PCs find themselves today. When Miller became leader, he took over a party that had been in government for more than four decades. As premier, it was his call to send the province to the polls shortly after taking office.

Mike Harris, however, took over a party that had been relegated to third-party status in 1987 and was still stuck in third place in the polls when Liberal premier David Peterson pulled the plug on his government a year ahead of schedule.

And in both cases, their predecessors were not leaving in the wake of scandal.

Miller, Harris struggled in snap campaigns

Nevertheless, the experiences of these last-minute leaders do not bode well for the PCs.

Neither Dewart nor Rowell were able to return their party to power from the opposition benches, while Nixon saw his party's support plummet and his majority government reduced to third-party status in 1943 — the year the PCs' long reign in Ontario began.

That reign ended in 1985 with Miller. His party was comfortably leading in the polls — as the PCs were before Brown's departure — and looked set to win its 13th consecutive election. Instead, Miller's campaign floundered as both Peterson's Liberals and the New Democrats under Bob Rae made gains. They weren't enough to topple the PCs outright, but Miller's slim minority government was quickly defeated by an alliance between Peterson and Rae.

Ontario Premier David Peterson, right,, NDP Leader Bob Rae and Progressive Conservative Leader Mike Harris, left, in 1990. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

After two years, Peterson won a majority government on his own and went back to the polls in 1990. The newly installed Harris was not able to make up much ground — he was taking over from Larry Grossman, who won just 16 seats in  the 1987 election — but Peterson's bid for re-election failed as Rae's New Democrats secured an unexpected victory.

Harris would eventually defeat Rae with his "common sense revolution" in 1995.

Most federal last-minute leaders have struggled, too

While past precedents on the Ontario provincial scene do not look particularly promising for the PCs, the experience of federal last-minute leaders hasn't been much better.

The only successful example among those who had a similarly short stint as leader before their first election is Pierre Trudeau in 1968. The Liberals were able to turn a minority government into a solid majority on a wave of enthusiasm for Trudeau's brand of leadership.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sprints away from a crowd of female admirers in 1968. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

But other examples are less positive for the Ontario PCs. They include federal PC leader Kim Campbell, who led her party to a catastrophic defeat in 1993, and Liberal leaders Lester Pearson in 1958 and John Turner in 1984. In those cases, their PC opponents (John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, respectively) won the two biggest majority governments in Canadian history.

Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe in 1997 (and again in 2015) and Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day in 2000 led their parties to disappointing showings after just a few months on the job.

History doesn't always repeat itself

But this spotty history for last-minute leaders does not mean that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne can expect to keep her job after June 7. The context of each election is different and many of the leaders above were charged with defending a government that was long in the tooth.

Wynne is historically unpopular and her party has governed Ontario for almost 15 years. That alone should give the next PC leader an advantage going into the spring campaign. The PCs' wide lead in the polls combined with what was the muted enthusiasm for Brown as leader suggests that Ontarians are motivated by the prospect of a change in government rather than whatever Brown had to offer personally as a prospective premier.

Still, the historical precedent should act as a warning to the PCs. The context of the upcoming election means the party has a serious chance of being the winners, but needing to change leaders this late in the game puts them among a dangerous list of historical losers.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.