Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Fourth Term Problem

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Liberal success in this campaign is the simple fact that they are seeking a fourth term. In recent decades with but a few exceptions, Canadians have tended to get fed up with the party in power, generally after two terms, but almost always by the time a party is seeking a fourth term. This applies to both federal and provincial governments.

There was a time, roughly the period after World War II until the 70’s, when it was quite common for governments to win multiple consecutive majorities. At the federal level the 22-year King-St. Laurent era from 1935 to 1957 won five consecutive majorities before falling to the Diefenbaker Tories in 1957. Between 1963 and 1979, the Liberals finished first five consecutive times, but won only two majorities (in 1968 and 1974). Since then the Liberals had a one-term government in 1980, the Mulroney era was two terms, and now the Liberals have won three majorities.

However, it is now barely more than ten years since Chr├ętien was first elected and the circumstances that produced his three majorities were unusual. His opponents in English Canada were weakened by divisions on the right, and unpopular provincial NDP governments in B.C. and Ontario on the left, plus less than sterling leadership of the federal opposition parties. In Quebec, support for the BQ was strong in 1993 but began to erode after election of the PQ provincially in 1994. My conclusion is simply that whatever his virtues as a political leader, which were considerable, he was one lucky petit gar de Shawinigan.

Now the right is united, the left reinvigorated, and the PQ out of office in Quebec. On top of it all the sponsorship scandal has acted as a symbol of the need for change that is fed naturally by the passage of time.

The Provinces
Except for Newfoundland and Alberta (and just recently Saskatchewan), there have been no new four term governments elected in Canada since the defeat of the PC dynasty in Ontario in 1985.

The Exceptions:
1. Alberta has had small ‘c’ conservative government since 1935, with a switch from Social Credit to Progressive Conservatives in 1971, but it is a virtual one-party state.

2. The Saskatchewan government first elected in 1991 won re-election last fall to a fourth term by a very narrow margin (two constituencies and 5%) over an opponent, the Saskatchewan Party, because the Saskatchewan Party was too strongly rooted in rural Saskatchewan, and unable to secure enough urban votes to win.

3. Newfoundland has been governed by multi-term administrations since entering Confederation in 1949.

The Others
In the period just preceding and the 30 to 40 years after World War II there were several multi-term provincial governments:

1. The CCF in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas won five consecutive majority governments, governing between 1944 and 1964.
2. The Liberal-Progressives in Manitoba won seven majorities (partly as a coalition) between 1922 and 1958.
3. The Ontario Tories governed for 43 years from 1943 to 1985, including winning seven consecutive majorities between 1945 and 1971.
4. In B.C. W.A.C. Bennett won six consecutive majorities and one minority while governing from 1952 to 1972.
5. In Quebec, the Union Nationale won four consecutive majorities, governing from 1944 to 1960.
6. In New Brunswick, Richard Hatfield won four majorities, governing between 1970 and 1987.
7. In Nova Scotia, the PC’s won four consecutive majorities beginning in 1978, leaving office in 1993.
8. In P.E.I. the Liberals won six majorities commencing in 1935, finally being defeated in 1959. They then won four more majorities between 1966 and 1979.

The contrast is clear, multi-term governments were once the norm in Canada but are no longer. The task of satisfying the electorate and keeping the opposition at bay has clearly become a much more difficult task. Mr. Martin faces a significant challenge simply from the appetite for changing government after a few terms that now seems to prevail in Canada.

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