Opposition leader the toughest job in politics

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June 25, 2017

Opposition leader the toughest job in politics

By Robin Sears for The Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

Since we abolished real gladiatorial contests, there is no tougher first day on the job than a nervous new leader of an opposition party.

You face your first Question Period, with the prime minister of the day grinning widely at the prospect of slicing you from stem to gudgeon. The galleries are full, the media are staring down with sardonic smiles, your family is watching at home and your political family is holding its breath all around you.

If you flop, like an unlucky gladiator of old, you can wind up politically dead. You can be wounded for your entire career in the job. If you sail, you will have launched your political ship safely and your confidence and those of everyone around you soars. Most wisely aim for doing OK, and survive.

On the last Monday in October — later if the government decides to prorogue the House in the fall — it will be the new NDP leader’s turn. It will also mark the end of a two-year holiday for the PM with no popularly elected opposition leader doing battle daily.

The Tories were ably led by Rona Ambrose, but she took herself out of the race for the real job, so her successful sallies lost some bite. Thomas Mulcair can still thunder at the drop of a hat, but as a soon to-be-departed former leader, the media and most Liberals reaction is to yawn.

The last time a PM faced two lame-duck opposition leaders was in Trudeau père’s day. He was graced with many months in his third term with neither a Progressive Conservative nor an NDP elected leader. David Lewis’ successor, Ed Broadbent, was chosen in the summer of ’75, after the NDP’s devastating 1974 defeat. Bob Stanfield was replaced by Joe Clark the following winter. Pierre Trudeau had many months with only lame duck leaders to test him. This was perhaps fortunate.

Pierre Trudeau was a lackadaisical performer in the house, a trait shared by his son. He could be devastating; but more often, he was merely dismissive. However, neither Broadbent nor Clark hit many home runs in their early days. Each was embarrassed by a string of byelection defeats. The NDP though, did elect Fonse Faour, its first Newfoundland MP, and Bob Rae — an almost immediate star.

The gods of politics are cruel. Despite those early humiliations it was a mere three years later that Joe Clark became — albeit, briefly — prime minister. Broadbent had his most successful election in 1980, even greater success in 1988. Each leader grew in confidence and stature as political performers in the bruising arena that is the House. Clark and Broadbent made their bones in the bitter struggle over the Charter of Rights, from opposite sides of the battle.

Andrew Scheer’s launch was merely OK, but he survived his initiation. The new NDP leader will need to be seen as both relevant and as tough as Thomas Mulcair to earn good maiden performance reviews. However, neither should have their cards for 2019 marked on their first leadership months. Circumstances seem likely to turn against this government as it enters the second half of its term.

There is the political threat of pipelines and climate change, no matter what how the current instability in B.C. plays out. The NAFTA negotiations and surviving the crazed current tenant of the White House promises to get much worse before they get better.

The Canadian economy is continuing to recover — unless Brexit, China/U.S tension or some future unknown knocks it sideways again. This government has racked up a considerable deficit and debt, leaving much less room than was available to Jim Flaherty for emergency pump-priming.

Trudeau père survived, by only a few thousand votes across Canada, to serve a second term. Joe Clark failed as prime minister by losing a game of chicken a more seasoned player would never have indulged. Soon after Christmas 2019 we may see one of the new opposition leaders moving across the aisle, soon to face terrified new opposition leaders, on their first days, one seated in the new PM’s old chair.

Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was an NDP strategist for 20 years.