Opinion: Our short-lived female premiers

What do Catherine Callbeck, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois, Kathy Dunderdale and Christy Clark have in common? They are all women who broke the political glass ceiling to become their province’s first elected female premier, only to have voters sour on them over just one term in office.

By her own admission, Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne expects to join the club as a result of Thursday’s provincial vote. Based on recent provincial history, it would be tempting to conclude that lingering gender discrimination is the root cause of the relatively short tenures of the first women to be elected to their legislature’s corner offices. It would also be simplistic.

These one-term premiers share more than their gender. Along with their party’s leadership, Callbeck in P.E.I., Redford in Alberta, Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador, Clark in British Columbia and Wynne in Ontario all inherited governments that were getting long in the tooth.

Changing the leadership of a party while it is in government has always been a hit-and-miss affair. Just ask John Turner, Ernie Eves or Bernard Landry, to name just those three. They all led the governing parties they had taken over from successful predecessors, to the opposition benches.

As dismal as the re-election track record of Canada’s female premiers to date may be, they initially proved to be more adept at giving their parties a longer lease in government than many of the male counterparts selected to lead in the same circumstances.

The exercise of power is intellectually depleting, and that goes a long way to explain why most parties do not age well in government. That’s a reality even Canada’s most electorally successful political organizations can attest to.

Think of the self-destructive clan war between the Jean Chretien and Paul Martin factions that came to consume the federal Liberals at the end of their previous reign, or the post-Mulroney schisms that pitted conservative against conservative for a decade nationally and ended almost half a century of Tory rule in Alberta three years ago.

The advent of female premiers in Canada coincided with a time when the ties that used to bind voters to political parties were becoming increasingly frayed.

In New Brunswick in 2010 and in Nova Scotia three years later, voters declined for the first time in the modern history of those provinces to give incumbent governments (led by male premiers) a second mandate.

Greater voter mobility also led to the 2011 orange wave in Quebec and to Justin Trudeau’s unprecedented feat of leading a federal party from third place to a majority government in 2015.

In the era of the political consumer, the average life expectancy of a party in power could be getting shorter.

As Wynne was pre-emptively conceding defeat last weekend, the members of the Bloc Quebecois were firing their first female leader.

At her parting news conference on Monday, Martine Ouellet noted that the alleged authoritarian style that led to her overthrow paled in comparison to the ironclad discipline imposed on the Bloc by Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe. The inference was that she had been treated differently on account of her gender.

In contrast with her predecessors, Ouellet did not get any of the MPs who served under her elected. None had reason to feel beholden to her for his or her seat in the House of Commons. Inasmuch as he comes from a provincial legislature and has yet to lead his troops in Parliament, let alone in an election, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shares some of Ouellet’s circumstances.

Over his first months as leader, Singh has had to walk back some publicly stated positions in the face of pushback from his caucus. Some of that pushback took place in public. If Singh were to try to use the same inflexible caucus management approach as Ouellet did, he too would be living dangerously.

That would not be because he is the first visible minority politician to lead a main federal party, but because he has yet to acquire the moral authority that comes from having demonstrated his worth as leader on the electoral battlefield.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.

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