Thursday, January 22, 2015

The electoral record of "un-elected" premiers

The electoral calendar for 2015 was already going to be dominated by the federal election in October. But quickly the calendar is getting more crowded, as three provinces could find themselves in the midst of a provincial election campaign in a matter of months. The reason? A trio of "un-elected" premiers looking for a fresh mandate of their own.

I use the term "un-elected" with caution. It doesn't represent how our system works. We elect representatives who may be a member of a party, the leader of which becomes the premier if he or she has the confidence of the legislature. In practice, though, most Canadians don't see things this way. Who leads a party has a great influence on their vote.

Three provinces have or are about to have "un-elected" premiers at the helm: Alberta (Jim Prentice, who became premier on September 15), Newfoundland and Labrador (Paul Davis, who became premier on September 26), and Prince Edward Island (Wade MacLauchlan, who will take over the governing Liberals in February). Davis is supposed to call an election this year, while rumours are swirling about snap calls this spring by both Prentice and MacLauchlan.

Recent history suggests that a snap call might be a good idea.

I looked at the electoral track record of "un-elected" premiers over the last 50 years. By my count, there have been 35 of them. Their record is mixed, with 19 having secured re-election when the next election was held and 16 of them being defeated. That's a winning record of 54%, compared to the 70% winning record of incumbent premiers over the same period.

Of course, this is not entirely an accident. A premier is more likely to stay in office if he has a chance of re-election. Many times, a premier has resigned to avoid an impending defeat, leaving their replacement to either refresh the party and give it a chance or take one for the team. This alone will make the record of "un-elected" premiers look worse than perhaps it should.

Nevertheless, here is how the track record of "un-elected" premiers looks over the last 50 years. I've ranked them by the amount of time they spent in office before facing the electorate for the first time as party leader. You'll notice that the longer they waited, the worse their chances got.

This, too, may not be an accident. A newly sworn-in premier who thinks he or she has a chance to win will be more likely to call an election, whereas one who thinks defeat is inevitable will delay and hope that their chances get better (on average, they have waited 418 days).

So, perhaps it is better to look at these results not as a guide to electoral chances, but as a guide to why a premier may be delaying an election call (or planning a quick one).

The fate of "un-elected" premiers can be split into three groups.

The most successful called an election within 188 days, or roughly six months, of becoming premier. Those who did, and there have been 11 of them since 1965, won eight times. Brian Tobin and Tom Rideout, both from Newfoundland and Labrador, were the quickest to pull the trigger. Both faced the electorate within 30 days. Tobin won a majority, but Rideout was defeated.

The next group of premiers called an election within 198 and 486 days of becoming premier. They had a much more mixed record, winning seven times and losing five times.

The last group of premiers are those who waited as long as they could. They likely faced the greatest hurdles, calling the next election between 535 and 1126 days of becoming premier. They include premiers like Ernie Eves, Bernard Landry, and Christy Clark. And they had a losing record, winning four times and losing eight. George Isaac Smith of Nova Scotia waited longest, holding off for more than three years before meeting defeat in 1970 (though just barely).

So what does this tell us, if anything, about the three provinces that could hold elections this year?

For Jim Prentice, it would appear he would be best off if he calls an election for March 22 or earlier. The cards are lining up for something along those lines. He gets into more uncertain territory if he waits for the period between April 1, 2015 and January 14, 2016. His odds get much worse if he calls it after March 3, 2016.

Paul Davis is looking like he will have little luck no matter when he calls the vote, but his chances would be best (historically speaking) if he calls it for April 2 or earlier. If he waits until 2016, his already bad odds will get worse.

Wade MacLauchlan is taking over a Liberal Party in PEI that is well position for re-election. But he has some time. If we place the beginning of his premiership on February 21, when the Liberal leadership acclamation will be held, the most advantageous window for him closes on August 28, 2015. Between September 7, 2015 and June 21, 2015 his odds get worse, and then get much worse after August 9, 2016.

It is a bit of self-fulfilling prophesy, though. The numbers are looking good for Prentice, so he is likely to call an election this spring. That puts him in the winners' group. The same likely goes for MacLauchlan, who has done nothing to quiet talk of a snap election. Davis, on the other hand, looks like he is waiting as long as possible. That will likely put him in one of the losers' groups. But if he does lose, it won't be because he is waiting. He is waiting because he might lose.


  1. On the graphic you're missing Pierre-Marc Johnson of Quebec from 1985. You put a D next to Daniel Johnson's name as though to distinguish him from Pierre-Marc Johnson but the latter isn't included in the graphic.

    1. Urgh. I did have him on my list, I guess I cut him and forgot to paste him. I'll fix.

    2. Oh dear, I think he works (or perhaps did work) for a polling firm too :)

      Not a premier but, Kim Campbell, Paul Martin and John Turner. I don't see any good reason to exclude them.

    3. Well, it was because they aren't premiers.

    4. And even more relevantly, because they weren't...

    5. Technically Eric they are premiers since, premier is short hand for prime minister, the two words are inter-changeable. The "premiers of Quebec" official job title is prime minister of Quebec. The premier of BC was described as prime minister until 1972 and I believe the "premier of Ontario" official designation remained prime minister until after the patriation of the constitution.

    6. You got me there. I mean, of course, premiers of provinces.

    7. Pierre Trudeau should also be on Capilano Dunbar's list:

      The unelected PMs:
      Trudeau - 66 days - Majority
      Turner - 66 days - Defeated
      Campbell - 122 days - Defeated
      Martin - 199 days - Minority

  2. Doesn't the time since the last election have to factor in here? A new premier does not mean a new parliament, and if the provinces follow the five-year maximum tradition, then that will constrain the choices.

  3. Replies
    1. He won the most seats.

    2. Eric is correct Miller won a minority government in 1985 only to be defeated on the Throne speech.

      I agree with Capilano why would you not include federal "unelected PM's"? To do so almost makes the exercise "incomplete".

    3. He won the most seats, and ended up as the official opposition, not as a minority government. He never commanded the confidence of the new legislature.

      If Miller won the 1985 election Defienbaker won in 1963. Simply taking your sweet ass time to resign isn't a win, and government isn't decided by who has the most seats, but by who has the confidence of the house.

      Miller lost.

    4. But many of the premiers who formed minorities could have also lost if the opposition decided to defeat them. It doesn't change the result of the election, which was my interest.

    5. Ryan,

      I would strongly urge you to review the procedures of government formation and I remind you it is the Crown not the legislature that appoints a government-the House only approves the choice!. Miller won a minority government. He submitted a Throne Speech to the Crown which was accepted, by accepting the Throne Speech the LG acknowledges his approval and appointment of His government. On the subsequent vote on the Throne speech, June 18, the motion was defeated, 6 weeks between the return of the writs and a Throne speech is a normal and acceptable period.

      Rae and Peterson did not campaign on a joint government platform and there was no reason to assume they had any indication of governing together. As the sitting premier Miller had a duty and right to meet the House. Diefenbaker chose to resign he was not obligated nor required constitutionally to do so.

      Most people don't realise that confidence motions are two acts of confidence; firstly, the Crown must approve the motion and secondly the House must approve. Indeed, this is why they are confidence motions because they are approved by the Crown before introduction.

      Miller's won a minority government because his Throne speech was accepted by the Crown indicating royal approval for a new legislative programme and acknowledging appointment.

    6. "Diefenbaker chose to resign he was not obligated nor required constitutionally to do so."

      Bede - that's the point. No government ever is until they lose the confidence of the House. Martin didn't have to resign either, not until he loses his Throne speech.

    7. Eric - "But many of the premiers who formed minorities could have also lost if the opposition decided to defeat them."

      In this case they did, which is why he lost. The result of the election was a Liberal-NDP coalition.

      Not to mention the Liberals won the popular vote, which plaid no small part in the change.

    8. Ryan,

      You are confusing the confidence convention with government formation. Martin and Diefenbaker could have chosen to meet the House but, both decided against it. Arguably Martin made a very foolish political decision. However, a government is the Government from the moment of its appointment, it does not need to win a vote of confidence to take up its position-it needs a vote of confidence to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Likewise the amount of the popular vote bears no relevance on who will form Government. The Crown alone decides who will govern this process is given popular legitimacy through approval of the Throne Speech and other legislation in the popularly elected House.

      In the case of Miller there is no doubt he formed a government before its defeat and resignation on June 18. The LG refers to it as "My Government" in the Throne Speech and the the recall of the House instituted a new parliament and legislative session.

      Martin and Diefenbaker did not have to resign but, it was unlikely the Crown was going to call on either one of them to form a new government.It is a courtesy the Crown allows for PMs to resign of their own accord instead of the humiliation of being publicly turfed.

  4. Unelected Premiers are the only Premiers who've ever lost elections in Alberta. No Albertan Premier who has ever won an election has ever subsequently been defeated.

    1. Poor Danielle Smith-she really was on the cusp of victory!

    2. bede dunelm,

      What do you think? Do you agree with me that perhaps Prentice has been too clever by half in brazenly taking in the Wildrose orphans?

      Sure, over the short term it appears to be a net positive over Redford's dismal numbers but when people sit down and really hash this one out, I argue it will allow resentment to brew particularly in the rural areas of the province.

      Imagine if Wildrose could come up with an impressive leader -- someone with at least equal name recognition as Prentice -- that would perhaps have the PCs close to doing it in their pants.

      If Prentice moves swiftly to an election, as expected, (according to conventional wisdom), it will only confirm the crass and opportunistic nature of the move. No need to wonder why people are so cynical regarding the political's hard to beat this one as a perfect example of that.

    3. Alberta is ready for a political earthquake the question is simply one of timing. The problem for Wild Rose is their grass roots activities are not as sophisticated as the PCs in rural parts of Alberta; getting people to the polls broadly termed "logistics" favour the PCs.

      Wild Rose has a great opportunity to exploit the PC's opportunism and clear mismanagement. It is obvious Prentice does not have an answer for the $7 billion hole in the budget caused by low oil prices. Wild Rose's biggest problem is like the federal Liberals and Justin Trudeau they do not look like a government in waiting.

    4. Well, since Wild Rose just lost its leader and much of its caucus, it's probably true that at this moment they certainly don't look like a government in waiting anymore!

      As for the Federal level, it's hard to say what will happen because the Trudeau Liberals appear to be viewed more as a government in waiting than the Mulcair NDP. The NDP has more seats as a result of the Layton Wave in the last election, but they are behind the Trudeau Liberals and have no experience in Federal Office.

    5. If the Liberals don't put together some sort of platform soon they will be dismissed by the electorate as not ready to govern. The problem for the Liberals at the moment is they for all intents and purposes they do not have a caucus with governing experience either. So you have a match up with the Conservatives having all the experience agaiinst two inexperienced and untested parties one of which can't be bothered to release any policies, during a period of considerable economic and geo-political uncertainty. The Liberals are playing right into Harper's narrative of inexperience and inability to govern. Harper is well positioned to win another majority.


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