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The ONW Salon:  Are Canadians as in love with political dynasties as the U.S.? 

Susanna Kelley (Moderator):  From Pierre and Justin Trudeau to Brian and Caroline Mulroney to the late Jim Flaherty and his wife Christine Elliott, political families seem to be dominating our political parties.  Are we destined to be like the U.S. with its Kennedys, Bushes and Trumps?  And is this a good or bad trend? We asked Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin.


Richard Mahoney:

Dynasties come in all shapes and sizes.

You see gigantic shaped dynasties in the form of significant historical figures such as former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and, now, Justin Trudeau. Former PM Brian Mulroney to Caroline Mulroney might become one of those. You might argue the Jim Flaherty to his wife Christine Elliott is a mid-sized dynasty—he a former federal and Ontario Finance Minister, she a provincial politician of some renown.

And then you have the mini-me size. Let's be charitable and call Rob and Doug Ford one of those. Like I said, let's be charitable.

For most of us, the idea of a dynasty causes unease. After all, why should family determine success in any aspect of life?

But in modern politics, name recognition is a healthy head start. Celebrity of any kind is.

Justin Trudeau was a known public figure before he entered politics in 2007-8. His charisma and attractive personality helped, but would we have known anything about him if he wasn't the son of one of Canada's greatest Prime Ministers? Not much of a chance.

It is against that backdrop that we assess the candidacies for Ontario Progressive Conservative leader of Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Doug Ford. That, and the backdrop of recent disaster—the disgrace and quick beheading of Patrick Brown by his party. That trauma, if you will, will be a guiding light as Conservatives assess the celebrity of, and suitability of, all three of these candidates

Will dynasty be the most persuasive factor on Conservatives? I think it will be important. The desperate speed with which many Conservatives jumped Brown's ships and went aboard Mulroney's was stunning. What she may or may not do, or might believe, to merit that support is a massive unknown at this point.


Tom Parkin:

No, Canadians are not in love with political dynasties. But political parties in a crisis are.

After the electoral wipeout in 2011, the federal Liberals were in crisis, with some predicting their permanent decline. But many in the Liberal Party saw a way of by-passing internal discussion on policy and direction by pushing forward a symbol of Liberal nostalgia: make Justin Trudeau leader.

This is the same phenomenon we are seeing in the current Ontario PC leadership race. The PC’s leadership implosion has led to some crisis of confidence and more divergence on matters of policy. There is a real risk of centrifugal disintegration—right before an election, no less.

Picking up these pieces would be difficult for someone without a strong brand (whether earned or not.) So now we have a race of personalities—House Mulroney v. House Ford v. House Elliott/Flaherty, if you want it in Game of Thrones terms.

Leadership campaigns based on personality and tribe affiliation to a great degree by-pass open policy formulation and party member participation—that is the point. They are a form of spoils-of-war politics that allows for quiet and private elite accommodation after the contest is over. Justin Trudeau’s leadership is a great example of how policy reversals that serve the elite and betray voters fits this elite accommodation model.

The good news, I believe, is that the Canadian political funding model doesn’t allow the use of concentrated wealth to control parties and leadership contests, as does American political in their post-“Citizens United” world. And for that reason, I don’t believe the trend toward dynasties will develop to the extent it has in America.

Whether dynasties are good or bad depends on your views of elite accommodation. If you fear democracy, dynasties (and celebrity politics too) are a good way to maintain elite accommodation. If you believe in a more democratic society, and see elite accommodation as a method to exploit politics for profit (through monopolies, cartels, privatizations, bail-outs, etc.) then elite accommodation and the politics of dynasty is obviously a very bad thing.


Will Stewart:

I don’t hold the belief that Canadians want or need anything that is present in American politics, including family dynasties.  It is simply not in the fabric of Canada to believe that our citizens and voters have become enamored with the idea of a ruling class of philosopher kings to show us the way. 

Perhaps one of the major reasons for that is it takes considerable, and different, effort to organize and lead a political party and then have that party win enough seats from coast to coast to coast to form government and become leader.  Even then, some parties (like the Alberta Conservatives) eat their own leaders such that an election victory is not proof positive that you can govern for the full term. 

American Presidential political are much more driven by personalities than organization.

But the question that our moderator raises is a valid one.  If I am right, how do we explain the recurring names of Trudeau, Mulroney, and Flaherty/Elliott and others? 

Well the simple fact is that politics, particularly leadership races and leaders of opposition parties, constantly tries to generate media coverage in hopes of furthering their cause. 

Media tend to further this by covering people they know, or in this case, names they know.  Mulroney and Trudeau certainly fit this status.  In my mind, that is what makes them interesting.  I would suspect that a few months back very few people outside of Ontario, and likely very few within it, knew that Mulroney’s daughter was running for a seat, never mind for leader, of a political party. 

As soon as Patrick Brown was ousted, she was immediately a front runner.  There is no explanation other than name recognition for that status.  That is not to say that Caroline Mulroney is not accomplished, capable, and driven to win.  I am just arguing that she would not have been a contender in hour one without the Mulroney name.

Let’s also look at Justin Trudeau to see if the theory holds.  Trudeau, with his drama school resume prior to running as an MP, would have had no chance of being a leadership contender without his last name.  He was not bred to be leader like a prince or princess in the royal family, as you would see in American political families.  But win he did, virtually unopposed as well. 

I believe timing played a role in that. No one wanted the job frankly.  And I am not trying to take away from his accomplishment.  He worked the ridings hard for years building support riding by riding for a “future” run, but not this one.  He did a great job of winning almost unopposed and taking the third-place party to first. 

But without the name, he would not have been on the leadership ballot. Call it novelty, call it family connections, I see it as simply nostalgia and somewhat familiarity that got him noticed.


Richard Mahoney:

Tom is not wrong to suggest that one of the main reasons why Liberals turned to Justin Trudeau in 2013 was the fact that we were in an existential crisis at the time. No question about that. The Harper Conservatives had won a majority. The Liberal Party had achieved the worst electoral result in its history. And its progressive rival, the NDP, had achieved Official Opposition status for the first time under Jack Layton.

Tom will also remember that Trudeau was already a known public figure. He had been elected twice, won a hotly contested nomination (in which, by the way, he was not the favoured candidate of the party establishment at the time.) He ran a long and vigorous leadership campaign, rebuilt the Liberal Party and then vanquished the favoured NDP in the 2015 election campaign, causing the resignation of NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

The point is, he was a known commodity to Canadians. NDP and Conservative attack ads against Trudeau ended up falling flat, because Trudeau had carved out a place for himself in the minds of Canadians. They knew who he was and what he stood for.

The candidacy of Caroline Mulroney is a different kettle of fish. We have no idea yet what she might stand for. Her platform is a blank slate. She has no record in politics or public life from which to judge her. We have no idea whether she will stand up under the klieg lights of a leadership campaign of less than one month’s duration, to be followed shortly by a general election.

For Conservatives, supporting Caroline Mulroney before they, and we, know much about her is a massive leap of faith. To lend support to her, only on the basis of the dynastic name of her father, would be a mistake. She needs to prove herself, her abilities, her leadership qualities, her ideals and her ideas and she needs to do so fast.

Maybe she is brilliant. Who can know? Or maybe, as Tom also suggests, it is dynastic folly. She is a candidate viewable only in two dimensions right now. The leadership campaign, and, if she wins, the election campaign to follow, may fill in the third dimension. But it would be a massive gamble to put your eggs in that basket, before people know who she is, and how she might govern the province.  


Tom Parkin:

I see dynastic politics fundamentally as a way of disempowering political party members and preserving the leader’s scope of action over the party.

In the case of Trudeau in 2013 and the Ontario PC leadership race in 2018, it is a voluntary surrender of power by the party members due to the desperate need to have a savoir.

Without active engagement from members, elite capture and elite accommodation is a simple next step.

And while I believe we will not go as far as the Americans because of political fundraising and expenditure laws, I do think the problems in media and the general celebrity culture make dynasties more likely.

Let's be frank: the quality of the media's political discourse in Canada is low and getting lower. Today we are debating whether the Premier of Ontario likes Doritos made for women. In one way that sort of stuff is fun and harmless. But on a shrinking news media platform, it comes as a cost for reporting more important issues. Having an opinion on women's Doritos now becomes a proxy for policy—in the public sphere, anyway.

These processes—dynasties, celebrity, concentrated wealth, media cuts—are very negative if you believe a country is supposed to be run by and for its people.

Otherwise, pass me the Doritos and I'll give you my opinion!


Will Stewart:

Any conversation about political dynasties and families is not complete without discussing one family of power brokers mentioned by Richard. A family that is topical again today.

Who can forget that old Mike Harris MPP Doug Ford from the 90s in Ontario?  He did have a bit of a lackluster career at Queen’s Park, but he is now better known for the sons he produced.  Doug Ford the senior was the father of Rob Ford the Mayor of some fame for work in basements not boardrooms, and the father of the Junior Doug Ford now also in the Ontario PC race.

In raising the Fords, I know that I am calling into question my very thesis that families don’t matter.  But I would ask you to cast your mind back to when Rob Ford was running. His family connections to the Ontario PC were a footnote, not a lede.

I remember Rob Ford as the son of an MPP, not as the heir apparent to the Ford political machine.  There is an old picture of me as a human backdrop at the Flaherty for leader announcement when Mike Harris resigned.  Right beside me is Rob Ford.  Not part of a family dynasty, but just a guy.  Flaherty one failed, as did Flaherty two, as did Elliott one, and Elliott two.  And now we have Ford vs. Elliott vs. Mulroney with the irony that all say this is their time, while all are from different times.

The challenge with name recognition like this is that you bring the baggage of the family to the table.  For Trudeau, that largely did not matter in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec.  But in western Canada it mattered and will matter even more if a pipeline is not built. 

With the Fords, the crack-filled baggage does matter.  There are very few people that I know who are undecided about Ford.

For Mulroney, it matters as well.  Loved by Conservatives, hated by, well, everyone else, Brian Mulroney may not be the name that should be front and centre. 

So, while the family name can help get you noticed, not all people will like what they see when looking at the sons, daughters, and brothers who bear that name.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parking is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues.  










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