Conservative Exodus Bodes Ill for Harper in Canada ElectionJosh Wingrove and Erik Hertzberg
Stephen Harper is losing incumbent lawmakers at one of the highest rates in decades, and history suggests that weighs heavily on the Canadian Prime Minister’s chances of winning another term in power later this year.
Of 166 Conservatives elected to the House of Commons during Harper’s first majority in 2011, at least 46 are not running for the party this fall. It’s the third-highest dropout rate since the Second World War and the highest since 1993, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Polls show a tight three-way race heading into the Oct. 19 election as Harper seeks to become the first Canadian prime minister in more than a century to win a fourth-straight term. However, a high attrition rate correlates to a loss of seats, the data show. Those who have gone through it agree.
“It has an immediate impact,” said veteran MP Rodger Cuzner, whose Liberals lost 26.2 percent of incumbents before the 2004 election and went on to lose their majority. “There’s a benefit to incumbency. You lose that corporate memory, you lose the opportunity to benefit from name recognition.”
Bloomberg used government records and those kept by Pundits’ Guide, a Canadian political website that tracks nominations, to compare the initial elected caucus of governing parties with their candidates in the next election. The departure rate includes those who step down midway through a term, complete their term but don’t seek re-election, cross the floor to join another party, fail to secure a nomination or those who die.
By that metric, Harper’s dropout rate is 27.7 percent. Only twice since the Second World War has the rate been higher, with split results. In 1993, the Progressive Conservatives lost 40.8 percent of their incumbents and then 99 percent of their seats. In 1953, Louis St. Laurent led the Liberals to another majority despite losing 28.4 percent of the party’s incumbents.
Harper is also the first Canadian prime minister since St. Laurent to have a dropout rate above 25 percent and still lead his party into the next campaign. In other cases, rates that high include the prime minister among the departures.
Harper will be without several key lieutenants including Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who along with Harper formed the united Conservative Party; former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who resigned his portfolio last year and died shortly thereafter; Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who quit suddenly this year to join the private sector; and Industry Minister James Moore, who resigned this month citing family reasons.
The latest polls show Harper’s Conservatives with 28.9 percent support nationally, trailing the official opposition New Democratic Party by 3.5 percentage points and on pace to lose government, according to polling aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com.
Harper’s office referred questions to the party, which did not specifically address the issue of departing incumbents.
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the proven leader Canada needs and we have a strong team of candidates that have come forward to represent him and the Conservative Party in the next election,” spokesman Cory Hann said in an e-mail.
A high dropout rate has been a harbinger of poor results. Nine other postwar governments had a dropout rate of at least 20 percent, and seven went on to lose seats. The average dropout rate in the postwar period for a government that ended up losing seats was 21.8 percent, while Harper’s is a third higher than that. Conversely, governing caucuses that increased their seat count had an average dropout rate of 12.2 percent.
One strategist acknowledged the advantage incumbency can play in close races but said it’s not yet clear where those races will emerge.
“I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t help when incumbents run,” said Jason Lietaer, president of Enterprise Canada and former head of research for the Conservative caucus. The party still has many incumbents running, he said, and turnover within government is a “natural evolution.”
In interviews, some retiring MPs laid out grievances with the state of Parliament -- including the level of control exerted by Harper’s office -- but all dismissed any connection between the departures.
“I think you have to look at each situation on its own,” said James Rajotte, who was chairman of the House of Commons finance committee and was first elected in 2000. “I just felt that approaching 45 years of age, if I wanted to have another career, now is the time to do it,” he said, adding he is confident the Conservatives will recruit talented people to take the place of departing candidates.
Joe Preston, another committee chairman not seeking re-election, said at age 60 it was simply time to leave. Some changes are needed in Parliament, he said, recommending that lawmakers be barred from reading written statements in the Commons, many of which are prepared by their superiors. “It’s all the leaders’ offices -- including the Prime Minister’s office -- where this directive comes from,” Preston said. “If it wasn’t in place, we’d have a bit of a saner place.”
Several factors are driving the exodus, according to Brent Rathgeber, who was elected as a Conservative in 2011, quit the caucus in protest in 2013 and is seeking re-election as an Independent.
“There is no doubt that softening poll numbers translate into members worried about their seats and/or spending time in opposition,” Rathgeber said by e-mail. Another factor is Harper’s “micromanaging governance style,” with MPs taking orders from the prime minister’s aides, he said.
“Being a backbencher was awfully constraining and I understand many ministers are glorified cyphers. A talented professional would not tolerate being controlled by the boys in short pants,” Rathgeber said, referring to political staff in Harper’s office.
Another Conservative MP not seeking re-election, Maurice Vellacott, is leaving to spend more time with family. He supports some of the changes favored by Rathgeber to relax party discipline, saying they “would go a long way in our system to return it to a more original Westminster democracy.”
The MPs are also leaving at a time when pensions are changing. Beginning in 2016, MPs will accrue a pension that can be drawn at age 65, rather than the current 55. However, the office of Treasury Board President Tony Clement said retirement will not affect whatever pension a lawmaker has already accrued and that leaving this year would not boost a pension.
The electoral impact of individual MPs has been lessened as Canadian campaigns become more “presidentialized” by focusing on leaders, Lietaer said. In that sense, the party is banking on Harper to carry it and the departure of incumbents will matter more if he can’t break away from his rivals.
“So it depends if you’re contesting a close election or not a close election,” he said. “The truth is, we don’t know yet.”
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