by Steve Paikin Thursday November 1, 2012

A decade ago, I interviewed two of the most successful politicians in Canadian history for a book I was writing: Brian Mulroney and Frank McKenna.

Mulroney, despite his unpopularity when he left office, was the first Conservative prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald to win back-to-back majority governments. And McKenna was such a successful premier in New Brunswick, he actually won every single seat in his first election in 1987.

So these guys knew something about being successful leaders. And one of the things they both said they put significant focus on during the waning days of their premierships was succession planning.

Doesn't anyone want this guy's job?

Eight days after he announced his surprise resignation from the Ontario premier's job, Dalton McGuinty came to TVO to do an interview on The Agenda. Among the many things the premier said that surprised me was that he hadn't put his mind towards succession planning at all.

Frankly, it shows.

Mulroney's view was that the Progressive Conservative party always did better in ensuing elections when it had a vigorous leadership contest among many qualified candidates. And during his time, that proved to be true. In 1976, there was a dramatic three-way race between Mulroney (who ultimately came third), Claude Wagner (who came second), and Joe Clark, the unlikely winner who came from third place on the first ballot to win. 

In the ensuing federal election in 1979, the Tories under Clark won.

Then in 1983, the Tories went at the leadership thing again. And once again, it was an exciting contest among Clark, Mulroney, John Crosbie, David Crombie, Michael Wilson, and Peter Pocklington. Mulroney won on the fourth ballot and followed up by winning the biggest majority government in Canadian history in 1984. (Conversely, after Pierre Trudeau retired, the Liberals had a not particularly competitive race, which John Turner easily won. Three months later, the Liberals lost power for almost a decade. Trudeau appears not to have cared a whit about succession planning.)

As Mulroney looked at the calendar and considered a departure date, he told me he shuffled his cabinet precisely to help feature the cabinet ministers he assumed would be running to replace him. So he took Michael Wilson out of Finance, where he was unpopularly known as the father of the GST, and moved him to Industry and International Trade, where his chances of more favourable media coverage improved. Mulroney also moved Kim Campbell out of Justice and into Defence, to round out her resume more impressively. He featured Jean Charest in the Environment portfolio, and urged him behind the scenes to run. And he promoted Perrin Beatty to Communications, all in the hopes of encouraging a lively contest to replace himself.

(As it happens, the Tory brand was so damaged after nearly a decade of Mulroney's rule that nothing helped. The PCs were reduced to two seats in the 1993 election.)

McKenna told me he made similar moves, to ensure a vigorous leadership contest after his departure, "Because it was absolutely imperative to me that we choose someone who would continue to move the province forward," he said. And when McKenna's successor, Camille Theriault, lost the ensuing election, McKenna considered it a personal failure of his own that he didn't adequately groom the next leader. (I think he was being too tough on himself. The fact is, Frank McKenna was a hard act to follow.)

I raise all this history because the Ontario Liberal leadership contest to succeed Dalton McGuinty is quickly and alarmingly turning into a snoozer. 

McGuinty appears not to have spent any time worrying about who would succeed him. In fact, you could make the argument that he did the opposite -- that anyone who seemed to pose a threat to his leadership over the past eight years was either demoted (Michael Bryant, Kathleen Wynne) or encouraged to move on (Joe Cordiano, George Smitherman, and Gerard Kennedy).

Add to that two more controversies: the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation taxpayers will have to fork over for moving the gas-fired power plants out of the GTA, and the unpopular proroguing of the legislature.

Suddenly a portrait is emerging of a premier's job that, in some respects, is a poisoned chalice.

So, where six months ago observers anticipated a great contest among several high ranking cabinet ministers, some up-and-coming backbenchers, and a sprinkling of outsiders, the Ontario Liberals are now making news on almost a daily basis but for all the wrong reasons. Ministers and backbenchers are tripping over themselves to announce that they won't be contesting the leadership.

Chris Bentley (damaged by the power plants scandal), Yasir Naqvi (just had a baby), Laurel Broten (not the right time personally), Brad Duguid (timing isn't right), Dwight Duncan (might come back for a federal run, but has had enough of provincial politics), and George Smitherman (young children, trying to build his business) have all said no. There is truth in all of their explanations for not seeking the top job. But I think if the Liberals were polling at 40 per cent instead of 20 per cent, many of them would be re-evaluating how much time they need to spend with their families.

Of course, it's still possible the Grits might have a good contest. If all of those still musing about getting in (Kathleen Wynne, Sandra Pupatello, Deb Matthews, John Wilkinson, Eric Hoskins, Glen Murray, Gerard Kennedy, and Charles Sousa) actually do throw their hats into the ring, that would create enough buzz to allow the Liberals to renew themselves.

But at this moment, the premier's job seems more like a booby prize that anyone with any sense is avoiding like the plague.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, at a St. Michael's Hospital, on Oct. 31, 2012.