Provincial Premiers and the 2015 Federal Election Campaign

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Political News Wednesday, December 09, 2015 View Count = 2155

Provincial Premiers and the 2015 Federal Election Campaign

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Election 360 Logo 3Provincial Premiers and the 2015 Federal Election Campaign” is written by J.P. Lewis from the University of New Brunswick. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, J.P. Lewis and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Provincial premiers can be significant political players in federal election campaigns. Premiers can act as regional campaigners, focusing the national message through a more local lens. As well, supportive premiers can be reflective of a deep cooperation between the federal party and its provincial counterparts, providing organizational and strategic support. However, antagonistic premiers can be just as impactful, acting as opposing voices, and amplifying critiques of national party leaders. Adversarial relationships between premiers and the prime minister are as old as Canada itself: one of John A. Macdonald’s constant thorns was his former Kingston law partner, Ontario Liberal Premier Oliver Mowat. 

Adversarial relationships between Canada’s premiers and Stephen Harper were noteworthy because of his laissez-faire approach to federal-provincial politics. For decades, formal institutions (e.g., first ministers’ conferences) provided an arena for the relationships between premiers and prime ministers to play a role in the Canadian political landscape. But soon after the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2006 election campaign, Prime Minister Harper stopped the practice of first ministers’ conferences and led the federal government to play less of a role in provincial jurisdiction. The act of publicly rebuking a sitting prime minister is risky for premiers, given that it poisons a relationship with someone they need to work with. Yet within the vacuum created by Harper’s disengagement from these institutions, premiers have largely been left to determine what kind of political relationships they want to have with their federal counterpart. 

Heading into the 2015 election, Harper had experience dealing with opposition from sitting premiers during federal election campaigns. Partisan stripes were not predictive of where the antagonism came from, considering that the Conservative Party of Canada has no formal association with provincial parties. In 2008, Newfoundland and Labrador Progressive Conservative Premier Danny Williams launched a very aggressive public campaign against the federal Conservatives over disagreements concerning equalization payments under the moniker of “ABC: Anything But Conservative.” More predictably, provincial Liberal premiers in both the 2008 and 2011 federal elections openly campaigned against Harper. Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest pushed the incumbent party on a number of policy areas including rail transit and the gun registry (2008) and federal-provincial fiscal arrangements (2011). Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty campaigned publicly against the Conservative party with focuses on federal-provincial fiscal arrangements (2008) and health care (2011).

During the 2015 federal election campaign, there were four different approaches among the premiers of Canada’s four most-populous provinces. In British Columbia, Liberal Premier Christy Clark remained on the sidelines, noting she was ready to work with whoever formed government. This is indicative of a neutral approach and the unique brand of “Liberal” that the B.C. Liberal Party is—an informal coalition of Liberals and Conservatives. In Quebec, Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard was quiet outside of public comments about Quebec accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. 

The most attention was paid to premier activity during the campaign in Alberta and Ontario. Fresh off her surprising provincial election victory, Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley initially played it safe, not making any public partisan comments, even when Stephen Harper called the Alberta NDP government a disaster. But with the federal NDP falling in the polls late in the campaign, Notley publically endorsed federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair and the party while arguing that Harper was out of touch with Albertan values. In the waning days of the campaign, she then appeared on stage with Mulcair at an Edmonton rally. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne campaigned with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and was very clear in her opposition to the incumbent Conservatives. Early on in the campaign, Wynne was aggressive with her critique, tweeting, “Harper’s attack on retirement security can only be described as a blatant attack on the people of Ontario.” Observers watched these premiers’ actions with intrigue. Wynne had an approval rating of only 31%, Notley was at 50%; Wynne’s involvement seemed risky while Notley’s seemed to be a curiosity. 

For the federal Liberals, a premier’s involvement or lack thereof did not appear to make a difference. With premiers in each province playing a different role, the results were positive across the board. In terms of seat count, the Liberals went from third place in Ontario and British Columbia and second place in Quebec to first place in all three (11 seats to 80 in Ontario, 7 to 40 in Quebec and two to 17 in British Columbia). On the other hand, while at this early stage it is difficult to tell whether Notley’s endorsement hurt Mulcair, it seemingly did not help, with the NDP holding on to one Alberta seat but seeing their popular vote decrease in the province from 16.8% to 11.6%. The results suggest that while premiers may decide to play a role in federal campaigns, their impact is anything but predictable. 

JP LewisJ.P. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick. He has published on cabinet government and political elites in Canada. His most recent publications include “A Consideration of Cabinet Size,” Canadian Parliamentary Review and, with Andrea Lawlor, “‘Expansion in Progress’: Understanding Portfolio Adoption in the Canadian Provinces, 1982-2012Canadian Journal of Political Science 48, no. 1 (2015).


You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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