It's next time or never for Canada's federal party leaders

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The next election, whenever it comes, looms as the last campaign for each of the four party leaders in the House.

For Stephen Harper, after his fourth election since 2004, it will be up or out, up to a majority or out to Calgary.

For Michael Ignatieff, who'll be 64 next year, his first campaign as Liberal leader will be his only kick at the can. The Liberal party will not give him a second chance, and the best he can hope for is to form a minority government.

Jack Layton, like Harper, will be going into his fourth campaign, after which it will be time for change of leadership in the NDP.

Gilles Duceppe, going into his sixth campaign since 1997, retains a firm hold on the leadership of the Bloc Quebecois, but looks increasingly bored.

So, if not these guys, then who? And when?

Well, if Harper wins his much-coveted majority in an election next spring, a full four-year term would give him nine years in office. If he gains his third consecutive minority, it's difficult to see his staying beyond another year. If he somehow loses to Ignatieff, he'll be gone the next day, as would Iggy in the event of his defeat.

The problem for the Liberals in any leadership scenario is the thinness of the field. Bob Rae would be there for one last try. For Justin Trudeau, it's way too soon, as he would be the first to acknowledge. Dominic Leblanc? Yeah, right. Denis Coderre? Yikes.

The Liberals have another problem, other than a paucity of talent and new blood on the front bench, and that's money. It has taken candidates from the 2006 leadership four years to pay off their debts. The party itself is perpetually broke, and would be hard-pressed to raise the money to stage a three-day leadership convention.

It's the Conservatives who would have the much more interesting and competitive leadership race. It's very easy to see a first tier of three candidates--the two Jims, Flaherty and Prentice, and Peter MacKay. A second tier would include Jason Kenney, James Moore, Maxime Bernier, and Rona Ambrose.

With six or seven candidates in a race, the place would rock. The field could be even larger, if Tony Clement and John Baird were tempted to jump in.

The first tier of candidates would produce the likely winner. The second tier would be running for another day, or another purpose, such as being kingmaker.

Flaherty has already run and lost two leadership races at Queen's Park, and his wife, Christine Elliott, lost a third one last year. That should be enough leadership losses for one family to endure. And at 60, Flaherty could be looking at a very lucrative post-political career. Former G7 finance ministers are much in demand at Bay St. law firms.

But if the government is defeated on his next budget, he will have no choice but to run again and defend it in a campaign. And were the Conservative

leadership to come open in the next year or so, it's hard to see how he would stay out of the race, where he would start as the leading Ontario candidate. No one has more equity in the Tory caucus than Flaherty, widely regarded as the best minister in the Harper government.

Prentice is ranked a close second on ability and his capacity to manage complex files -first at Indian Affairs, then at Industry, and now at Environment. The Harper government might be slow to move on climate change, largely due to gridlock in Washington, but no one doubts Prentice's mastery of his files nor the talent of his staff. He has a strong western base, easy access to big Alberta money, and significant campaign brain trust of the best and brightest in the game.

MacKay has his own base as the party's Atlantic kingpin, as well as loyalists who followed him over from the old Progressive Conservative party. Of particular note, his French has been much improved of late in the House, as has Flaherty's and Prentice's.

Very close behind, threatening to break into the top three, would be Jason Kenney, the immigration minister, who spends a huge amount of his time attending multicultural events with a view to broadening the party's ethnic base, and, in the bargain, his own.

No Canadian party in modern times has looked lower than the third man at a leadership convention -the last ones were Joe Clark in 1976 and Stephane Dion in 2006, and we all know how that worked out.

The key question for the first-tier candidates would be their showing on the first ballot, the spread from the frontrunner back to the others, and who had the most room to grow on subsequent ballots. The Tories don't have delegated conventions. Members vote in ridings and are asked to name second and third choices on subsequent ballots.

Still, there would be room in the race for a kingmaker who could deliver his own supporters. Maxime Bernier, for example, would run as a Quebec favourite son and as the candidate of the libertarian wing of the party. His current round of speech-making is about staking out his territory, and it's very smart.

Bernier can't win a leadership race, but he could be Quebec lieutenant, and when you consider his fall from grace, that would be a very positive outcome.

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