Canada’s best prime ministers

Maclean’s second survey of our greatest leaders shows a new number one, and some big surprises.
Norman Hillmer and Stephen Azzi
Sir John A. Macdonald date unknown - Sir John Alexander Macdonald 1815-1891 (CP PHOTO) 1998 (National Archives of Canada) C-021290
Canada's best Prime ministers
CP; Chuck Mitchell/CP

Stephen Harper has his majority government. The Liberal party is in tatters, and the Bloc Québécois is devastated. The NDP, inexperienced in the limelight and leaning to the left, is a reliable target. No one now doubts the Prime Minister’s capacity for raw politics, or his staying power.

Harper is one of a select few Canadian leaders to have won three consecutive federal elections. When his current term ends, he will have been in office longer than many past titans, including Brian Mulroney, John Diefenbaker, and Lester Pearson.

All that remains, and it is a great deal, is to discover what Harper will make of his new lease on parliamentary life, and what history will make of him. To set a benchmark, we’ve undertaken Maclean’s second rankings survey on Canadian prime ministers, to determine the greats, near greats, and also-rans, as well as the ingredients of success and the reasons for failure.

Maclean’s first did this survey in 1997. That year the winners included Mackenzie King in the top spot, followed by John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. This time, we wanted to see if opinions had changed and discover how more recent prime ministers—Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper—stack up against those who preceded them. We had 117 responses to our survey, from experts in history, political science, international relations, economics, and other relevant fields. Their numbers included women and men from all regions of the country, and all political affiliations.

The winning conditions

What’s striking is the similarity of the rankings across demographic groups. Regardless of the age, political affiliation, gender, region, or area of expertise of the experts, Laurier, Macdonald and King again lead the field. They’re closely bunched together in the top three spots, though they were not always put in the same order.

Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats all ranked Mulroney ninth. John Diefenbaker placed 10th overall, but he did no better among groups that might be expected to offer greater support. He was tenth among westerners and 12th among Conservative voters.

Kim Campbell placed last among men and women, and among residents of the West and of the rest of Canada as well. Only with Conservatives did her rank improve, if slightly, from last to second-last. Conservatives placed Liberal John Turner at the very bottom.

The one substantial difference in rankings across demographic groups came with the assessment of two Conservative prime ministers, Robert Borden and Stephen Harper. Borden placed eighth with a score of 3.70 out of five, but fourth among Conservatives at 4.14. Harper was 11th overall (2.68), but seventh (3.75) with his party’s supporters.

Our experts rewarded prime ministers who had a broad vision of their country, and those who were able to shape their age, even if they did not appear to contemporaries to be doing so. Ability to manage a political party was highly prized. Significant too was a prime minister’s impact on Canada’s international role, national unity, and the economy. Domestic policy, beyond national unity and the economy, was judged less important.

Longevity is crucial. A prime minister needs at least four years in office, preferably more, to succeed. The three top-rated prime ministers served at least 15 years in office. It’s no accident that six of the first seven places in the rankings went to Liberals, because that party dominated national politics from 1896 to 2006. Liberal prime ministers usually lasted a long while. They had the time to make a difference.

We admit that no two prime ministers faced the same circumstances. How can R.B. Bennett, who lurched through the worst of the Great Depression, be compared with Louis St. Laurent, rated fourth in 1997 and prime minister during the economic boom of the 1950s?

Many of the experts acknowledged this problem, taking the broader context into account and adjusting their rankings accordingly. Donald Wright of the University of New Brunswick observed that the economy of the early 1930s dealt Bennett a “brutal hand,” but rated him as an above-average prime minister whose activism could not overcome intractable circumstances. University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell was also sympathetic: “Poor Bennett, caught in a maelstrom he could not manage or understand, but that was beyond the power of any prime minister of Canada to control.”

Difficult times do not condemn a prime minister to oblivion. In our survey, one wartime prime minister, Mackenzie King, was highly ranked, while another, Robert Borden, was closer to the middle of the pack. Borden was celebrated for his sturdy First World War leadership, but criticized for his divisive policy of compulsory military service in 1917, breaking a rule accepted by almost all of the country’s political watchers: prime ministers must treat national unity as their pre-eminent concern.

The big three

Mackenzie King topped the 1997 Maclean’s list, but now there’s a new number one, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, lauded for his combination of “enormous style and considerable substance,” in the words of historian Hector Mackenzie. Laurier ranks first because he had the deft unifying touch and sure sense of the whole country that the experts think Canada’s leaders lack in our age of focus groups and wedge politics.

Laurier cultivated the common ground between the diverse elements of the country. He located a middle way between anglophones and francophones on Canadian participation in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and over French-language and Roman Catholic schools in Manitoba. Penny Bryden of the University of Victoria drew attention to Laurier’s gift for establishing “compromise as both a viable and an attractive political strategy.”

Laurier’s achievements went well beyond accommodation. He established the Canadian navy and the Department of External Affairs, essential milestones on Canada’s path to independence. His government settled the West, throwing open the country to immigrants, and creating the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“Passionate, charismatic, and an intellectual force in both languages,” the Canadian War Museum’s Tim Cook stated, “Sir Wilfrid was the full package.” Laurier laid the foundation for Liberal party success in the 20th century. One of our respondents couldn’t help but ask, “Can his DNA be replicated and implanted in current Grits?”

The runner-up in the ranking, John A. Macdonald, was praised as the country’s creator. The first prime minister, he built a transcontinental railway, championed immigration, secured the West for Canada, and developed a Canadian manufacturing sector with his National Policy of high tariffs. He held together his diverse party and led it to six election victories, a Canadian record.

In retrospect, these accomplishments overwhelm Macdonald’s many failures: his inability to maintain harmony between English- and French-speaking Canadians, his mishandling of the Metis and First Nations issues and, in the phrase of University of the Fraser Valley historian Barbara Messamore, the “demonstrable corruption” of his government. Several of our respondents specifically mentioned Macdonald’s alcoholism and the Pacific Scandal, in which the Conservative party received hundreds of thousands of dollars from entrepreneurs who won the government’s approval to build the national railway.

Most of our analysts nevertheless agreed with historian Dean Oliver’s assessment: “Macdonald was a flawed but magnificent man who created a party, a country, and an identity, one great scandal (and a couple of fingers of strong drink) at a time.”

After finishing first in the 1997 Maclean’s survey, Mackenzie King came third in the 2011 rankings, but very close behind Laurier and Macdonald and well ahead of the rest. Our experts portray King as taking Canada from colonial status to independence, from an era of small government to the beginnings of the welfare state, and from the divisive legacy of the First World War to an optimistic unity and prosperity after the Second World War. Journalist Andrew Cohen gave the ultimate compliment: King “preserved Canada and changed it.”

In the days before public opinion polls, King had what Matthew Hayday, chair of the political history group of the Canadian Historical Association, called “a canny ability to detect opinion trends.” It helped King stay in power for an astounding 21 years.

In public, King displayed the charisma of a black hole. He was close to no one and never married. His spiritualism, that of a lonely leader reaching out to the beyond, opens him to ridicule, but this aspect of his life is often misunderstood. He sought the advice of a medium (not a crystal ball) for personal reassurance, but not political advice.

King’s diaries, preserved in Ottawa’s Library and Archives Canada, record his often petty and pedestrian innermost thoughts, but also reveal him as a political magician—a master of tactics, timing, and his impressive cabinets. “Slippery, unpleasant, selfish, dogged, ruthless, far-sighted, and crazy like a fox,” Dean Oliver wrote, King “resists categorization and invites caricature. I admire him and his accomplishments more as I read, age, think, and compare.”

Stephanie Bangarth, teaching the history of modern Canada at the University of Western Ontario, disagreed. Although positive about King’s leadership in expanding the national social security net in the aftermath of the Depression, she regarded his harsh treatment of Canadians of Japanese ancestry in the Second World War as “one of the most egregious events to occur in Canadian history.” He knew better, or ought to have known better, says Bangarth, but “political expediency proved to be of more value to King than the lives of 21,000 Canadians, none of whom were guilty of any espionage.”

The under- (and over-) rated

Lester B. Pearson was fourth in the ranking, up from sixth in 1997 and edging toward the greats: Laurier, Macdonald, and King. Pearson was a transformative leader, although he seemed anything but that to Canadians at the time. When he left office in 1968, a poll had shown that 70 per cent of Canadians could not name a single accomplishment of his government.

Yet it was Pearson who brought in the national medicare program, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors. He gave Canada a distinctive flag and established the groundbreaking Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. And he did all this in five years and without ever holding a majority in the House of Commons.

The experts placed Pearson first in the domestic issues category. “He was especially astute on the national unity question,” declared Donald Wright. “English Canada had to change, it had to stop being, well, so damn British.” After listing Pearson’s contributions in modernizing Canada, York University political scientist Miriam Smith concluded, “Now that I think of it, perhaps I should have rated him in the top group, rather than in the second tier!”

In fifth place, the same as in 1997, was Pearson’s successor, Pierre Trudeau, whose reviews reflected the controversy he aroused as prime minister. There was much admiration for Trudeau’s part in the federalist victory in the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, for the patriation of the Constitution, and for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Robert Bothwell captured the Trudeau panache: “He gave Canada an image, an edge—and a Constitution.” “Without Trudeau,” his biographer John English assured us, “Quebec would be an independent country today.”

Still, Trudeau was damned by many experts for alienating the West, both with the National Energy Program, which reduced resource revenues for western provinces, and his preoccupation with Quebec issues at the expense of almost everything else. At the same time, he was said to have estranged Quebec with the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 and by failing to secure the provincial government’s agreement to his constitutional reforms.

Trudeau’s response to the economic challenges of the 1970s—inflation, unemployment, large budgetary deficits, and low growth rates—brought him further criticism. “The most overrated prime minister in Canadian history,” according to historians John Herd Thompson of Duke University and David Tough, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University. Patrick Brennan of the University of Calgary took account of Trudeau’s miscalculations (mismanaging the economy, alienating the West and Quebec), but balanced them against his achievements (battling the separatists and “his Laurier-like efforts to make Canadians think about their better natures”).

Jean Chrétien’s 2011 ranking was the biggest surprise. Just four years in office when the 1997 survey was taken, Chrétien stood ninth that year. He had apparently done little that would merit a high standing, and had presided over all but the end of Canada with a lacklustre performance in the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.

That seems forgotten now. Chrétien has moved up to sixth. He gets credit for eliminating the deficit, for keeping Canada out of the Iraq war, and for introducing the Clarity Act, which set out the federal government’s rules for negotiating sovereignty with Quebec. Even so, there were still low marks, particularly for the divisions in the Liberal party, caused by the feud between the prime minister and Paul Martin, and for the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

Paul Martin was relegated to 15th place in our survey. McGill University’s Desmond Morton recalled that Martin’s performance in office challenged the punditry that had boosted his potential as prime minister during the long years when Chrétien could not be persuaded to make way for him. Morton added that “the problem with most short-term prime ministers is that they generally lacked the years invariably required to put their influence to work changing Canada for better or for worse.”

We asked our panellists to consider only the prime minister’s activities while in office, but they couldn’t help being influenced by what came before and after. Many mentioned Macdonald’s achievement in negotiating the Confederation of Canada in 1867 and Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, which he won six years before assuming the country’s highest political office.

Brian Mulroney ranked ahead of Jean Chrétien in 1997, but the Mulroney legacy has undoubtedly been scarred by his well-publicized financial dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, the German-Canadian businessman. Mulroney’s reputation had been steadily improving from 1993 until the Oliphant Commission’s 2010 report, which concluded that the former prime minister breached his own federal ethics guidelines and suggested that he had acted inappropriately when he failed to disclose details about his relationship with Schreiber in a 1996 deposition.

Our experts praised Mulroney for the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement and for the Goods and Services Tax, but were harder on him for his failures (especially the collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords) than the Maclean’s panel had been in 1997. Harold Bérubé of l’Université de Sherbrooke spoke of Mulroney’s clumsy handling of the Constitution that propelled Quebec away from the rest of Canada—and vice versa.

Harper’s uphill battle

Time amplifies the greatness of the stronger prime ministers and erodes the accomplishments of the weaker ones. We wonder if political analysts exaggerate the talents of Laurier, Macdonald, and King, and undervalue more recent prime ministers.

Perhaps that helps to explain Stephen Harper’s 11th-place standing in our poll. Even among Conservative voters, Harper did poorly. Tories ranked him in seventh place, which puts him in the bottom half of the long-serving prime ministers.

Harper’s ratings in specific categories were dismal. In his handling of domestic issues (other than the economy and national unity), Harper placed last of the long-term prime ministers. He was also at the bottom of the list on Canada’s place in the world, and second from last on national unity.

In his areas of strength, Harper has not stood out. He placed ninth of the 13 long-serving prime ministers on both economic policy and party leadership. Some experts commend his efforts to deal with the global financial crisis, but that is put against the country’s record deficit.

Harper is condemned for partisanship, a lack of respect for Parliament, and an authoritarian approach to government. Trent University’s Dimitry Anastakis told us that “Harper has distinguished himself most in being the most polarizing, opportunistic, shrewd and partisan prime minister in decades.”

The Prime Minister is widely recognized for the firm management of his party and his ability to survive in a minority Parliament. “If maintaining power is the measure of success, Harper is a champion,” Robert Teigrob of Ryerson University said, “but his lasting achievements are few and far between.”

Many members of our panel remark that it is too early to judge Harper. Until the May 2011 election, as leader of a minority government during a recession, there were severe limits on what he could accomplish. Raymond Blake of the University of Regina discerns in Harper a new Mackenzie King, unglamorously winning elections and remaking Canada, one laborious step at a time.

Prime ministerial greatness is a subjective concept, but Canadians and our experts know it when they see it. The great ones—so far, apparently only Laurier, Macdonald, and King—wield their power steadily, have clear goals and communicate them well, and manage their cabinets and their parties skilfully. They unite us rather than divide us. They pile up a solid record of achievement in domestic and international affairs. They leave the country better than they found it.

Stephen Harper has his opportunity, and a long way to go.

Norman Hillmer is professor of history and international affairs at Carleton University. Stephen Azzi is associate professor of political management at the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs, Carleton University.