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The good and bad of family dynasties in politics

By Tim Powers      

Ches Crosbie, son of former federal cabinet heavyweight John Crosbie, is testing the waters of a Newfoundland PC leadership bid.

Ches Crosbie, top left, and, counterclockwise from bottom left, his father and former cabinet minister John Crosbie, pictured in 1983; Toronto city councillor Mike Layton; his father, former NDP leader and Toronto city councillor Jack Layton; former NDP MP Bill Blaikie; and his daughter, former NDP president Rebecca Blaikie. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright, and courtesy of chescrosbie.ca and Alasdair Roberts
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OTTAWA—While elements of the American and British electorate seem repulsed by elites in politics and empowered by their rejection the Canadian environment is still different. If anything, political dynasties remain very much alive in Canada.

A second Trudeau is our prime minister and another man named LeBlanc is a senior minister in his government. We have had two Ghizs serve as premiers of Prince Edward Island. We have had members of the Blaikie family play prominent roles in the NDP. Laytons and Fords have dominated city councils in Toronto. And now in Newfoundland and Labrador we have another Crosbie seeking a top political job.

America eventually tired of this, having had enough of Bushs and Clintons. Will Canada eventually suffer from the same fatigue? Ches Crosbie, son of former federal cabinet heavyweight John Crosbie, will soon find out. Crosbie, the younger, has announced his intention to begin an initial pursuit of the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador. He hasn’t formally declared as he is on a “listening tour,” but he will all but certainly be in.

Full disclosure here: Ches is a cousin of mine and I worked for his father. But I have no role in Ches’ campaign and wish him well. Though, like any good family, we will likely agree to disagree on a few things.

What is fascinating to me about Ches’ initial campaign roll-out is how in some ways he is going against the prevailing wind of political success. He is playing up family and family history. While it is true you can’t run from it, and he most certainly has much to be proud of, hoping to push the message of continuing the “family business” of politics has not gone over well in other jurisdictions recently. You get labelled as entitlement-minded, and that can be a political killer. Ask the Clintons.

While the dynamics of my own province are different, the world of politics and its influences is smaller. Ches and his team are making a calculated gamble that being a Crosbie in Newfoundland and Labrador brings more political credibility than baggage. While his father John was a much beloved and a historic figure who helped modernize the province, he has not held an elected office for 24 years. Times have changed in that span. Yet Ches Crosbie boldly promotes on his website that “Ches learned much about politics from his parents, Hon. John and Jane Crosbie.”

Justin Trudeau most certainly didn’t run away from the fact that he was Pierre’s son; he tactically embraced it from time to time. What he did do, though, was bring in his own team of advisers. Ches Crosbie, on the other hand, seems to be taking a different approach. He has a few members of his father’s team around and a lot of family. While they are all good people, a very different dynamic can play out. That may be the only place where the Crosbies and Trumps align.

Ches Crosbie has lots of success in his own right. He was a top litigator working on many class-action suits for diverse groups in need. He has done much philanthropic work at home. His greatest political asset is that Stephen Harper rejected him as a candidate for the federal Conservatives in 2015. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians by and large still haven’t found a fondness for the former prime minister. Ches Crosbie is most certainly his own person, but he seems more inclined to transact politics from the dynasty perspective.

This is the first test of political romanticism and the relevancy of the political establishment in Canada since the U.S. election. It will be interesting to watch. Never mind how I now have just changed the dynamic of family dinners.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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