That was the way it was supposed to be under the parliamentary form of government, which Canada adopted at its founding two centuries ago. But ever since John A. Macdonald became the first prime minister, the party leaders became more important to the voters than the platforms of their parties.
So King and Diefenbaker and Trudeau and Mulroney became names as familiar to Canadians as Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower and Reagan did to U.S. voters.
Things are likely to be somewhat different in Canada after Jean Chretien leaves the prime minister's office after a lifetime in Canadian politics. His Liberal Party probably will choose Paul Martin as its new leader. Martin has hungered for the prime minister's office for at least 20 years and was the finance minister credited with bringing the Canadian budget into balance after many years of deficits. But he may be somewhat handicapped in the 2004 race. Chretien dropped Martin from his cabinet last year because he resented Martin's rather open suggestions that Chretien was getting too old for the job.
Will Martin be too old?
Several other ministers in Chretien's current Cabinet have announced they would seek the party leadership but they know Martin has created a strong personal following and if he wins their political futures, might be in some jeopardy.
The Progressive Conservatives, who swept into office in 1984 by winning a record 211 seats in the Parliament under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, have been in disarray since they were reduced to two seats eight years after that great victory. Indeed, at that point it ceased even to exist as an official party.
When nobody else seemed to want the Tory leadership, former Prime Minister Joe Clark volunteered. Clark tried unsuccessfully to bring back into the Tory fold the Conservatives who had moved to the new Reform Party because they thought the PC wasn't conservative enough.
The Liberals will choose their new leader next November.
But it was the confused Democratic Socialists, known as the New Democratic Party, which touched off the new wave in Canadian politics when it convened Jan. 25 in Toronto.
The NDP began during the Great Depression as an agrarian protest organization known as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, its membership almost entirely in the grain-growing West, which had suffered heavily from the post-World War I collapse of farm markets and the droughts that turned what had been buffalo grasslands to dust. To build a national party, the CCF joined forces with organized labor in industrialized provinces such as Ontario and became the NDP.
While claiming to be socialists, the NDP leadership really served as a "ginger" organization in Canadian politics. It was most effective when the older political parties were unable to win clear majorities in Parliament. It was the NDP that initiated the Canadian health care system and other welfare programs. The Liberal government supported those measures in return for NDP support on other matters, which kept it in office.
With the advent of the Mulroney-Reagan free trade-free enterprise era, the NDP lost ground. The party membership became divided, some believing it needed to take a more moderate stance as the British Labor Party and the Clinton Democrats did. Others believed the NDP should remain faithful to its socialist principles, offering the nation a true alternative.
The NDP had some of its best years in the 1980s when Ed Broadbent led the party to take 20 percent of the vote and 43 seats in the Parliament. But then Broadbent tired of politics and retired. Two women were chosen successive leaders of the party in attempts at compromise that failed.
Going into the 2003 convention, it appeared to some political observers the contest would be between Winnipeg member of Parliament Bill Blaike and Lorn Nystrom, another party veteran. But when the votes of all 80,000 party members were counted, the tellers reported 53 percent went to Jack Layton, a Toronto city councilman, who was considered a sort of upstart who, according to the Canadian weekly magazine Maclean's, "has infused the race with a dash of style and energy, which reminds some observers of a young Pierre Trudeau."
Convention delegates were bowled over by the fact that Layton got the post on the first ballot. Usually, it takes three or four or more votes with trading of support through the process.
Even more surprising was the fact that only two of the NDP's 14 members who hold seats in the Ottawa Parliament had favored Layton. Clearly, the split in the party has not been healed yet.
Recent polls have shown the NDP about even in support with the Tories and the Alliance Party, which evolved from the Reform Party.
So the question now is whether Layton's inclination to old-fashioned socialism will sell to the voters in this era of economic uncertainty -- and what effect that may have on other political parties.