From 1990 to 1994, premiers of all stripes were defeated after a tough recession. Only the premiers of Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador held on, while the Alberta PCs underwent one of their internal revolutions, shifting to the hard-right Ralph Klein.
However, from 2010 to 2013, provincial governments of all stripes are winning re-election after a tough recession. Only Shawn Graham in New Brunswick was outright defeated. Jean Charest’s Liberals lost by the narrowest of margins and held the Parti Québécois to a minority.
Why were incumbents nearly all defeated during the last recession, but incumbents are nearly all returning to power after this one?
1. Interest Rates
We live in an era of ultra-low interest rates when mortgage holders are relaxed. Currently, the bank rate is 1.25 per cent where it has been since 2010.
Governments are returning budgets to balance on a leisurely schedule because they can borrow easily.
Compare that to 1990 when the bank rate got as high as 14.05 per cent. They were still as high as 8.8 per cent in late 1993.
As the early 1990s recession ground on, the pressure to cut spending was more intense.
Governments were forced to make choices that upset their own bases of support, and most Canadians were having to tighten their belts just to make the mortgage payments.
2. Unemployment rates
The national unemployment rate peaked above 12 per cent in late 1992. In the “Great Recession,” the unemployment rate didn’t get above 9 per cent nationally.
While this recession has been painful, unemployment is not as dramatic as it was 20 years ago.
Imagine another half million job seekers across the country, and you gather how much more challenging the economic situation was in the early 1990s.
3. The constitution
One of the principal challenges for the governments of the early 1990s was a never-ending series of constitutional crises. Meech Lake. The Allaire Report. The Charlottetown Accord. First Ministers Meeting after First Ministers Meeting.
While Canadians were worried about jobs, politicians were arguing about the Notwithstanding Clause.
The distance between what Canadians were worried about and what Canadian politicians were talking about couldn’t have been wider.
4. Tired incumbents
Many Premiers appeared dog tired after endless Constitutional debate all-nighters followed by devastating updates from their Finance officials. They were snappy with the press and astonished to encounter protesters on the campaign trail.
Voters can tell when a party is out of touch and out of gas, and in the early 1990s, just about every party in power looked beyond their best-before date.
In contrast, incumbents in our era appear much more resolute and resilient. Tired premiers like Ed Stelmach and Gordon Campbell have been replaced by successors like Alison Redford and Christy Clark who clearly have the fire in their belly.
5. Campaigns matter
In the early 1990s, many of the premiers ran terrible campaigns.
The typical incumbent campaign was a promise-a-day tour, the tried-and-true formula of the late 1980s. But the public was tired of over-promising politicians in an era of obvious cut-backs.
In contrast, the opposition parties ran tightly focused and very negative campaigns aimed at the incumbents blemishes.
In elections, the party with the message that penetrates the public consciousness will set the ballot question.
Christy Clark’s recent campaign in B.C. is a template of a focused incumbent. Her team relentlessly pounded on the economy and debt, weaknesses of their NDP opponents. The challengers coasted on their polling lead and failed to define the terms of the debate. In doing so, they lost the ability to make the election a referendum on Clark, and instead allowed it to be a referendum on who you trust with the economy and debt.
Basically, it comes down to this.
In the early 1990s, premiers had few good choices and more distractions. They lost control of their agendas to national issues and they lost control of their budgets to bond traders.
Facing these dilemmas ground them down to making excuses and by the time voting began, the public had lost trust in them.
In the early 2010s, premiers have more flexibility in their budgets and more focus in their schedules.
Despite often trailing, they are able to focus their own campaigns on issues that matter to voters, they are able to maintain public trust, and they are able to win.
Andrew Steele is a Toronto social entrepreneur. You can follow him on Twitter at @andrewmsteele.
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