One truism is that governments defeat themselves. Another is that voters eventually get tired of governments, and become restless for change. Which is it?
History suggests both.
Voters know governments lose a step or two as they age, and people start to wonder if there might be something better on offer across the aisle. This is a natural cycle. It can’t be prevented, it can only be managed.
Aging governments generally exhibit two chronic weaknesses.
First, inspired new policies become rare. It’s not that there aren’t good ideas to be found anywhere, but incumbents don’t scour the landscape for them the way challengers do. And when someone brings up a new idea, incumbent group think kicks in, and new ideas are too quickly shot down. Because they weren’t invented here, or might uncomfortably disrupt the status quo, or cost money that hadn’t been budgeted, etc.
In the latter days of many governments there’s less effort put into looking for a better idea, and more fascination with finding a better bumper sticker. Something flashy and eye catching, but not necessarily well thought out and substantial.
Second, while lots of human skills sharpen over time, the political acumen of incumbents seems an exception: it generally becomes duller. Governments get used to congratulating themselves and lose the ability to gaze at their own situation with objectivity. Every criticism is judged as bias, rather than examined for its merits. Every critic is judged an enemy. Offence is taken when none is intended.
When first elected in 2006, the Harper Conservatives had keen political instincts and top-drawer political talent, in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the cabinet. The party had figured out how to appeal to enough voters in the centre and to downplay some of the more polarizing aspects of conservative ideology. They were in the market for new friends, and they knew what they were offering: more accountability, lower taxes, law and order, a stronger military, and a growing economy.
In 2014, the Conservatives find themselves in a much different place.
No longer in the market for new friends, they seem constantly in search of enemies. Every night is fight night in Ottawa these days. They squabble without discrimination; as enthusiastic in their attacks on people they handpicked as they are with opposing political parties.
They see bias in extraordinary places and imagine forces plotting against them around every corner. Auditors-General, Chief Electoral Officers, Parliamentary Budget Officers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a bunch of their own Senate appointees. They have even found a way to fight with veterans, military widows and families, and to draw fire from the Canadian Legion.
The good ideas pipeline is not overflowing. The budget will be balanced soon, and tax cuts will happen. Trade deals will be pursued. But beyond that, the government seems tempted by shiny objects. They want longer arms to prevent fraudulent voting. They advertise that wireless phone companies are villains. They declare war against pay-TV bundles. They want to force businesses to lower prices to match pricing in the U.S., although, inconveniently, the C.D. Howe Institute made the point earlier this week that most of this differential is caused by government policies, not corporate gouging.
The Conservatives have lost lots of talent. Ministers like Chuck Strahl, Jay Hill, Jim Prentice, Jim Flaherty, Monte Solberg and David Emerson. Good people remain, but Stephen Harper seems to prefer to give more ice-time in the House to pugilists like Peter Van Loan, Paul Calandra, and Pierre Poilievre.
In the PMO, there are too few people who don’t owe their careers to the Prime Minister – professionals willing to get in the way of a bad idea before it gathers too much momentum. Think Bernard Roy, Derek Burney, Bill Neville or Jim Coutts.
The Conservatives show signs of aging, but have time to work on rejuvenation. However, so far, signals out of the Langevin Block don’t even pay lip service to the idea of a refresh – the message track is “steady as she goes.” Regardless of the fact that for many voters, their federal government seems much less steady than it used to.
Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. Follow him on Twitter at @bruceanderson.