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editorial

If his Quebec Liberals were routed at the polls on Monday, Philippe Couillard can perhaps take some comfort in having seen it coming.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail just before the election, he admitted that he was contending with a powerful strain of voter fatigue. “It’s harder and harder for incumbents everywhere,” he said, “and it’s true we have been in office many years.”

As the dust settles after Quebec’s dramatic rejection of its political status quo, Mr. Couillard’s foray into punditry holds up as well as any analysis of the result.

The simple fact is that what seems to have undone the Liberals, who had held power since 2003 except for an 18-month stint in Opposition from 2012-14, is that they’d been around too long.

Mr. Couillard’s lone term as Premier – he succeeded Jean Charest as party leader in 2013 – was largely successful. He accomplished two important feats: balancing the budget and avoiding scandal. He presided over a period of strong economic growth and low unemployment. The Liberals even made headway in paying down the debt.

Rather than rewarding them, voters sent them packing. There are a few possible theories for such ingratitude – too much austerity, though the winning Coalition Avenir Québec is also fiscally conservative; identity politics, though the Liberals practiced that artfully, too – but there’s no need to overthink this one.

The most credible explanation is that Quebeckers displayed the symptoms of the modern pandemic of voter-fatigue syndrome that is causing people to reject the incumbent in a reflexive way.

Voters across Canada have been choosing change in recent years – sometimes, it seems, for change’s sake. Since 2015, long-serving governments have been turfed in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ottawa. Maybe half of them deserved it.

An instinct for renewal is healthy in a democracy. There is always a risk that power will corrupt and a chance that fresh political blood will bring an earnest zeal to governing that long tenure can dull. Voting in the same party again and again can be a sign of complacency in an electorate.

But a knee-jerk preference for the new is just as dubious, especially in a media-saturated world where incumbent governments seem more and more to be scorned on aesthetic grounds by people who are tired of seeing them on TV. How many times did one hear about voters being “sick” of former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, or finding Mr. Couillard “stale”?

The rote arguments against incumbent parties are mostly feeble. It is often said that they have grown “out of touch,” but that’s a cliche that ignores how alienated from the real world all political professionals can be, in power and out. Seething on the opposition benches does not a tribune make.

It’s also considered a truism that long years in office can make politicians “arrogant”. But some of Canada’s most responsive governments have been dynasties. Think of Tommy Douglas’s CCF powerhouse in Saskatchewan (fathers of medicare), Bill Davis’s Big Blue Machine in Ontario, or the halcyon days of Peter Lougheed in Alberta. Their voters were sensible enough to not try to fix what wasn’t broken.

Veteran governments offer positive advantages, too. Experience, for one – in the machinery of the state, in knowing the limits of public opinion, in the details of public policy.

Re-election also avoids the wasteful churn of repeal and recrimination that we’re seeing in Ontario, for example, where the Progressive Conservative government has spent several months tearing up costly legislation, pointing an accusing finger at the Liberals and calling it an agenda.

Meanwhile, one detail voters often seem to forget in throwing the bums out: They have to replace them with other bums. The Ontario electorate may come to regret its rush to swap out the Wynne Liberals out for the grievance-based populism of Premier Doug Ford. If opinion polls are right, some Albertans have rued their votes for the NDP since not too long after they were cast.

Sometimes parties overstay their welcome and need to go. We are not saying change is always bad, obviously, any more than it is always good. But voters should punish governments for real missteps, not for the modern but hardly cardinal sin of being the incumbent.

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