The ‘Anti-Incumbency Tsunami’

[Ed: The opinions expressed are those of the author.]

An anti-incumbency tsunami has ravaged North America in recent weeks. Voters both in Canada and the United States are turning out in record numbers to turf traditional career politicians in favour of political neophytes who have successfully tapped into a volatile electorate. Stylizing themselves as populists, they have successfully tapped into a capricious electorate, running clever campaigns characterized by a simple message and underpinned by little or no policy.

Buoyed by the political events of recent weeks, pundits throughout North America have begun to opine on the intricacies of just how this political wave caught so much of the political and media establishment so off guard. After much debate, the obvious consensus has become one that all can agree upon: the global economic recession has finally begun to take a toll on our domestic politics.

Indeed, the previous few weeks have truly been remarkable in North American politics. At the municipal level, Ontarians voted in large numbers to jettison incumbent mayors in urban centres throughout the province. In “liberal” Toronto, veteran City Councillor and right-winger Rob Ford was elected mayor by an immigrant-led working-class uprising that is now garnering national attention. Now that Mr. Ford is mayor, political junkies are immersed in a discussion as to whether the man tapped in to a countrywide zeitgeist or simply exploited voter rage specific to the greater Toronto region. What is certain, however, is that the residents of Canada’s largest city overwhelmingly placed their confidence in a man who ran a campaign emblematic of the quintessential tea party candidate in the United States. It was a campaign that brought “controlling the message” to a new threshold. A campaign that offered virtually no policy amid an array of daunting public policy challenges that confront the City of Toronto. And yet Mr. Ford won by a landslide. Toronto’s establishment obsessively mocked his “gravy train” message but it was that very message that endeared him to so many voters.

But Toronto was not the only story on election night. The Ontario cities of Ottawa, Vaughan, Hamilton, London, Kingston and Sudbury all swiftly rejected incumbent mayors on the evening of October 25th. While the factors contributing to Mr. Ford’s election in Toronto were surely not replicated in each of these Ontario cities, it would appear the electorate in much of Ontario were nonetheless receptive to change within the municipal sphere. How else might one explain the election of new mayors in virtually all of Ontario’s largest cities?

With respect to the provincial context, the narrative is equally as compelling. In British Columbia, Premier Gordon Campbell was forced to resign as premier earlier this Fall after publicly acknowledging his government had lost focus as a result of the widely unpopular Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). The HST-beleaguered premier, whose personal popularity was pegged at a mere nine per cent by a recent Angus Reid poll, effectively faced an ultimatum: resign now or allow his party to endure a humiliating defeat at the polls in two years. In fact, B.C.’s political situation became all the more tenuous most recently when Campbell’s chief rival – the NDP’s Carol James – was also forced to resign amid a caucus revolt!

In Canada’s largest province, Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty is facing similar wrath by voters. Three out of four Ontarians believe it’s “time for a change” at Queen’s Park because of the unpopular 13 per cent HST and lingering economic fears, a new poll suggests. PC leader and right-winger Tim Hudak has been the net beneficiary of such sentiments, polling 12 points ahead of the embattled premier.

Like in British Columbia, there has been an increasingly becoming a visceral reaction toward the HST in Ontario, which melded the 8 per cent provincial sales tax with the 5 per cent federal GST on July 1, 2010. According to the same poll, 81 per cent of Ontarians felt harmonization was the “wrong thing to do,” with only 19 per cent supporting the streamlined, business-friendly tax that has been championed by tax experts as a watershed change in tax policy that would “confer substantial benefits to Ontarians for generations.” And though McGuinty is unlikely to take Campbell’s lead and resign, the ensuing election is beginning to cast itself as a perfect storm for the Hudak Conservatives.

In Ottawa, it remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government will remain immune from the underlying trends that have gripped the United States and Canada’s largest cities and provinces. Some political observers suggest the Harper Conservatives have successfully inoculated themselves from the lurch toward anti-incumbency by consistently painting themselves as political outsiders committed to cleaning up waste and mismanagement in Ottawa.

In fact, it would appear their strategy is working thus far. In spite of five years in government, the Harper Conservatives have convinced much of the electorate that the opposition Liberals represent the entrenched political interests of urban elites in downtown Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. The “Laurentian Consensus,” as it has become known, has long allowed the political interests of these three cities to reign supreme over the country. The election of Stephen Harper, however, ushered in a new era unknown to a large swath of Canada. A self-described Evangelical Christian from Calgary, Alberta and an architect of the populist right wing Reform Party, Mr. Harper was – and continues to be – the antithesis of former Liberal and Conservative prime ministers.

Upon being swept into power, the Conservatives became the masters of retail politics some years ago and continue to benefit from policies that are short on specifics but bode well with an electorate worried about their pocketbooks and weary of new taxes. Despite being poor public policy, they reduced the GST to great fanfare among the public.

As of a few weeks ago, Stephen Harper can be thankful to at least one Torontonian: Mr. Ford, whose victory led to a noteworthy surge in Conservative support in Ontario in recent weeks, according to new EKOS poll. The Conservatives are now ahead of the Ignatieff Liberals in battleground Ontario by a sizeable margin, are breaking into the liberal fortress of Toronto, and are doing extremely well among older voters, twice as likely to vote. And while many Canadian voters remain justifiably angry with Mr. Harper, he continues to garner just enough support to remain comfortably in power. In doing so, he is bucking the anti-incumbency phenomena that has gripped the continent so persuasively.

What Mr. Harper has accomplished thus far in Canada can be described as none other than an impressive political feat. Surely President Obama would agree: after a mere two years in office, Mr. Obama has been repudiated by many of the voters who enthusiastically supported him two years ago. Also earlier this Fall, fuelled by the grassroots Tea Party Movement, the Republican Party made monumental gains in taking a majority in the United States House of Representatives. Like their conservative counterparts in Canada, the GOP have few actionable policies to assuage the economic insecurities of everyday Americans and yet this does not take the wind out of their sails. They vigorously attack Obama for the economic bail-out (initiated by President Bush), progressive tax policy, and health-care reform and yet they propose mere slogans to remedy the systemic problems that ail America

In the United States the political reality has sadly become one predicated by the de-legitimization of government. With the Democrats facing continuing political defeats, Mr. Obama’s reasonable agenda is unlikely to be implemented. Fresh off the heels of victory, the Republican Party, enjoying the taste of blood, will continue its battle in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election. And yet the GOP’s strategy spearheaded by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, is short-sighted as its core. The American people are suffering and as the Republican Party regains political power in the House of Representatives, they too will now bear responsibility for addressing the people’s economic woes. They can no longer incite anti- government anger or propose short-sighted policy solutions such as massive tax cuts as a means of wrestling with the massive U.S. deficit. As one observer aptly put it, the castration of government for its own sake won’t bear any dividends for the American people. Indeed it’s an observation that ought to be well heeded in Canada as well.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the aforementioned events strongly suggest we have truly entered a fascinating, albeit destabilizing era in North American politics. But what does this all mean for government as we know it? Moreover, what does this signify for the public service at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government? It is far too early to draw conclusions, but certain trends are evidently crystallizing among the public at large – trends that could have innumerable effects going to the very essence of how we collectively view government as a society.

The professional public service is absolutely integral to the functioning of government in western democracies. Within the Canadian context, we have long allocated generous resources to the public service to equip them with the ability to provide their political masters with sound, impartial advice. Canadian universities boast MPA and MPP programs to encourage young passionate individuals who believe in the role of government, to consider a career dedicated to the public service. As trained policy professionals, it is their role to provide advice on policy and at times, temper the somewhat erratic instincts of their masters: the political class. Recent political events, however, have signalled a change in the composition of the political class in this country — changes that are bound to intensify in the next two years. Politicians of all political stripes have long worked alongside the public service to forge good public policy and stable governance for the Canadian people. However, political neophytes have now been thrust upon the political scene, many of them running on simplistic platforms that de-legitimize the very essence of government. How these political neophytes will interact with the professional public service remains to be seen, but by all accounts, the prognosis is not encouraging. But it would be naive to think the Mr. Ford’s of Canada are not here to stay.

Such trends cannot be heartening to those aspiring for a career in the public service or in public life as an elected representative. Canada arguably confronts more public policy challenges now than ever before – a rapidly aging population, an unsustainable health-care system, and a massive federal deficit – only to name a few. Public policy solutions, forged by policy professionals working alongside their political masters must be at the very core of how we effectively solve many of the key policy challenges Canada faces. Constructive debates on issues such as productivity, taxation, national child care, child poverty, and proposals to institute a guaranteed income supplement should be at the pinnacle of debates in government and at election time. Such is not the reality.

In early October, the Ignatieff Liberals released a new, innovate policy on family care for seniors, corresponding with the challenges facing Canada’s rapidly ageing population. Agree with the policy or not, it was a genuine policy response to a pressing public policy challenge confronting government. Yet the proposal received scarce attention from the national media and was mocked by the governing Conservatives as a “nanny state” proposal; in their view yet another example of a “big government” solution that would encroach on the lives’ of everyday Canadians (did somebody say Census!?) The policy would greatly ameliorate the lives of ordinary Canadians who must care for their elderly parents, and yet such a perspective was obscured by the “big government” narrative advanced by the Harper Conservatives.

Of course government is by no means the solution to all that ails society, but constructive government can certainly change individual lives for the better and confer hope on the collective citizenry of a country. We must not forget that some of Canada’s greatest political leaders have believed just that and have governed accordingly to immense fanfare. But that was the past and as a people, we must consistently remind ourselves of the activist role the government and public service have played throughout our history. “Less government” did not build the Trans-Canada Highway or bind the disparate interests and groups that comprise Canada; likewise massive tax cuts will certainly not continue to allow us to grow collectively as we emerge from a global economic recession. Whether it be the Canadian Pension Program or universal health-care, substantive public policy solutions have produced far more measurable results for the people of Canada than a narrative that would compel us to believe “less government” is the solution to the complex problems we face.

– By Andrew Perez

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