But the warning bells sounding for Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick Liberals are not currently tolling for the federal party.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 8, 2018.
The phrase was coined by retiring premier Philippe Couillard on the eve of the worst defeat in the history of the Quebec Liberal Party by CAQ Leader Philippe Couillard. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade and courtesy of Flickr
OTTAWA—Incumbent syndrome is an affliction sweeping across the country. The phrase was coined by retiring premier Philippe Couillard on the eve of the worst defeat in the history of the Quebec Liberal Party.
His party faced an unstoppable wave, and despite outward claims of optimism, Couillard and his team saw it coming.
Just like the movement for change in Ontario and New Brunswick, once the wave takes hold, there is nothing an incumbent can do to stop it.
Therein lies a message for the federal Liberals as they prepare for the next election.
Unlike Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the outgoing Quebec premier had plenty of advance notice of his party’s plunge in popularity.
Having inherited a province in deep economic trouble, Couillard’s first two years included an austerity plan that many Quebecers found hard to swallow. In addition, the premier himself was not an emotive political leader. Many felt he was too cold and aloof to really connect with the people. Quebecers appreciate passion, and they reward it at the polls.
But in the months leading up to last week’s vote, the Liberals were polling in the twenties. Despite an upward bump in the final weeks, the outcome was never really in doubt.
Most polls predicted a much tighter race but Quebecers did what they usually do. They voted en masse, and the collective decision was a ballot for change.
Voters threw all the bums out, including the deliverance of a potential death blow to the Parti Québécois, denied party status for the first time in history.
Couillard looked positively relieved when he took to the stage with a graceful concession speech on election night.
If he looked relieved, PQ leader Jean-François Lisée appeared positively shell-shocked. So complete was the separatist party’s repudiation that Lisée lost his own seat to upstart Quebec Solidaire candidate and former fellow journalist Vincent Marissal.
The QS rise mirrored the fall of the PQ, breeding a rivalry that will be hard to bridge in the near future. Even if a fusion of the two parties were possible, political support for sovereignty has bottomed out.
Coalition Avenir Quebec winner François Legault was inclusive and positive in victory, pledging to work with all Quebecers and reaffirming his commitment to the place of Quebec within Canada.
The olive branch Legault held out was an important message of economic and social stability. Legault’s political career has been chequered at best, but he has a solid reputation as a successful business leader who understands the importance of constancy to a strong economy. And Couillard delivered him a strong economy in spades.
Not that the Liberals got any credit for it.
Coming from medicine, Couillard probably had no idea that the confidence we bestow on doctors will never translate into political gratitude.
Who can blame the man for being a little confused?
He delivered the province from a heavy debt load and attracted new investment and economic growth to take Quebec from the back of the Canadian pack to the front.
And his thanks was a collective voter decision to throw him out in favour of a party that did not even exist seven years ago.
To be fair, the warning bells sounding for Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick Liberals are not currently tolling for the federal party.
Trudeau’s success in bringing home a new free trade arrangement for North America may actually help him dodge the change bullet.
There is no clear alternative in the wings. The Conservative leader is running television advertisements which sound like a casting call for Father Knows Best.
Although the focus of the ad is Andrew Scheer’s mother, his dull intonation is that of an old man in a young person’s body. The Harper lite label is not going away any time soon.
Federal Liberals are also currently benefitting from the lack of New Democratic Party lift-off via their new leader, Jagmeet Singh.
However, Singh is the new kid on the block and a positive election campaign could position him to represent change in the same way it helped Trudeau the last time out.
After a strong debate performance, the prime minister vaulted from third to first place because he best represented generational change.
That playbook is spent so the Liberal brain trust will have to come up with a new way of making Trudeau become the voice for another new change. Otherwise, the weight of incumbency could drag the party down.
In this day and age, the status quo is death in politics.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.