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Why do governments exceed their 'best before' date?

Governments of all political stripes are defeated, not elected.

At least that’s what most political commentators will tell you. And while I’m always loathe to peddle in simplistic political truisms, let’s assume for a moment they are right. 

If correct – that governments are defeated, not elected – then isn’t the next logical question: “Why?” Why can’t Canadian governments – of every political party – have more success in sustaining the political support that elected them? What is it about governing that makes governments, over time, less popular? Is it simply inevitable that all governments “lose their way” or become viewed as “old and tired?”

I am amazed how many governments often repeat the same type of mistakes that hurt them politically and that lead, over time, to their defeat.

So, here’s my top five reasons of why governments are often defeated.

And before anyone begins to read between the lines, this is not meant as a knock on any current Canadian government, nor the many dedicated and talented people who serve in them.

  1. Governments rationalize breaking the public trust far too often and far too easily. Public trust is in political terms, ”the coin of the realm” but is often undervalued. Governments aren’t elected with a plan to break campaign commitments. Rather, naïve and poorly resourced political parties often make commitments too quickly, with poor information and/or lack of consultation. It’s these commitments – made without good process – that are broken most often. And with them, the public trust. Think … committing to never raising the PST or committing to get rid of the GST, but then doing the exact opposite.

  2. Governments spend a great deal of resources communicating the what; they rarely communicate the why. A Minister announces a great new program with a fancy name that promises to do some wonderful things, but she or he often leaves people at home asking “why?” Think … the central location of specialized medical and diagnostic services that would not be sustainable otherwise.

  3. Government leaders are too slow to change course on something that clearly isn’t working. And I’m not talking about lacking resolve to see through an unpopular but necessary policy option. Think … ferries that were never designed to ply BC’s coasts. Think … of a critically flawed payroll system.

  4. Government leaders often console themselves by thinking, “it’s not our policies that are the problem, it’s just that people don’t understand them” or “we can’t get our message out through a hostile media.” From my experience, it is just as often government policy that is both understood and unpopular. Think … announcing a toll on one existing highway but not on any other.

  5. Governments almost invariably suffer from a lack of political and policy renewal. To be shuffled out of cabinet, or even to be assigned a smaller post, is seen as a slight or the twilight of a political career. But bringing new blood into government – at every level - should be a priority. Think … of the fundamentally anti-democratic practice of guaranteeing elected MPs or MLAs an uncontested party nomination in their local constituency.

Governments don’t have to become unpopular over time. Political unpopularity doesn’t need to become a “badge of honour” for those leading public policy change any more than maintaining public support is a sure sign of a lack of political will or policy innovation.

It’s a government that hesitates to identify or acknowledge these traits, or knows but fails to act on them, that goes the way of the pundits. A government or political party that has an active succession plan and isn’t afraid to continually engage with the electorate - not just with their die-hard supporters - that can be the exception to the rule. 

Food for thought for my many friends of all political stripes serving in government across Canada. And for those who hope to defeat them.

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