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A wave of voter anger is growing - and incumbents should be afraid

All over the place, they're dropping like flies.

Earlier this year, it was Gordon Brown across the pond. Later this fall, it'll be congressional Democrats south of the border.

Closer to home, the once-promising career of Shawn Graham is in tatters after a single term as New Brunswick's premier. Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals have bottomed out. Toronto Mayor David Miller wanted no part of an angry electorate; the only candidate who dares to run on Mr. Miller's legacy is trailing a distant third.

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Some have been the authors of their own misfortune. Mr. Graham infuriated New Brunswickers with his abortive plan to sell the province's hydro utility to Quebec; Mr. Campbell did a terrible job of selling the new harmonized sales tax.

Still, there's a pattern here: It's a very, very bad time to be an incumbent. Abstract though it may be, the anger toward governments is palpable.

For many economists, the Great Recession is in the rearview mirror. But politically, it's a different story. Most voters haven't seen the recovery trickle down to them yet. There's residual resentment toward public employees seen to have been sheltered from the storm - their salaries still rising, their job security and generous pensions intact. And there appears to be the perception, usually a fatal one for governments, that taxpayers are paying more and getting less in return.

There are ways to avoid this trend - mostly by being more populist than one's political opponents, as the federal Conservatives try to achieve. But other governments seem to be playing right into it.

Consider what's happening in Ontario, where a new poll suggests Dalton McGuinty's Liberals trail the opposition Conservatives by 12 percentage points, with fully three-quarters of respondents saying it's time for a change in government.

The same HST that's causing Mr. Campbell so much grief plays a role in those numbers, but it's far from the whole story. Mr. McGuinty appears to have badly underestimated growing angst over pocketbook issues - most notably as they pertain to his energy policy, which has caused hydro bills to emerge as a major issue heading into next year's election campaign. He's also indulged the expansionist tendencies of some public agencies, including in the energy sector, allowing his opponents to make hay over alleged waste.

In the past, Mr. McGuinty's bland decency helped insulate him from backlash. This is a Premier who managed to bring in a tax hike just months after successfully campaigning on a promise not to raise taxes and still win a second term. But the characteristics that once seemed harmless, even endearing, have begun to grate.

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Mr. McGuinty is adept at expressing faith in public institutions, and drawing on his upbringing in a large Irish-Catholic family to invoke collective responsibility. What he's not so gifted at is relating to everyday concerns. His earnest calls for self-sacrifice in the interest of the greater good have opened him up to charges that he's an elitist who thinks he knows what's best for everyone else.

By the time this week's poll came out, his strategists had recognized the problem and begun responding. Thus a new tax credit for costly kids' activities, and relief for seniors on their energy bills, and more such things to come. Combined with the roll-out of full-day kindergarten, which should make life easier for parents, the Liberals hope to show they're on the side of the "hard-working families" Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is always on about.

It might work. Perhaps Mr. McGuinty, who's nothing if not resilient, will succeed in adjusting his tone. Perhaps the other two party leaders, both novices, will wilt in the election spotlight. And perhaps, 12 months from now, voters will be in a more forgiving frame of mind.

But if they're still in the same mood, Mr. McGuinty will need to run a terrific campaign to win a third term.

Failing that, he'll be able to console himself that unlike some of his counterparts, he got to enjoy a lengthy spell in office before the anti-incumbent wave hit.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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