The five stages of government

Russell Wangersky
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I’ve used the analogy of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five steps that a patient goes through when diagnosed with a terminal illness before. But here it is again, slightly differently.

In her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” Kubler-Ross spells out the way people feel as the inevitable approaches: they go through a pretty clear progression of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Those same steps have been offered up as the process of many other things by many other people; Kubler-Ross was onto a good thing, a real thing, that talked about the way most experiences are processes with recognizable steps.

Since then, commentators have transposed those steps onto everything from Kubler-Ross’s grief to decision-making and beyond, arguing that most exercises in the human experience are not a singular point, but a process that includes moving forward and sometimes back.

Kubler-Ross had significant experience with the dying: she spent a good part of her working life with them. I have some experience, as we all eventually do, with family members who have died, but the bulk of my experience is with governments.

And with apologies to Kubler-Ross, I’d like to suggest that we often get to see five stages of government — and that, effectively, the combined Williams/Dunderdale administration is in the last stage. This doesn’t mean that the ruling Conservatives are about to lose their grasp on government — far from it. Unless Premier Kathy Dunderdale decides she’s fed up and walks the plank, the next election doesn’t come around for another two years. And even if it does, change rests more in the hands of the opposition parties and whether they are able to cobble together that necessary mix of new strong candidates and ideas that differentiate them from the political norm.

But from Peckford/Rideout to Wells/Tobin/Grimes, from Ontario’s  Davis/Miller to Chrétien/Martin and all the other iterations, long-standing governments have a familiar set of stages.

First is the new government, picking up the reins and promising immediate, first-100-day change. You could call that first stage idealism — but call it that quickly, because it doesn’t even last the first 100 days.

The second stage comes fast: parties usually find out that, upon taking office, there’s far less money than they thought and far less ability to address promises. Remember the arrival of Williams in 2003? It was remarkably similar to the Wells administration after Peckford: “Sure, we promised things, but first we have to deal with this imminent economic collapse.”  

That one’s simply enough called “reality.”

Then, there’s a period of staid governance — the new government still blames everything bad on the mistakes of past administrations, but the opposition pretty much knows its place, and the government can focus on pushing its good ideas forward.

At that point, virtually any opposition can be blamed on sour grapes, and while the government usually looks at any concerns raised in the media as misguided, it’s still willing to listen. You could call this stage “meaningful change.” It’s when sunshine laws like access to information and whistleblowing legislation move forwards instead of backwards. There are bumps in the road but the government suspension isn’t tired yet, and its members hardly feel them.

Stage 4 is when the wheels start to come off, or at least the shock absorbers are flattening out: the House of Assembly is fractious and hostile, and suddenly, it’s not important to answer media requests for interviews. They’re just a pain in the neck, so send out emails and refuse to talk face to face. This stage is called “the bunker” — but while the government’s poured the concrete walls, it hasn’t fully closed the doors yet. It still has friends, and it’s trying to do important things — problem is, miles from that original idealism, the ideas are slowing, unless you start pinching them from the opposition.

Stage 5? It’s when “blame the media” becomes the official government mantra. “They’re out to get us,” is the rallying cry. We’ve started hearing that already. You try to take away any enemy’s tools: block access to information, but trumpet that you are the best and most accessible — because you are, except for when you’re dealing with the people who are out to get you and must be stopped. Your big plans are always the only answer — everyone else is simply wrong.

This is also where you start seeing long-serving MHAs, used to being popular in their own districts, both feeling the heat and deciding that they are not really keen to recontest their seats. They’ve managed to reach full pensionable time, and they aren’t ready for what might be a big fight.

Budgets sound tired, and throne speeches become the only outlet where you can hear someone else say what a good job you’re doing — and they say it only because you’ve put those exact words in their mouths.

You don’t understand why no one sees what a good job you are doing. It’s not denial. It’s not acceptance. The fifth stage is a sort of furious frustration.

The government? Well, it’s hardened off, kind of like the nail on an old man’s big toe.

Now far distant from ever having its bottoms warming the opposition benches, the current office-holders probably view themselves as the federal Liberals once did: as members of a sort of natural ruling party. The others? Why, everyone should be able to see that they’re a ragtag bunch, not equipped or experienced enough to run a province.

Which is just what the Grimes-era Liberals thought of this province’s Progressive Conservatives.

And so it goes.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Progressive Conservatives

Geographic location: Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Danny
    April 01, 2013 - 01:05

    I fully expect the next couple yrs to be a banner yr for murders and violent crime.ppl wanting to escape this 3rd world crime infested land...Dunderdale may just get herself voted back in...the 1000's of criminals roaming free of prosecution will thank her!

  • EDfromRED
    April 01, 2013 - 00:27

    I truly believe if a random selection was made out of the phone book for MHA's, they would do a much better job than this bunch of pitiful PC nincompoops we have now. They must be role playing as vikings, getting their kicks by financially raping and pillaging us!

    • Eli
      April 01, 2013 - 09:43

      You're dreaming my good man. They're all "strong voices" 'till they get in, then it's toe the party line or take the bus. You saw what happened to those three Harperites last week. The "back room boys" saw to that & it's no different here.

  • crista
    March 31, 2013 - 20:34

    reading your article and the stages ????interesting article and stages looks like you are talking about history repeating itself???? and the rise and falls of events???? and what will become of these events???? reality, after all this is real or fact or fiction and for the truths to come out???? you would have to ask your self what is going to be the out come of what is gone on and going on,it seems this one knows this and that one knows that and who is allowed to know what is going on???? and then came in with bill c-29 so who is setting the stages????and WHY???? you spoke of five stages is there more to the stages then what you spoke of????

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 30, 2013 - 11:25

    Russell, you have covered the stages of political birth(winning an election) to death(losing an election) very well. The ONLY concern I have is the ONE looming catastrophe for us is one that cannot be undone....and that is Muskrat Falls! We can throw this administration out, can't fix a stupid and disastrous deal once the dam is built! The financial deficits caused by this project will only become more of a structural problem as time goes on..... and the government has to come up with more and more money to handle the increased cost overruns for that money pit. Otherwise, I would be fine and let nature(the electorate)take its course and elect a new government.....necessary, to be sure, but only to face the same problems 10 years down the road. Unfortunately, no new government will be able to overcome the handicap that is Muskrat Falls.

    • Maurice Rogers
      March 31, 2013 - 11:24

      That's normal for us to have governments that stumble from one catastrophe to another.

  • W Bagg
    March 30, 2013 - 09:45

    Well not quite full circle, at least we can look back and say Grimes signed some agreements that re now bring us some money, Dunderdale hasn't done anything good, Williams ensured we got into the Oil business. If I were Dunderdale I would look to other jurisdictions with oil and see how they became successful. Look to Norway.

    • W McLean
      March 30, 2013 - 13:19

      Why is government in business? Why is it good that government is in business?

  • Corporate Psycho
    March 30, 2013 - 06:46

    In 2015 this crowd will be wiped out. Personally I'm voting for the first party that says its getting rid of Bill 29. The thing that scares me the most is the fact that the PC's have to know they are done at this point. How much damage are they going to do before they get the heave?