Reflections on the Last Canadian Election

Sans Everything is a Canadian blog but a large chunk of our readers are not lucky enough to be live in the great, white north. So I’ve written up an analysis of the recent, very complicated, election, trying to explain what just happened:


1. The Conservatives have won a second minority government in a row but their actual electoral strength is low: In 2006 they got 36.24% of the vote for 124 seats; this time they have 37.64% of the vote for 143 seats. (You need 155 seats to form a majority government).



2. The reason they’ve won a plurality in both 2006 and 2008 is that our parliamentary system (like England, the mother-country) often creates false majorities and overinflated pluralities, especially if there are many parties in play. In Canada, the Conservatives have benefited from the fact that the left is divided into four other parties (the center-left Liberals, the social democratic NDP, the environmentalists Greens and the French-Canadian nationalist Bloc Quebecois).  With a divided left, the Conservatives are able to govern a country where more than 60% of the population voted against them. Matt Yglesias has some sharp comments on this.


3. It should be kept in mind that in order to win this election, Harper has had to considerably temper his conservatism, so much so that if he were running in the United States he would be considered a left liberal: the Conservative party has agreed that social issues should be off the table (i.e., abortion and gay marriage should remain legal), that the government should be spending more on health and education (per capita the Conservatives are a spending more than the last Liberal government), that Quebec should be recognized as a “nation”, and that Canadian troops should be out of Afghanistan by 2011. Nor is there any push to bring back the death penalty. The only really “right-wing” policies the Conservatives have are slight cuts to arts funding and tougher sentencing of young offenders: both those policies proved to be very unpopular in Quebec, where the Conservatives failed to pick up a single seat. I have to say, the left parties were rather demagogic in constantly trying to link Harper to Bush, and I think they’d have been better off stressing the fact that Harper has adopted a McCain-like  do-nothing “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” approach to the global financial crisis.


4. Of the four left-of-center parties, the Liberals suffered the most: unlike the Greens and the NDP their share of the vote dropped markedly (from 30.23% in 2006 to 26.23% now). Part of the problem is that Stephen Dion was a very uncharismatic politician: think Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale, but with a tendency to mumble. It’s a shame really, because Dion is actually a very thoughtful man, a policy wonk at heart, and he’s done good work in pushing his party to adopt a stronger environmentalist stance. If Dion resigns, as is widely expected, the Liberals will have a leadership race and he could be replaced by either Bob Rae (a former social democrat) or Michael Ignatieff (who many on this list will know).   


As against the Liberal rout, both the NDP and the Greens increased their share of overall vote, although with our parliamentary system both remain under-represented in terms of seats in Parliament (the Greens radically so: they got 7% of the votes and no seats).


5. As mentioned in an earlier post, voter turnout is at an all time low in Canada: 59%, as against 64% in the last election and 70%-plus in the elections of the 1970s and 1980s. Again, this voter apathy is not unrelated, I think to the fact that the parliamentary system creates perverse results, so the population feels their votes don’t count.


In fact, in terms of the absolute number of votes, the only party that saw an increase was the Greens. As the National Post notes.


With voter turnout dropping to just 59.1%, the Conservatives, Liberals, Bloc and NDP all won their seats with fewer voters casting ballots in their favour. Indeed, 849,425 fewer voters backed the Grits this time, 168,737 fewer supported the Tories, 75,522 voted for the NDP and 173,636 backed the Bloc. The only party to reverse this trend were the Greens, who received 276,679 more votes than in 2006.


Yet, despite the increase in votes, the Greens failed to gain a single seat. Again, illustrating the perversity of the current system.



5 thoughts on “Reflections on the Last Canadian Election

  1. Just a quick historical question – is the vote splitting trend only a recent phenomenon, going back to the PC/Reform/CCRAP/Rebel Alliance stuff of the nineties, or has it been a factor for a considerably longer period of time?

  2. A very objective analysis, I agree especially with point 3. And only a little of the leftist bitterness about 60% of the country being against the Cons (unlike, say, the 60% who were against Chretien when he was earning his majority governments?).

    One note which I think has been way underplayed in this election is on the Green Shift which has otherwise received so much attention. You laud Dion for taking environmentalism seriously. Indeed, if that was all he had done, I think he would have gotten a lot more support, perhaps even from right wingers like myself. But instead he lied about a “revenue neutral” guarantee while funneling his carbon taxes directly into social programs he never could have funded otherwise. This is exactly the enviro-socialism that right wingers warn about- for Dion to do this played exactly into the right’s hands.

  3. Mark,

    I think this sort of vote splitting is a relatively recent development in Canadian politics, caused partially by the rise of the number of parties and the fragmenting of politics, although there have been some precidents like in the 1920s when you had various 3rd and 4th parties.


    I should make clear that I was no more a fan of our parliamentary system when the Liberals were on top. I’d like to see some form of proportional representation.

    About Dion’s Green Plan, I’d ask those members of the blog who are more alert to energy issues (i.e., Mr. Hafner) to comment.

  4. An interesting analysis with which I generally agree. A few comments, however.

    At point 3 Mr. Heer writes “… in Quebec, where the Conservatives failed to pick up a single seat. ” What he means is that the Conservatives failed to pick up any new seats: they held onto 10 seats in the province. The only province where they failed to pick up a single seat was Newfoundland and Labrador, where the popular Progressive Conservative premier campaigned against them.

    In both 4 and 2 Mr. Heer describes the Liberal party as left of centre. This really depends on where the centre is placed. In a US context they certainly would be left of centre, but then so would many Conservatives. In the Canadian spectrum they really are centrist. Their economic policies are essentially right, tempered with some left rights and social welfare policies (although on the latter they have become more and more parsimonious in practice over the last 15 years, as Mr. Heer suggested).
    Such parsing is not simply an academic matter. Although reworking the system toward something proportional would be good, such plans are rejected in much of the press, by the Conservatives and the Liberals, and twice by provincial electorates (although in rather unfair contests). The standard response in the press and in the Liberal party (and elsewhere) is that to properly defeat the Conservatives some uniting of the “left” is necessary. As by far the largest party in this “left”, the Liberals would surely demand and receive the greatest voice. But in issue after issue, from trade to labour to environment (including the “Green Shift”) to taxation to foreign policy the liberal position is not left, and often closer to the Conservative position than that of the other apparently left parties.
    I realise Mr. Heer is not advocating some unite the left policy, but to cast the Liberals as somehow close to the left is to inadvertently legitimise this position.

    In his response to Mark Mr. Heer suggests that “this sort of vote splitting is a relatively recent development”. On the contrary, one could argue that it is the standard form for Canadian politics from before Confederation in 1867 through to the present. One of the putative causes of Confederation was the repeated failure of Canadian colonial assembly governments, all of which were coalitions of the four or five parties in the colony at the time. 100 years later, in the period from 1957 to 1980 Canada had 10 elections, six of which ended in minority governments, with balances of power held by a variety of third parties identified by both position on the political spectrum and regional identification.
    The key problem here is that since 1926 and the King-Byng affair it has essentially been impossible for coalitions of parties to form or attempt to form government Federally (although some coalitions have formed provincial governments).

  5. The points that James Muir makes are fair enough. But I’d say that if the Liberals are not a left-wing party then the Conservatives are not a right-wing party (nor are the NDP or Greens left wing). The fact is all the major Canadian parties accept 1) the market economy and private property as well as 2) some for of a welfare state. The ideological compass is thus very narrow and terms like left and right have only a slight usefulness.

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