Canada’s opposition needs to beat the system

As you might have heard, Canada will be going to the polls on 19 October, with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper seeking a fourth term in office. There’s a consensus that it won’t be easy for him. As the Guardian reports:

In addition to a slump that has damaged his reputation as an economic manager, Harper will fight his fifth campaign without the help of several key ministers who left the Tory front benches in the months prior to the election call. Polls show that only about 30% of Canadians intend to vote for the government …

What you won’t pick up from the reports is the fact that Harper’s three terms have been a gift from the electoral system. The voters are more like a bit player in this: for almost a decade they’ve been trying to get a centre-left government, but without success. The BBC even mentions the possibility that “the Conservatives could hang on to the government without the support of a majority of the nation’s voters,” as if there would be something new about this.

Britain’s general election three months ago showed up the vagaries of first-past-the-post voting, with David Cameron’s Conservatives winning a majority of seats on just 36.9% of the vote. But at least there one can make the case that a majority of voters preferred the centre-right. Not so in Canada.

You can check all the figures yourself, but Canada’s three centre-left parties – the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens – have won a majority between them at each of the last three elections. In 2006 they won 52.2% of the vote but only 132 of the 308 seats; in 2008 it was 51.2% and 114 seats; and last time around, in 2011, they managed 53.4% for an improved but still inadequate total of 138 seats.

Each time the Conservatives have wound up in government. In 2011 they actually won an outright majority, with 166 seats for their 39.6% of the vote. As I said at the time, “If democracy means anything, it means that things such as this shouldn’t happen.”

We know, at least roughly, why this state of affairs continues: electoral systems are devised and maintained by the winners, who almost by definition have much to lose and little to gain from reform. It’s harder to explain why the media are so complicit in keeping the public in the dark about what’s going on.

Most of the extensive commentary (positive or negative) on the Harper government’s policies proceeds on the assumption that they represent a deliberate choice of Canada’s voters. But to the extent there’s any deliberate choice, it’s completely the opposite.

Now the opposition parties have one more chance, not just to beat the government – all the signs are that they will do that comfortably – but to beat the system.


3 thoughts on “Canada’s opposition needs to beat the system

  1. Thanx for this. As an Aussie ex pat in Canada it is great to read some analysis that helps to explain Canada’s voting systems.

    There seems be a strong mood in the electorate that it is time for a change after 3 terms of the ‘Progressive’ Conservatives led by Harper. The opinion polls currently have c 30% for each of the Progressive Conservatives which is like Australia’s Coalition, the National Democratic Party which is like a cross between the Greens and Labor and the Liberal party, which is like the Australian Democrats. The Bloc Québécois and the Greens have about 5% each.


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