Election preview: Canada

Canada goes to the polls today (that is, tomorrow morning Australian time) in an election that is expected to end the tenure of prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party – although, as I explained a couple of months ago, voters have consistently preferred the centre-left, and Harper’s near-decade in office has been “a gift from the electoral system.”

I don’t feel the need to preview the election in any detail, since Antony Green has already done so in his typically comprehensive fashion. Here’s his general background post, and here’s the first of his detailed regional posts, on the Atlantic provinces. I just want to add a few remarks on the dynamics of party support.

The key difference marking out Canada from the otherwise similar Australian electoral system is the absence of preferential voting. The House of Commons (corresponding to our House of Representatives) will have 338 members, all elected in single-member districts by first-past-the-post voting.

There are three parties that matter: the centre-right Conservatives and two centre-left parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats (NDP). At the start of the campaign, the three had comparable levels of support, all somewhere near the 30% mark; the Quebec Bloc and the Greens are well back in the mid-single figures. (Wikipedia tracks the opinion poll results.)

In Australia, that would point to a very comfortable victory to the centre-left, since they would largely exchange preferences. Not so in Canada, where competing parties in the same part of the spectrum just means a lot of wasted votes.

But voters eventually work things out; if the parties can’t get their act together and agree to avoid three-cornered contests, the voters will have to solve the problem for them. So regardless of their personal preference between Liberal Party and NDP, centre-left voters stampede to whichever of them looks to be in the lead as polling day nears.

For the last few weeks that’s clearly been the Liberals, and so the NDP, through no particular fault of its own, has seen the ground rapidly fall away from beneath its feet. According to Éric Grenier’s poll averages it’s now at 22.2%, well behind the Liberals on 36.5% and the Conservatives on 31.1%.

He projects that to give the Liberals 141 seats to the Conservatives 120 and NDP 71. But the consolidation on the centre-left that’s driving the poll movements is likely to continue once people reach the voting booths, so the Liberals could well win a majority in their own right. If not, they are likely to form a minority government with NDP support.

That will finally put voting reform on the agenda. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has promised to abolish first-past-the-post voting in his first term; there is as yet no definite alternative, but a “special all-party parliamentary committee” is to study options. A New Zealand-style switch to proportional representation is possible, but more likely would be some variant of Australia’s system.

Unless of course the polls are drastically wrong (not unknown in Canada), in which case Stephen Harper could yet find a way to hang on. But the betting is heavily against it.

Most of the results will come in at around lunchtime tomorrow, eastern Australian time. Check out the Elections Canada website here.

3 thoughts on “Election preview: Canada

  1. I had been thinking a few months ago that Canada was heading for an NDP-led government with Liberal backing, and have been a bit stunned at the rapid decline in the NDP’s numbers. But you picked it – that this decline would continue right on all the way to the polling booth and give Trudeau a majority.

    A year ago he seemed a bit of a lightweight – maybe being relatively out of the limelight (with the NDP officially the Opposition) helped him.


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