Democracy in Canada

Two items of interest this week from Canada. Firstly, a result at last from the provincial election in British Columbia, which we reported on two weeks ago.

Postal votes failed to change the outcome in any seats; the New Democrats (NDP) improved their margin in their closest seat, Courtenay-Comox, from nine votes to 189. So they stayed on 41 seats, two seats behind the incumbent Liberals, with the Greens, on three seats, holding the balance of power.

After a week of negotiations, the NDP and Greens announced this morning that they had reached an agreement whereby the Greens would support a minority NDP government for a full four-year term. Liberal premier Christy Clark now has the option of putting that agreement to the test on the floor of parliament, or just resigning and letting NDP leader John Horgan take office.

No doubt there will be the usual complaints that government is being held hostage by a minority party. But since the Liberals had only 40.4% of the vote (just 0.1% ahead of the NDP), any claim that they “won” the election is pretty hollow.

If you focus on the fact that the Greens have only three seats, then it might look as if they’re wielding a disproportionate influence. But that’s the fault of the electoral system: in fact they had 16.8% of the vote, a remarkable performance considering that most of their votes were always going to be wasted. Electoral reform will now be a key item on the new government’s agenda.

The second Canadian event was the leadership election for the Conservative Party, the main federal opposition party. It was a real cliffhanger.

The Conservatives elect their leader by a single nationwide ballot of party members (with both postal and attendance voting), but instead of one-member-one-vote it’s weighted to give an equal weight to each federal electorate – apparently to avoid the western provinces, where party membership is high, being able to swamp the rest.

With 13 candidates and about 141,000 votes received, the favorite, Maxime Bernier, led throughout the count until the very last elimination, at which point he was narrowly overtaken by Andrew Scheer, who was Speaker under the last Conservative government. Scheer finished with fractionally under 51% of the vote.

The new leader appeals to the socially conservative wing of the party, whereas Bernier is a social liberal and a more aggressive free-marketeer. According to analyst Éric Grenier, regional divisions were less important than usual; Scheer is from Saskatchewan, out on the prairie, while Bernier is from Quebec, but neither is really typical of his region. Alberta voted for Bernier, while Scheer was strong in the Atlantic provinces.

With the next election due in 2019, Scheer has a big task ahead of him to try to overtake the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. Opinion polls show Conservative support hovering around 30%, at least ten points behind the Liberals. Although the previous leader, Stephen Harper, won three elections courtesy of the electoral system, the centre-right hasn’t actually won majority support since 1984.

And if that were not difficult enough, the leadership election has exposed deep divisions in his party. As the Globe and Mail’s editorialist remarks, “The Conservative Party was set adrift by Mr. Harper’s subsequent departure, and it remains adrift today. Its only uniting ideal is the desire to return to power …”.

For now that looks a remote prospect.



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