Election preview: Canada

Canada, Australia’s northern hemisphere cousin, goes to the polls tonight, with the government of Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau seeking a second term of office.

Many countries (as readers of this blog will be well aware) have bad electoral systems. But it’s hard to point to a developed democracy where the system works quite as badly as it does in Canada.

It’s the same one as used in Britain, India, Pakistan and a number of other former British possessions – single-member districts with first-past-the-post voting. It’s never a good system, but it’s especially bad for Canada because there are multiple parties with strong regional differences.

To explain what I mean, I’ve constructed a table showing Canadian election results going back to 1988, the last election before the emergence of the Quebec Bloc. I’ve classified all the parties as either left-of-centre (mostly Liberals, New Democratic Party and Greens) or right-of-centre (mostly Conservatives and their predecessors), with a separate column for the Quebec Bloc:

% Left % Right % Bloc
1988 52.7 46.5
1993 49.8 35.1 13.5
1997 50.2 37.8 10.7
2000 51.1 37.7 10.7
2004 57.0 30.0 12.4
2006 52.3 36.6 10.5
2008 51.3 37.9 10.0
2011 53.6 39.8 6.0
2015 62.7 32.2 4.7

So in nine elections, the left has won a majority of the vote every time, except for 1993 when it fell fractionally short (it won the election in a landslide). Since the emergence of the Bloc, the left has never outvoted the right by less than 12 points, and this year will be no exception.

But if you were to think this shows unbroken political dominance by the left, you’d be very wrong. There’s almost no correlation between voting strengths and electoral outcomes. Four of the nine elections produced a right-of-centre government: two with absolute majorities and two with the Bloc holding the balance of power.

Last time around, at the fourth attempt, voters finally elected a centre-left government. Trudeau’s Liberals won an absolute majority – 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons – with 39.5% of the vote. The NDP and Greens had 23.1% of the vote between them but won only 45 seats. The opposition Conservatives won 99 seats for their 31.9% and the Quebec Bloc fell to an all-time low of 4.7% and ten seats.

One of Trudeau’s leading promises was the introduction of electoral reform to remedy this insane state of affairs. But you will not be surprised to learn that, once having had the system work in his favor, he changed his mind. In 2017 the commitment was dropped.

That’s not the only reason why Trudeau’s popularity has fallen. A major scandal early this year led to the resignation of his attorney-general and another minister, and an adverse finding against Trudeau by the ethics commissioner. His image as a principled idealist has been badly tarnished.

Nonetheless, the opposition Conservatives have failed to make up much ground: opinion polls show them stuck in pretty much the same place as four years ago. That’s partly because of a divisive leadership contest two years ago: social conservative Robert Andrew Scheer was narrowly chosen as the new leader, and the man he beat, the more libertarian (but also anti-immigration – what is it with these people?) Maxime Bernier, left to start his own party, the People’s Party of Canada.

The People’s Party is only polling in the low single figures, but it’s evidently taking some votes from the Conservatives. The NDP is also polling at around its 2015 levels, close to 20%. In keeping with much of the rest of the world, the Greens are about the only ones making gains, with their vote on track to more than double to a little under 10%.

The Quebec Bloc is also likely to recover slightly from its 2015 nadir. On the whole, though, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for discerning voting intention, since it bears so little relationship to seats won.

There will again be considerable tactical voting between Liberals, NDP and Greens as voters try to work out which of them is better placed in any given seat. Last time that produced a dramatic late swing from NDP to Liberals. If that happens again, Trudeau will be re-elected.

If the left vote is badly split, however, the Conservatives could finish ahead of the Liberals. And if the Quebec Bloc – with a vote only in the single digits, but concentrated in one province – does well, it’s possible that it may emerge with the balance of power.

At least this time if the electoral system beats Trudeau, he will only have himself to blame.


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