Canada gets one thing right

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has been returned to office for a second term, but has lost his parliamentary majority and will need the support (or at least the acquiescence) of one or other of the smaller parties in order to govern.

If you’ve read my preview, or any of my other accounts of the Canadian electoral system over the years, you’ll guess that this bears only a tenuous relationship to what Canadians voted for.

The opposition Conservatives (centre-right) led the field with 34.4% of the vote, up 2.5% on their 2015 result. Trudeau’s Liberals (centre to centre-left) were close behind on 33.1% (down 6.4%), and the New Democratic Party (centre-left) again placed third with 15.9% (down 3.8%). (Official results are here; the CBC has nice maps and graphics.)

But the ordering of seats looks completely different. The Liberals were well ahead on 157 of the 388 seats (down 27), followed by the Conservatives on 121 (up 22) and the Quebec Bloc (autonomists) on 32 (also up 22). The NDP was further back on 24 seats (down 20), despite winning more than twice as many votes as the Quebeckers.

The Greens, who had 6.5% of the vote (up 3.0%), improved to a still meagre tally of three seats (up two, one of which they had won earlier this year in a by-election). There was also one independent elected, but the new People’s Party, with 1.6% of the vote, failed to win a seat.

In a situation of minority government, the raw numbers are not as important as the possible combinations. How well did the electoral system do in reflecting which combinations of parties had (or did not have) majority support?

The answer is, badly. This table conveys the picture:

Parties Majority votes? Majority seats?
Libs+NDP No Yes
Libs+NDP+Greens Yes Yes
Libs+Bloc No Yes
Libs+Bloc+Greens No Yes
Libs+NDP+Bloc Yes Yes
Cons+NDP Yes No
Cons+Bloc No No
Cons+Bloc+NDP Yes Yes
Cons+Bloc+Greens+PP Yes No

But the electoral system did get one thing right – probably the most important thing. The majority of Canadians voted, as they have in every election since 1984, for a left-of-centre government, and they will get one. And it will not have a single-party majority.

There’s no suggestion that Trudeau will formally go into coalition, and the NDP will not co-operate with the opposition to unseat him. But it will exact a price and may cause some frustration to his legislative program.

That’s probably not a bad thing. Trudeau has not been a bad prime minister, but he has often given the impression of being too full of himself and unwilling to listen to advice. The electorate has delivered a reality check that could do him a lot of good.

And if voters are really lucky, the hung parliament could put electoral reform back on the agenda, so that future elections might deliver more of what they ask for.

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