Canada one more time

Canada goes to the polls tomorrow morning (Australian time) in an election called by prime minister Justin Trudeau two years ahead of schedule. Last time around, in 2019, Trudeau’s Liberal Party lost its parliamentary majority; this time he hopes to get it back.

The opposition Conservatives (centre-right) actually topped the poll in 2019 with 34.3% of the vote as against 33.1% for the Liberals (centre-left) and 16.0% for the New Democrats (NDP; leftish). But as those with any familiarity with the Canadian electoral system will expect, the seat totals were quite different: the Liberals finished ahead with 157, the Conservatives were back on 121 and the NDP on 24 were in fourth place – behind the Quebec Bloc, which won 32 seats from just 7.6% of the vote.

The Greens with three seats (from 6.5%) were the only other party to enter parliament, and there was one independent. Mention should also be made of the right-wing People’s Party, which scored only 1.6% but may have hurt the Conservatives by splitting their vote. It is polling much better now, in the high single digits, presumably because the Conservatives under new leader Erin O’Toole have shifted towards the centre.

The semi-random relationship between votes and seats makes prediction difficult. For most of the last two years, polling showed the Liberals with a clear lead. That fell sharply after Trudeau called the election: voters really do not like early elections, although the political class everywhere is slow to get the message. About a month ago the Conservatives hit the lead, and for the last fortnight they have been close to neck and neck.

As the last election indicates, the Liberals are probably a bit better placed than the Conservatives to turn votes into seats; their vote tends to be more evenly spread. For what it’s worth (probably very little), Trudeau also leads O’Toole in polls of preferred prime minister, although that lead too has narrowed sharply. But the chance of either side winning a majority looks very slim.

Assuming they don’t, it will be up to the NDP and the Quebeckers as to who forms government. The NDP, which is polling a few points above its 2019 result (although tactical voting means that has the capacity to change suddenly, as it did in 2015), has always supported the Liberals in the past and would probably do so again. But its leader Jagmeet Singh has carefully avoided committing himself, and the Conservatives’ shift towards the centre raises at least the possibility that the two might find common ground.

The Quebec Bloc is more of a wild card; its good result last time, after being almost wiped out in 2011, came as a surprise to most observers, and it may or may not be able to repeat it. It also generally leans toward the left, but it tolerated a minority Conservative government in 2006-08 and may do so again if the Conservatives manage to wind up with the most seats.

At this stage that seems the less likely outcome, and the betting is that the benefit of incumbency in the Covid era will be enough to save Trudeau from his own folly in going early. But the caprice of the electoral system could yet deliver a surprise. And if it does we may not know for some time, since a large fraction of the electorate has voted by pre-poll, which will not be counted until the following day.


8 thoughts on “Canada one more time

  1. ‘Assuming they don’t, it will be up to the NDP and the Quebeckers as to who forms government.’

    Not if things work out the way they typically have done in Canada. The most likely result (if no party wins a majority of seats) is a government formed by whichever party has the most seats, without explicit inter-party agreements. If the Liberals win the most seats (but not a majority), this will be reported in Canada as ‘the Liberals winning a minority’ and the existing Liberal government will probably just continue in office; if the Conservatives win the most seats (but not a majority), this will be reported in Canada as ‘the Conservatives winning a minority’ and probably the government will resign and the Conservatives will form a government. Explicit inter-party agreements have been discussed in the past and may be discussed in the future, but resistance from both Conservatives and Liberals to formalising them, although not absolute, is strong. Neither party is likely to want to wait around (and/or be perceived as waiting around) to get the word on government formation from the NDP and/or the BQ.


    1. Yes, you’re exactly right as a description of how things work (and indeed are working at this very moment). But that doesn’t change the fact that it really is the other two parties’ choice: they could put (in this case) the Conservatives in power if they wanted to. Altho the media won’t present it that way, Trudeau holds power by their sufferance.


      1. It’s only possible for the BQ and the NDP to vote the Liberals out if the Conservatives cooperate. No move against the (Liberal) government can succeed without the participation of the Conservatives, and on the past history it’s more likely that the Conservatives would allow the Liberals to remain in office than that they would cooperate with the NDP and the Bloc in a move against the government.

        The NDP and/or the Bloc are not going to make an offer to vote for whatever the Conservatives tell them and ask nothing in exchange, and as soon as they ask for something in exchange for their support, the Conservatives aren’t going to supply it. What’s more, if the Conservatives seemed on the point of making a deal with the NDP and the Bloc, the probability is that the Liberals would make the Conservatives a counter-offer and the Conservatives would accept it. The NDP and the Bloc can only be in a position to call the shots so long as the Liberals and the Conservatives are opposing each other, and the Liberals and the Conservatives would rather come to terms with each other than let the others call the shots.


      2. Sure, on any particular occasion the minor parties might pitch their price too high and end up with a grand coalition instead. That’s basically what happened in 2008-09, when the Conservatives were the largest party and the other three did a deal to force them out – the Liberals got cold feet and didn’t go thru with it. But I think they regretted it afterwards, and I think the Conservatives in the same position would be more ruthless. If the NDP & Bloc both went to O’Toole tomorrow and said “Have we got a deal for you!”, I think he’d be up for it. But they won’t.


  2. It’s a safe bet that most NDP voters would much rather have a Liberal government than a Conservative government and that, therefore, many of them would stop voting NDP if the NDP put a Conservative government in office and kept it there. For a deal like that to be worth it (in partisan terms) for the NDP, they’d have to extort a high price from the Conservatives. Just for example, if the Conservatives agreed to the introduction of PR, the deal might be worth it (in partisan terms) to the NDP. But that’s exactly the sort of price the Conservatives wouldn’t be prepared to pay! They’d prefer (and in partisan terms the calculation is unassailable) another term in opposition to the introduction of PR. The reason that things have mostly worked the way they have in the Canadian system is that the arrangement reflects interests which are genuinely shared by the Liberals and the Conservatives (who, let’s not forget, attract between them the votes of a majority of Canadian voters). They work together to keep the system the way it is not out of a lack of imagination but out of solid rational calculations that it suits them best.

    Please, prove me wrong! What you’d need to do to prove me wrong is show me the kind of potential deal between Conservatives and NDP which would genuinely be in the partisan interests of both. I can’t figure how that could be. As far as I can figure it, both the Conservatives and the NDP would be right to calculate that strictly from their own partisan points of view, there is no possible deal which would suit the partisan interests of both better than another term of minority Liberal government.

    The deal which fell apart as you mention did not fall apart because of mistaken calculations on the part of the Liberals, but because of reasonable calculations on their part, and on the part of the Conservatives. The Liberals were prepared to consider it while it was the best option for them; they backed out when the Conservatives were prepared to offer a deal which could reasonably be estimated to be a better one from the point of view of the Liberals (and which the Conservatives were prepared to offer because it was also better from their point of view).


    1. Oh look, don’t get me wrong, I completely agree it’s not going to happen. The NDP prefers to have the Liberals in power, and on the one thing that might produce agreement between the NDP & the Conservatives, namely electoral reform, the Quebeckers would be dead against. I do think, though, that if the Liberals had realised in 2008-09 that the result of backing down would be another 7 years of Stephen Harper, they would have stuck to the coalition deal, and I strongly suspect that if a similar occasion arises in the future they won’t be so squeamish.


  3. Well, you may be right about that specific scenario.

    Obviously it’s not up for a test now, because the Liberals are already in government and still have more seats than the Conservatives. If we get the 2008 scenario again, we’ll find out, I suppose.

    One specific point I didn’t make before is this: it’s practically certain that there are some Canadians who vote Liberal largely because they see it as the best way of keeping the NDP out, but who would otherwise prefer the Conservatives. I don’t know how many of them there are–it probably varies to some extent depending on the three-party voting profile of the riding (as Canadians call it)–but if the Canadian Liberals calculate that there’s a significant number of them, who they don’t want to antagonise by a coalition with the NDP (or even some less close but still explicit agreement), it seems to me a reasonable calculation. Of course, it’s not the only factor to be considered, and if they were to decide it was outweighed by others I suppose it’s possible they’d go for a deal, but I think it’s surely got to be part of the picture. (It occurs to me as I write this that it could be another part of the picture if the Liberals think keeping out the NDP is important to a significant number of their big donors. I have no idea where they raise money from.)


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