A Canadian postmortem

Results from last week’s Canadian election are now complete. The picture is substantially the same as in my earlier report: the Liberal Party of prime minister Justin Trudeau will continue in office, still without a majority of seats and still without winning a plurality of the vote.

The opposition Conservatives again topped the poll with 33.7% of the vote (down just 0.6% from 2019) and won 119 of the 338 seats (down two). The Liberals trailed slightly with 32.6% (down 0.5%) but won 159 seats (up two). Third place again went to the New Democrats (NDP) on 17.8% (up 1.8%) and 25 seats (up one), but the Quebec Bloc, with less than half as many votes (7.6%, unchanged) but highly concentrated, won more seats: 33 (up one).

The big loser was the Greens, who dropped from 6.5% to 2.3% and lost one of their three seats. The right-wing People’s Party more than doubled its vote, up 3.3% to 4.9%, but still won no seats. The single independent has retired, but one MP elected as a Liberal was disendorsed and will sit as an independent.

Only 23 seats changed hands, with most of the changes cancelling out. Liberal gains were mostly in the west of the country while Conservative gains were mostly in the east – due in part, no doubt, to the Conservatives choosing an easterner as leader. But regional differences remain strong, as does the urban/rural divide, with the Liberals heavily reliant on the urban vote.

In order for the Liberals to lose office the NDP and the Quebec Bloc would have to act together to put the Conservatives in, and that won’t happen. Both are philosophically more comfortable with the Liberals, and while they might try to rein Trudeau in a bit there is nothing the Conservatives can offer to make them both switch sides. (Electoral reform, for example, would appeal to the NDP but not, for obvious reasons, to the Bloc.)

There’s a sense (like last time) in which the electoral system got the right result: the majority voted for left-of-centre parties but didn’t give any one of them a majority, so a minority left-of-centre government is an appropriate outcome. But that correctness, such as it is, is a matter of chance rather than design. All too often it goes the other way.

So a very expensive and time-consuming exercise has produced essentially no change. Trudeau failed to win the majority that he wanted, but also was not seriously punished for the early election. It seems unlikely, however, that the Liberals will risk another election under his leadership; most probably there will be a changing of the guard before 2025. The Conservatives will also be subject to their usual internal warfare.

No-one, it seems to me, has hit on a perfect solution to the problem of unnecessary early elections. Some countries (mostly, but not exclusively, those with presidential systems) have fixed terms, which offer no escape route when parliament becomes dysfunctional. Others have terms fixed subject to stated exceptions; these are always open to political manipulation, but they at least provide some deterrent, although they may also create problems if the exceptions are drawn too narrowly.

Other countries leave open the option of early elections, but have strong conventions against using it other than in cases of genuine need – New Zealand is a good example. This works well, but is of limited use to countries with a different tradition. Conventions cannot be manufactured out of whole cloth; they arise from long observance, and many different politicians will have to do the right thing before it becomes established as a norm.

Trudeau, who in most respects has been a successful leader, conspicuously did the wrong thing here, just as he had done earlier on electoral reform. He will probably not be the last offender.

8 thoughts on “A Canadian postmortem

  1. I’m unconvinced by your assertion that Trudeau will “most probably” exit mid-term. He’s only 49. There are plenty of examples of Canadian leaders who have led their party for longer than a decade.

    On the subject of early elections, it’s interesting that though Canada has five year terms as against our three year terms, in the last two decades Canadian federal elections have been just as frequent as Australian federal elections. I suspect our fixed term Senate acts as a restraint here.

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    1. You could be right, David; I don’t think it’s a certainty that he’ll go, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t. It just looks like a government that’s running out of steam. I think it’d make sense to have a leadership changeover mid-term and give people a fresh face in 2025.

      The Canadian terms are 4 years, but yes, they’ve been more prone to early elections lately than we have. Fixed Senate terms would have something to do with it, but also the multi-party system in Canada makes it harder to win a lower house majority.

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      1. I was a little confused/unsure about the length of Canadian parliamentary terms. The answer turns out to be quite interesting. From Wikipedia:

        “The Constitution Act, 1867, provides that a parliament last no longer than five years. Canadian election law requires that elections must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth year after the last election, subject to the discretion of the Crown.”

        That would explain why the 2015 election came four and a half years after the 2011 election.

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  2. The Canadian electoral system worked well when two “national” parties battled it out with limited impact from the small socialist “commonwealth” party and the Quebec separatists. When multi-party competition is added to FPTP constituency politics the opportunity to waste votes and see winners garner seats with less than 37% of the primary vote dominates. The Conservatives are very unlikely to win nationally until such time as the NDP flounders to single digit figures and/or the Bloc do sufficiently poorly to see right of centre francophones drift back.

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    1. Thanks Noel! Yes, I think that’s right; the strength of the 3rd & 4th parties, plus their regional differences (particularly the fact that the Bloc’s vote is very concentrated while the NDP’s is dispersed), are what really bring out the absurdity of the system. But even back in 1988, for example, the right won a large majority even though most people voted for the left.

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  3. Part of Trudeau’s bad behaviour, both on electoral reform and calling the election early, was based on the hope that the Liberals could secure a majority of seats under plurality voting. That hope now looks forlorn, while the risk that the Conservatives will get back in with minority support is ever-present. Perhaps the Liberals will see sense and go for reform this time.

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    1. The Liberals as a party have done well under the existing system. If they calculate that change to the electoral system is unlikely to be in their partisan interest, those calculations are probably well-judged.

      I would be in favour of change to the electoral system, if I were a Canadian, but I would be making my calculations without reference to the partisan interests of the Liberal Party, and of course they are not going to be similarly indifferent.

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