More of the Same

So! Canada went through another federal election — the third in about four years — and this one yielded essentially the same results as the previous: a Conservative minority government. But with 37.65% of the popular vote compared to 36.27% in the January 2006 election — a mere 1.4% increase nation-wide — the Conservatives managed to get elected in 19 more seats. In other words, having won 46.43% of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives’ overrepresentation this time compared to the popular vote is 8.78%, whereas, by winning only 40.26% of the seats after the 2006 race, their overrepresentation was a mere 3.99%, which made them at the time the weakest minority government in Canada’s history.

2008 Federal Election Results
Oct. 24 judicial recount
One seat from the Bloc Québécois has shifted to the Liberals.

Again, if we had a form of proportional representation like most democratic countries — Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. remaining the only standouts — the Conservatives would not have advanced as they did this time. In fact:

  • the Conservatives would be in the same spot, give or take a seat or two;
  • the Liberals would have gone down in standing to roughly where they went (plus maybe five seats);
  • the Greens, this time having well passed the generally accepted 5% threshold of the nation-wide popular vote, would have 20 seats instead of being shut out of Parliament, and
  • the number of votes that would not have yielded a seat whatsoever would have gone from about 1 million of a total of 13.8 million (7.22%) to a mere 64,000 or so (0.46%).

You can study the results at, a site I developed (but still haven’t finished), which takes actual election results and recalculates what they could have been using the d’Hondt method that has been adopted in many countries. I personally have always favoured a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system over the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system because it’s mathematically and conceptually a heck of a lot easier to grasp.

Among the caveats to keep in mind when looking at these calculations:

  • it can be problematic to take results from a “First Past the Post” (FPTP) election because voters may have behaved differently at the polls in a “Mixed-Member Proportional” (MMP) election, where they could vote for different parties locally and regionally, so, as a corollary:
    • the recalculation at my website assumes no such vote splitting, and
    • it assumes there was no strategic voting (which there definitely was in this election);
  • the percentage of seats that should remain FPTP could be as high as 75% or as low as 50% (the website allows you to adjust that percentage to see various scenarios);
  • the percentage of minimum popular vote nation-wide to be eligible for regional seats has been set as low as 2 or 3% in some countries and as high as 10% in other countries (again, the website allows you to adjust that percentage), and
  • there might be a variance of a few seats if the formula were applied by regions instead of nation-wide.

Perhaps the only possible gain of this election, for which the voter turnout was the lowest in the modern history of Canadian federal elections, is that many woke up October 15 feeling frustrated by how over 937,000 votes (or nearly 6.8%) nation-wide can lead to one party (the Greens) obtaining no seat in Parliament, while roughly 442,000 more votes (or 10%) nation-wide can lead to another party (the Bloc Québécois) winning 49 seats. Or how yet another party (the NDP) can get 1.135 million more votes than another party (the Bloc Québécois), but find itself with 12 fewer seats despite polling just over 18% of the national popular vote.

While the highly negative tone of this lacklustre election campaign was likely the main contributor to so much voter apathy, the fact many voters saw first-hand the extent to which their vote can sometimes have no impact on the final outcome has, as well, certainly generated much more talk of electoral reform on online discussion forums. Indeed, a voter like me in the riding of Westmount–Ville-Marie knew all along that it would go Liberal even if that party had nominated Jackson as its candidate, while non-Conservative voters like Matthew in a riding like Guelph had to wrestle with the notion of strategic voting in order to achieve what they perceived as a “less bad” outcome. The fact a party that draws at least two per cent of the popular vote nationally or at least five per cent in a given riding receives $1.95 per vote is often not enough encouragement to vote with one’s conscience.

Ontario’s MMP Referendum

In addition to electing a new government, Ontarians will be asked to vote for or against electoral reform on October 10. Indeed, they will be deciding whether or not to move to a “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP) system similar to New Zealand’s and many other European countries.

Many political analysts are predicting that this referendum will fail. Some point to the McGuity Liberal government’s failure to come clearly in favour of the reform as a reason why it will fail, while others suggest that the government has not done enough to educate citizens on how the system would work. The threshold for this referendum, like in previous referendums held in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, has also been set very high: 60 percent of the popular vote province-wide and a majority in at least 60 percent of the ridings. While the PEI referendum was a spectacular flop — and then this year’s general election under the old FPTP system yielded, as usual, yet another lopsided majority government — the BC referendum garnered 57 percent of the popular vote — not enough to effect electoral reform in that province but enough not to bury the notion entirely. Interestingly, the alternate system being considered in BC is the “Single Tranferable Vote” (STV) system (similar to Australia’s, I believe), which even someone like myself who is well-versed in electoral reform finds difficult to grasp compared to MMP, yet it came that close to passing.

To me, the high threshold being imposed on these referenda is both problematic and ironic. I’m to first to recognize that a 50-percent-plus-one victory in a referendum — be it for this matter or the secession of a province from the rest of the country — is not sufficient because it would give the winning side a very weak mandate. However, a double supermajority rule is not only extreme, but it is also a highly cynical move by politicians wishing to keep the defective status quo in that it imposes conditions that the current system never achieves and that the new system would never attempt to achieve. In short, reform opponents are quite happy with a system that can give huge majorities on the weight of 38 percent of the vote but don’t want to use that same system to effect a change to the way citizens vote.

That really annoys me, just as the misinformation opponents present annoys me. Like:

What are the most important reasons for voting for/against electoral reform?
MMP is the wrong reform for Ontario. It creates problems far more serious than the proportional problem it wants to solve. [Ed. note: Like what? You’re screaming doomsday but not substantiating that claim.]

Why is this particular reform important/not the right one?
MMP is fundamentally anti-community. It shifts political power from the voters in local ridings across the province to party headquarters at Queen’s Park. [Ed. note: First of all, except for independents, each candidate in each riding is already being selected by the party they represent, sometimes through an election of party members in the riding but sometimes by acclamation or by appointment. And secondly, brandishing the term “anti-community” is very deceptive because it implies the current system is pro-community, which it is not because many citizens are now being forced to vote “strategically” by voting for a party that they deem “less bad” for their community.]

What one thing in particular would you like people to know about MMP?
MMP would introduce 39 “list” members of the legislature. One-third of the legislature would be made up of politicians accountable only to political parties. These list members would not run in local elections, would not have to look after a single constituent’s problem and would not have to face the local electorate in the next election. [Ed. note: List candidates would be known to voters. These candidates would then be accountable to constituents of the whole province, although thoughtful parties would ensure that the ordering of the list would provide local representation of the party where it’s less likely to earn one of the FPTP seats. For instance, if the Conservatives are unlikely to win an FPTP seat in northern Ontario, they could list someone who’s from northern Ontario first so that they can at least have some kind of representation in that part of the province when that elected candidate goes home.]

Do you feel MMP would lead to more or less stability in the electoral system?
The existing system produces both majority governments and minority governments. MMP is deliberately designed so that majority government would be extremely rare… [Ed. note: Rest of bullshit answer not reproduced here. For reason MMP yields mostly minority governments! A majority government should mean a government that the majority has voted for! And minority governments in jurisdictions that have a form of MMP have not been unstable. Spare me from the “I” countries argument — Italy and Israel; they don’t have a rule like is being proposed in Ontario for the reasonable minimum threshold of the popular vote a party must achieve to be assigned regional seats. What’s more, wild swings from one party’s majority to another party’s majority are much more destablizing in terms of policies.]

Are there misconceptions about MMP? If so, what are they?
That it is fair. [Ed. note: That’s all you can say? That’s pretty weak! And you’re implying that the current system is fair? It’s anything but! If your beef is that MMP is NOT fair, then let’s agree on another term: fairer. Or what about less imperfect?]

It’s worth your while to read the whole Q&A.

I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised on Wednesday if the political pundits are proven wrong and MMP does pass in Ontario. If it does, then expect other Canadian jurisdictions to consider it more seriously than they have so far. But I’m afraid that the voter apathy FPTP has bred will lead Ontarians to believe the NO-side scaremongers.

The Québec Surprise (or Was it a Surprise?)

I stayed up late last Monday night to follow the Quebec provincial election. Given that I don’t have cable TV, I had to follow the incoming results on the Web while listening (alternately) to the live feed from Radio-Canada or CBC Radio Montreal. The otherwise excellent website crashed spectacularly about an hour into the results coming in, thus why I alternated between French and English coverage.

Absolutely no one, including Gregory Morrow whose crystal ball is usually pretty clairvoyant, expected the spectacular rise of the right-leaning Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which consistently ranked third in the polls right up to the eve of the election. Indeed, no one quite expected this:

Party Elected Vote Share
LIB 48 33.08%
ADQ 41 30.80%
PQ 36 28.32%
QS 0 3.65%
GRN 0 3.89%
OTH 0 0.26%

Through much of the evening, the ADQ was first in the “elected or leading” category in front of the incumbent Premier Charest’s Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ). By the time the PLQ took back a weak first place, Radio-Canada declared that Charest himself had lost his own seat in Sherbrooke, only to reverse its call an hour later. By the end of the evening, as a result of the first three-way race in recent memory, Québec had given itself its first minority government since 1878, with the Parti Québécois (PQ) finishing third in its worse showing in the popular vote since 1970.

Many political commentators are viewing the results as the end of the sovereignty movement in Québec and, combined with the unexpected 25% performance of the federal Conservatives during the 2006 federal election, as a major rightward shift of the Québec electorate. However, like many others, I believe that last Monday’s vote is the result of a far more complex convergence of circumstances whose impact has yet to sink in.

Particularly striking is the divide between the island of Montréal and the rest of Québec. Not only did the ADQ not win a single seat on the island, but it also obtained only half the popular vote that it received elsewhere in the province. However, this “big city versus elsewhere” phenomenon is not exclusive to Québec, although like just about everything else regarding Québec, the flavour of this divide in that province is distinct. Here in Nova Scotia, the political divide between Halifax versus the rest of the province is equally apparent. Similarly, in the last federal election, we saw how Canada’s three largest cities — Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver — did not elect a single Conservative (until Vancouver Kingsway MP David Emerson defected to the Conservatives shortly after being elected as a Liberal).

Equally if not more significant in Monday’s results in Québec is the electorate’s distaste for the dichotomy in which it has been forced for more than 30 years. By most accounts, the PLQ’s performance in government in the last four years was lacklustre. However, there was no taste for returning the PQ to power with its promise to hold another referendum on sovereignty which most agree would meet with failure. Tired of a simplistic either/or choice, the people of Québec saw in the ADQ’s autonomist position — vaguely defined as it is — as a safe place to park their vote, not to mention that the populist edge the PQ once enjoyed has now gone to the ADQ. For let’s be frank here: even though sovereignty is the PQ’s main plank, not everyone who ever voted PQ did so because they wanted “leur propre pays”. Recall that after the Yes side scored only 40% in the 1980 sovereignty referendum, the PQ went on to form a massive majority government the next year with about 49% of the popular vote.

Simply and uneloquently put, the judgement of the people of Québec last Monday was a blunt Fuck You to the two parties that have dominated provincial politics for over the last three decades. They needed to tell the PLQ that they thought it sucked lemons in the last four years, but they didn’t want to register their protest by ushering in a government fixated on sovereignty. I believe they voted for a change in the political paradigm; I’m not convinced they suddenly decided to embrace the ADQ’s (half-articulated) right-wing policies. But given that most polls showed the ADQ below the 30-percent mark and that it entered this election with only 5 seats at the dissolution of the legislature, many saw a vote for the ADQ as a safe vote: one that would express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, but one that was unlikely to lead to the ADQ forming the government.

Monday’s surprise is perhaps that more voters than expected followed the above line of reasoning once at the ballot box. Or, as some have suggested, perhaps many ADQ-leaning individuals who were polled stated they were undecided because they didn’t feel it “respectable” to say out loud that the favoured the ADQ. Others still are pointing out that an inherent flaw with phone polls today is that they only reach people with a land line.

As you may have guessed, though, given that I am a staunch supporter of proportional representation, I believe Monday’s surprise would have been lessened had PR been in place in the last decade. Unlike what Monday’s results seem to suggest, the ADQ did not come out of nowhere. In fact, by refusing to grant the ADQ official party status after the 2003 election because it hadn’t achieved 20% of the popular vote, the PLQ and PQ have arguably been the architects of this misperception. However, now that elections are three-way races in Québec, Monday results are pretty close to proportionality. In the past, Québec has had grossly overweighted majority governments, and as recently as 1998, it had a huge PQ majority when in fact the PLQ had won the popular vote. The way I was able to recalculate the 1998 results, there should have been a PQ minority at best (which admittedly demonstrates that even a proportional system would be imperfect, although certainly not as flawed as our current FPTP system).

2007 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 33.08% 48 38.40% +5.32% 44 35.20% +2.12%
PQ 28.32% 36 28.80% +0.48% 38 30.40% +2.08%
ADQ 30.80% 41 32.80% +2.00% 40 32.00% +1.20%
PVQ 3.89% 0 0.00% -3.89% 2 1.60% -2.29%
QS 3.65% 0 0.00% -3.65% 1 0.80% -2.85%
OTH 0.26% 0 0.00% -0.26% 0 0.00% -0.26%
2003 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 45.99% 76 60.80% +14.81% 59 47.20% +1.21%
PQ 33.24% 45 36.00% +2.76% 44 35.20% +1.96%
ADQ 18.18% 4 3.20% -14.98% 22 17.60% -0.58%
OTH 2.59% 0 0.00% -2.59% 0 0.00% -2.59%
1998 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 43.55% 48 38.40% -5.15% 55 44.00% +0.45%
PQ 42.87% 76 60.80% +17.93% 57 45.60% +2.73%
ADQ 11.81% 1 0.80% -11.01% 13 10.40% -1.41%
OTH 1.76% 0 0.00% -1.76% 0 0.00% -1.76%

Notice that ADQ support has gone from 11.8% in 1998 to 18.2% in 2003 and 30.8% in 2007, for a net gain of 19%. For the PLQ, the downward difference between the 2003 and 2007 vote is about 13%. For its part, however, the PQ has dropped more than 14% between 1998 and 2007, and the ADQ gains over the years have been at the expense of both the PLQ and the PQ. The existing FPTP system has been hiding the trends that have been evident over the last decade when viewed through other lens.

Some may take issue with the allocation of 2 seats to the Greens (PVQ) and 1 seat to Québec Solidaire (QS) in 2007 given that they achieved less than 5% of the popular vote province-wide. However, it matters to bear in mind that the D’Hondt formula for proportional representation — which I explained several times before, most notably in this post — would divide a total geographical area into regions, with regional seats to be distributed by region. Hence the ADQ in Montreal/Laval, which obtained only 15.16% of the popular vote in 2007, would be awarded 4 regional seats instead of being shut out as it was on Monday, but the PVQ and QS, with 6.74% and 6.32% respectively in that region, would receive their regional seats for being well above the widely accepted 5% threshhold. Besides, surely 300,000 out of nearly 4,000,000 votes should yield more than nothing in the assembly.

Once again, I don’t pay much attention to naysayers of proportional representation whose chief arguments against it are that it would almost always lead to minority governments and would place more importance on parties for regional seats. It matters to look at the whole schematics (i.e., how regional seats would be assigned, fixed election dates, and the removal of confidence votes that would precipitate an election). In fact, to me, the strength of PR yielding mostly minority governments is that it would cease to hide the real trends under the veil of artificial majorities and be more stable than nearly seismic shifts to which FPTP is prone, all the while better expressing the will of the people.

The Left-of-Centre’s Turn

It’s widely agreed that the split on the right flank of the political spectrum through the 1990s is what allowed Jean Chrétien to form three consecutive Liberal majority governments in Ottawa. However, while a poll this week shows the Conservatives are back at the 36% standing that earned them the right to form the current minority government, it also reveals that the Liberals are tanking at 27% and the NDP and Greens are tied at 13%. The Greens in Canada are in fact more centre-right than left, but because the environmental issue has long been associated to the left and the Liberals and NDP are focussing so much attention on the environment, we are now seeing today the same splittering on the left that we saw in the ’90s on the right (which today means “anything left of the Cons,” which isn’t too difficult).

But what is perhaps the greatest source of concern for the Liberals is how, according to this latest poll, Fortress Ontario is crumbling, with 40% saying they would vote Conservative were an election held today. With a standing like that in vote-rich Ontario and with our FPTP electoral system, a minimal majority could almost be within reach for the Conservatives. That, or another minority with a ’90s-style splintered opposition, but this time of the left.

Lord’s Day Over: Number Recrunch

The results of New Brunswick’s provincial election on Monday “is another classic illustration of how voters say one thing with their ballots but the [current] system ends up giving them something different,” says the executive director of Fair Vote Canada.

I found the report of New Brunswick electoral reform commission. Taking note of the four regions the commission proposes* and correcting a mistake in the calculation formula in my spreadsheet (which I’ll amend on all other spreadsheets one day), I recrunched the numbers.

Proportional representation isn’t perfect, but it would indeed be a lot better. With my calculation fix, the NDP would still have been shut out of the N.B. Legislature, and with barely 5% of the vote, I begrudgingly admit that’s how it should be. Consequently, the recrunch shows that the election would still have yielded a slim majority …but for the Progressive Conservatives, not the Liberals.

Actual: Lib: 9; PC: 5; NDP: 0
MPP: Lib: 7; PC: 7; NDP: 0
Central **
Actual: Lib: 9; PC: 4; NDP: 0
MPP: Lib: 7; PC: 7; NDP: 0
Actual: Lib: 7; PC: 7; NDP: 0
MPP: Lib: 7; PC: 7; NDP: 0
Actual: Lib: 4; PC: 10; NDP: 0
MPP: Lib: 6; PC: 8; NDP: 0
Actual: Lib: 29; PC: 26; NDP: 0
MPP: Lib: 27; PC: 29; NDP: 0

In other words, not only would the results have been opposite, but they would have better reflected the popular vote, even though only 1,359 votes separate the PCs and the Liberals province-wide.

* Being from New Brunswick, the four regions I had created had an unequal number of ridings but, in my mind, were geographically and “culturally” logical. For instance, knowing how the roads are in this province, I thought it would impractical for a regional MLA to cover a region like “North,” which takes in Grand Falls/Grand-Sault in the northwest and Shippagan in the northeast. Similarly, having a region with Fredericton and Woodstock with Miramichi is not as “intuitive” to me as one with Fredericton and Saint John, although I realize my view would place two of three major centres in the same region. Sometimes, a strictly mathematical division is fair but not practical or responsive to cultural bonds. The “Brayons” of the northwest are very different from the “Acadiens” of the northeast even though both groups are francophone, not to mention that the northwest is in better shape economically than the northeast. But that said, I recognize that a mathematical approach is not as arbitrary and, thus, probably better.

** Extra regional seat to make region equally weighted.