Lord’s Day Over

The New Brunswick provincial election yesterday has led to showing the door to Progressive Conservative Premier Bernard Lord, but by no means was he creamed. With less than half a percentage point’s difference in the popular vote in favour of the PCs, Shawn Graham’s Liberals have formed a majority goverment: 29 Libs, 26 PCs, 0 NDP. The NDP’s showing under leader Allison Brewer was a disgrace: from a hair under 10% of the popular vote and 1 seat in 2003 to a hair above 5% this year and no seats.

Of course, I took an hour tonight and crunched the number in my trusty MPP spreadsheet. One way of looking at the data with MPP lens would have given New Brunswickers a PC minority: 27 PCs, 27 Libs and 2 NDP. It would have been a PC government due to their incumbent status, unless the Libs and NDP had agreed to a coalition and the Lieutenant-Governor called on them to form the government.

I’m still looking forward to the day when I have leisure time to create that website with tons of elections results, that would represent the data in different scenarios. But that won’t be for a while given the way things are going for me work-wise.

Mostly Lost a Little

Well, turns out that Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald’s quest to get a majority government has failed. The Conservatives needed to win two more seats to gain a simple majority, namely 27 of the 52 seats in the Legislature. But Rodney’s gamble didn’t pay off and, instead, the Conservatives lost two. For their part, the Liberals lost three and have slipped to well under 25 percent of the popular vote province-wide.

The five lost seats all went to the NDP, so although it didn’t succeed at forming government, the NDP emerged by far as the big winner of last Tuesday’s provincial election. In Halifax, Dartmouth and the extend suburb, the NDP has pulled about 48 percent of the votes. But the big story for the party is that it came in second in 15 ridings, meaning that it is becoming the de facto alternate to the Conservatives in this province. The riding of Queens on the South Shore, which has been Conservative for generations but in which there was no Liberal candidate this time, was won by the NDP. The neighbouring riding of Shelburne, which in 1998 came to a tie between the Liberals and the Conservatives, also went NDP, as did two of the three Pictou ridings, in the heart of the Conservative belt. In terms of seats and popular vote, this is the NDP’s best showing ever. As for the Liberals, some serious soul searching is in order. It seems that this party is failing to comprehend the extend of the damage on their “brand” following the widely detested Liberal government of the mid-1990s under the late John Savage. In the last eight years, the main political duality in this province turned to the Conservatives and the NDP — this after generations of it being between the Conservatives and the Liberals.

In terms of popular vote provincially, the results were:
PC: 39.56%; NDP: 34.86%; Lib: 23.23%; Green: 2.31%

In terms of seats, these showings translated to:
PC: 23; NDP: 20; Lib: 9; Green: 0

In terms of over-/under-representation in the Legislature:
PC: +4.67%; NDP: +3.60%; Lib: –5.92%; Green: –2.31%

These last figures compare favorably to the outcome of the 2003 election, which also yielded a Conservative minority:
PC: +11.76%; NDP: –2.15%; Lib: –8.40%; Others: –1.21%

Would a form of proportional representation, namely the MMP system I prefer, have led to a better reflection of the people’s will at the ballot box? Well, that would depend on how “regions” would be defined for the province. The fewer regions there are, the larger each region would be, and the larger the regions are, the better the chances of making an adequate adjustment.

Traditionally, the six regions (with the number of ridings in parentheses) have been defined as Annapolis Valley (6), Halifax-Dartmouth (17) Cape Breton (9), South Shore (7), Central (6) and Northern (7). In this manner, my predictive calculations would have given:

PC: 22; NDP: 17; Lib: 13; Green: 0
…for a Legislative over-/under-representation of:
PC: +2.75%; NDP: –2.17%; Lib: +1.77%; Green: –2.31%

However, after looking at the map of Nova Scotia as divided for the school boards, I would define only four regions: North (10), Metro Ring [or South] (18); East (11); West (13). With that setup, my predictive calculations would give:

PC: 20; NDP: 19; Lib: 13; Green: 0
…for a Legislative over-/under-representation of:
PC: –1.10%; NDP: +1.68%; Lib: +1.77%; Green: –2.31%

It would certainly be an oddity to have the winning party under-represented by 1.10 percent, but let’s put this number in perspective: in a 52-seat Legislature, that would translate into a half-seat under-representation. Given that an MMP system would consistently yield a more balanced representation — unlike FPTP which gave the Conservatives a majority of 30 of 52 seats on the weight of 39.2 percent of the popular vote back in 1999 — I am not prepared to let this minor mathematical fluke sink an essentially good idea.

And the Winner Will Be…

This Tuesday night, I’ll be watching TV and plugging in results in that handy dandy spreadsheet I prepared for the occasion.

Yes indeed, it’ll be election night in Nova Scotia.

Premier John Hamm stepped down as the leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives late last year, and the leadership race that followed brought Tory Cabinet Minister Rodney MacDonald to the head of his party (and de facto the province) this winter. Three months later, the 34-year-old fiddler and gym teacher from Cape Breton and new premier made the election call, obstensibly to get a mandate of his own and effectively ending the life of the Tory minority government that has withstood nearly three years in power.

On June 5, Corporate Research Associates released the results of a poll, conducted from May 23 to June 4, that shows the PCs and NDPs in a statistical dead heat. “The Conservatives are the choice of 38 per cent of decided voters, compared to 36 per cent for the NDP and 20 per cent for the Liberals, according to the survey results.” In other words, it looks like we’re heading towards another minority government in Nova Scotia, the colour of which could be blue or orange …but most likely blue. That said, it’s worth noting that the Conservatives formed their first government — a majority — quite by surprise in 1999 by capturing 29 of the 52 seats in the Assembly and 39.2% of the popular vote.

The MPP Tallying Project

The truth is, free time is not something I have a lot of these days. When I do find some, I’m more inclined to do nothing of great consequence, including putting off cleaning my apartment which is a total disaster zone. Instead I prefer catching up on my blog reading, renting a few movies, or visiting my “nephew” Jackson, BeeGoddessM and Stephanie‘s new puppy. (I also pay attention to what BeeGoddessM and Stephanie have to say when Jackson allows me. 🙂 )

However, the Harper government’s announcement recently that it would pass legislation to have fixed election dates have rekindled my interest in electoral reform. At this time, I’m particularly interested with the accusation of nay-sayers that the chief reason proponents want reform so badly is because it would heavily favour the party they support. However, an amount of number-crunching quickly reveals that a mixed member parliamentary (MMP) system would not only better represent the people’s will but also equally affect all parties favorably and negatively.

In order to demonstrate this point, I have been collecting riding-by-riding results of elections held federally and in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and QuĂ©bec in the last 20 years, entering these results in Excel spreadsheets, and applying Gregory Marrow’s “Option A” projection formula of an MMP system. It’s important to point out that his formula leads only to a projection, as it doesn’t account for individuals who would split their vote for a candidate from Party A on their local ballot but for Party B on their regional ballot. Indeed, the formula assumes that a vote for Party A under the current first-past-the-post system (i.e., the one and only local ballot voters get) would translate into a vote for Party A at the regional level as well. However, if given two ballots — one local and one regional — there would likely be less strategic voting (i.e., voting for a second-choice candidate because his or her party is more likely to win locally and thereby block the advance of a last-choice candidate who is equally likely to win). For instance, I could choose to vote for the candidate from Party B locally on the grounds that I like the candidate personally, but regionally I would vote for Party A, which is my “traditional” party.

My number crunching has shown that, while it is true that the NDP (federally) would have consistently emerged with more seats federally in the last 20 years, both the Liberals and the Conservatives (and the Parti Québécois provincially in Québec) would not have fallen out of grace as spectacularly as they have. The current system yields some truly perverse results.

  • The most striking recent instance at the federal level was the 1993 election that saw the Conservatives fall from a solid majority to a paltry two seats in Parliament (or 0.68% of the seats in the House of Commons), despite earning 16.06% of the popular vote nationally.
  • In 1993, again at the federal level, the Liberals picked up 60.34% of the seats with only 41.19% of the popular vote.
  • In 1984, it was the federal Conservatives’ turn to obtain 74.82% of the seats on the weight of 50% of the popular vote.
  • Provincially in QuĂ©bec in 1998, the Parti QuĂ©bĂ©cois formed a majority government despite getting 1% less in popular vote than the opposition Liberals.
  • And perhaps the most remarkable outcome in Canadian history was the 1987 general election in New Brunswick, which saw the Liberals snatch all 52 seats in the provincial Legislative Assembly.

But what I have found even more interesting is how the raw numbers can tell untold stories. For example:

  • Many were those who were surprised by how the Conservatives picked up 10 seats in QuĂ©bec after being unable to pick up any 18 months earlier. Granted, Conservative support in that province exploded from 8.8% to 24.6% from one election to the next. However, had an MMP system been in place both times, the Conservatives could have earned 7 regional seats in 2004 and a total of 17 seats in 2006. In other words, the surprise of 2006 would have been considerably lessened.
  • Also in QuĂ©bec, we tend to think that the federal NDP has never had a base of support in that province, but that isn’t true. In the 1988 “free trade” election, it got nearly 14% of the popular vote …but not a single seat. Under MMP, it would have obtained 11 of the province’s 75 seats. In the last decade, much of the left-of-centre vote has migrated to the Bloc QuĂ©bĂ©cois, whose positions are very much like the NDP’s except on the matter of QuĂ©bec’s position within Confederation.
  • Over the years, at both the federal and provincial levels, there has been significant pockets of support for parties we don’t associate with certain provinces, like the NDP in Alberta or New Brunswick, or the Liberals in Saskatchewan.

For political junkies like myself, these numbers mean something. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to whom they mean something. So if I ever find some spare time, what I’d like to do is import this raw data into an online database that could be easily queried, with or without the theoretical MMP projections. All the information is already publicly available, but it can’t be analyzed easily from event to event. I find it fascinating to discover how some ridings, either federally or provincially, as just not as blue or red or orange as we tend to believe them to be. Rather than simply looking at the number of consecutive times a party has won a riding and being shocked when the riding suddenly switches, it’s much more informative to investigate if another party has consistently come in second during that time, and within what margin.

For in the end, I am not among those who believe that parties are interchangeable, that they’re all equally bad. I think those who have come to take this view are disaffected because, for too long, we’ve allowed a system to yield governments that do not represent our will. It’s all too easy for any party to overestimate their political capital when they manage to get 60, 70, 80 or even 100 percent of the available seats in an assembly. Fair representation would ensure that no single party could emprint an agenda that a vast majority does not embrace.

Conservative Expediency

I wrote most of this post two weeks ago but left it unfinished among my drafts. I’m mentioning this only so you’ll know why I’m talking about such old news.

The federal Conservatives (and former Reform/Alliance parties) have always adamantly denied that they have some kind of “secret agenda,” and with the Liberals in need of being sent to the political grazing pasture to ponder the errors of their ways, Canadians have granted last January — although with much reserve — that perhaps the Conservatives are not as scary as the other parties have long depicted them to be. While I wasn’t happy with the decision of my fellow citizens, I found some solace in the fact the Conservatives were handed the smallest minority government in this country’s 139-year parliamentary history. They would have to set aside their more ideologically right-wing policies and govern by moving more towards the centre in order to extend the life of the new Parliament, for neither the opposition parties nor the electorate have an appetite for another federal election in the near future. But without a move to the centre on the part of the Conservative, the opposition parties — particularly the Liberals — might feel compelled to bring down the government even if they didn’t really want another election so soon.

Yet, from their very first day at the helm of power, Prime Minister Harper’s government has behaved exactly as Conservative opponents feared they would if given a chance. It’s not so much that the Conservatives’ “agenda” has been rife with scary reactionary stances, as it is the fact that it is riddled with startling hypocricies. When the new government was being sworn in, and despite professing for so long the need for Senate reform, Harper appointed to the Senate the national co-chair of their federal campaign, Michael Fortier, and made this unelected politican the minister of public works and government services — a move that has been largely overshadowed by the appointment of David Emerson — the Liberal-elected-cum-Conservative — as international trade minister.

These first moves harbingered what we could expect — and have seen — in the subsequent months. From bluntly reneging Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Accord to alienating the parliamentary press gallery, Canadians have seen that blatant political expediency is the hallmark of the much-feared “Conservative agenda”: get in and quickly change the rules once in. The Liberals were rightly accused of such expediency — recall the immediate cancellation of the helicopter deal when ChrĂ©tien came to power in 1993, which was the starting point of a long list. But what is bizarre to me is that even though it’s clear that history is repeating itself with a vengeance under this (neo)Consersative government, many polls indicate that Canadians, and most astonishingly Quebecers, would be inclined to elect a Conservative majority government if an election were held presently.

In Harper’s world, however, why wait for the next election to secure his hold on power? Expediently selecting one page from the platform of proportional representation proponents, Harper promised a few weeks ago to pass a law that would set fixed election dates. What’s crass about this proposal is the attempt to pass this notion as Harper’s willingness to abandon “a prerogative traditionally enjoyed by sitting prime ministers” to call an election anytime within a government’s mandate. But, effectively, if this law passed at this moment, it would assist in buttressing our country’s weakest minority ever without changing the other rules that would make minority governments viable.

Even though Harper conceded that “If the government is defeated, loses confidence, it’s obliged by the constitution to hold an election,” it’s difficult for anyone not to view the timing of the suggestion as suspect. It’s thinly veiled expediency indeed. And it illustrates perfectly the tone of the “hidden agenda” so many of us feared the Conservatives held. Personally I remain committed to the idea of seeing a form of proportional representation (PR) implemented at all levels of government, including federally, but I despise seeing this kind of cherry-picking of the points that would lead to this much-needed electoral reform.

Indeed, the notion fixed election dates is only one component of a PR system as outlined by proponents such as Fair Vote Canada and Gregory Morrow at democraticSpace. In fact, Morrow immediately slammed the Conservatives’ proposal as falling short. He likes fixed election dates as have been adopted recently in British Columbia because they “allow the government to plan its mandate with a real deadline in mind,” but reminds his readers that “It is essential that fixed election dates be introduced together with more strigent campaign finance rules.” And of course, fixed election dates do nothing to redress the problem of the misrepresentation of the people’s will at the ballot box.

Alternately, the response from Liberals and Conservatives towards true electoral reform has been tepid, as both have greatly benefitted from the current unfair system. Furthermore, many suggest that the only reason New Democrats and Greens are so in favour of such reform is because they stand to gain the most from a “Mixed Member Parliament” (MMP) system that would assign one third of the seats regionally. However, while this is true for the NDP in terms of number of seats based on electoral patterns in the last decade, the fact is that MMP would, overall, advantage and disadvantage all parties after every election. But that’s the topic of my next post.