Let’s Be Consistent About It

House of CommonsIf you are a Canadian who has just awaken to the notion that 39.63% of the popular vote should not yield a majority government, take some time to learn that this is NOT a new problem. If you fail to do so, you will be accused of being a partisan sore loser. So please, indulge in a little history lesson.

It’s quite simple, really. All that matters in the first-past-the-post system is winning a plurality in a riding, slim as it may be, and scoring the highest number of pluralities. With 50% + 1 pluralities (currently = 155), you’ve got yourself a majority government and it doesn’t matter that it’s not “fair” since you got far less than 50% + 1 votes in your favour. There is no mechanism under first-past-the-post to take into consideration the popular vote or the strength of those pluralities. The rules of first-past-the-post don’t give a rat’s ass about that.

Sidebar Before You Further…
What Does “Over-representation” Mean?
In an ideal electoral system, one would expect that a party receiving 40% of the overall popular vote would get roughly 40% of the seats in the legislative assembly. In other words, if there are 100 seats, 40% would give 40 seats. But in first-past-the-post, a party can get considerably more or fewer seats than would be expected. A party winning 52 seats with 40% of the vote would be considered over-represented by 12 seats, or 12%. Similarly, a party winning only 26 seats with 40% of the vote would be considered 14% under-represented. When Frank McKenna’s Liberal took all 58 seats in the New Brunswick legislature in 1987 with 60.39% of the popular vote, the total percentage of votes for each of the other parties was considered their under-representation: 28.6% for the Progressive Conservatives and 10.6% for the NDP.

Slim these pluralities can be! On May 13, a judiscial recount led another seat in Québec to move into the NDP column. Indeed, with a difference of only 9 votes, the NDP candidate defeated the Conservative incumbent, bringing the number of NDP seats in Québec to 59 and reducing to 5 the number held by the Conservatives. The Bloc Québécois, the sovereignist party that crested twice at 54 seats (1993 and 2004) and even held Official Opposition status from 1993 to 1997, now holds only 4 seats in the House and is being stripped of its official party status, while the Liberals, once dominant in Québec, hold the province’s remaining 7 seats.

Except that Québec is nothing like Alberta, the land of massive Conservative pluralities and popular vote. There, 66.82% of the popular vote for the Conservatives delivered them all but one of the province’s 28 seats. But even such a decisive majority gets warped in our first-past-the-post system, for indeed, how can two-thirds of the popular vote deliver 96% of the province’s seat — a 29.6% over-representation? That being said, the over-representation of the NDP in Québec is even greater: the 42.9% popular vote for the NDP delivered 78.7% of the province’s 75 seats, which is a whopping 37.8% over-representation.

In Québec, the biggest “victim” of the NDP surge and first-past-the-post system is by far the Bloc Québécois, which scored the 2nd-best popular vote (23.45%) but, seat-wise, came in 4th after the Liberals and the Conservatives, thus rendering it 18.1% under-represented in the House. With 16.52% of the popular vote, the Conservatives came in 3rd but, while they are also 3rd in the seat standing, they are 9.85% under-represented. For their part, the Liberals, with their embarrassing 4th place finish in the popular vote (14.16%), managed to come in 2nd in the seat standing but are still 4.83% under-represented, which remains quite an under-achievement for a party that once dominated in Québec prior to the Bloc and the 1984 to 1993 blip in favour of the Progressive Conservatives. All that being said, however, there is irony (or retribution if you’re particularly unkind): the biggest Québec victim of first-past-the-post this time around profited richly from that system in the past, achieving an over-representation high of 27.2% in 2008 and a low of 10.8% in 2000.

Not taking into account the over- and under-representation that occurs under first-past-the-post has rendered many blind to emerging trends. For example, if the NDP in Québec were to maintain its low-40% vote in 2015 but that vote were to drain into and become concentrated in the Montréal area, it would win fewer seats and could become under-represented. However, the most conspicuous blind spot resulting from not keeping an eye on the over/under-representation ball is not seeing strength where it exists. In Québec, the right-leaning ADQ was under-represented by 5.7% in 1994, 11.0% in 1998, and 15.0% in 2003. The signs of the ADQ rising were in plain sight but the story wasn’t told by the party’s seat standing, namely 1, 1, and 4, respectively. There was shock when the ADQ rose to Official Opposition status in Québec City in 2007, with 30.8% of the popular vote, 41 seats, and only 2% over-representation. Unfortunately for the ADQ, it revealed itself “not ready for prime time” while acting as the Official Opposition, and it was decimated some 18 months later: 16.4% popular vote, 7 seats …but 10.8% under-representation. Therefore, it would be foolish to think that the right-of-centre in Québec is a spent force, just as it is foolish to assume that the BQ’s collapse on May 2 spells the end of the sovereignist movement.

There’s been a lot of groaning among non-Conservative voters since May 2 about how a marked minority in the popular vote nationwide, namely 39.63%, has given the Harper Conservatives their first majority. For that, we once again have the first-past-the-post system to thank as well as the fact that Canada has not had a U.S.-style two-party system for nearly a century. Until we adapt the voting system to reflect what has been Canada’s political reality for a very long time, fake majorities will continue to be a fact of life, not to say a source of great disatisfaction among non-partisans of the victor.

It saddens me, however, that it took the decimation of two parties and the rise of the current Conservative brand to elicit so much more interest in considering an overhaul of the way we go to the polls. I can actually understand why staunch Conservatives are accusing of hypocrisy those of us who are now raising our voices in favour of a form of proportional representation. I have been a proponent of this approach since the days when the Liberals were in seemingly perpetual cycle of “fake” majorities, and my position wasn’t the result of being a Dipper and seeing the NDP scoring far fewer seats than what would be expected based on the popular vote. No, for me, it has always been about lack of fairness and a distaste for Orwellian doublespeak that leads to calling something “a majority” when it is anything but.

From 1957 to 2011, there have been 19 federal elections that yielded:

  • 4 [Progressive] Conservative majorities (1958, 1984, 1988, 2011)
  • 5 [Progressive] Conservative minorities (1957, 1962, 1979, 2006, 2008)
  • 6 Liberal majorities (1968, 1974, 1980, 1993, 1997, 2000)
  • 4 Liberal minorities (1963, 1965, 1972, 2004)

Of the 10 majorities in that period, only 2 were real: Diefenbaker’s in 1958, with 53.66% of the popular vote, and Mulroney’s in 1984, with 50.03% of the popular vote. But even those were warped by the first-past-the-post system:

  • Diefenbaker’s was over-represented by 24.9%
  • Mulroney’s by 24.8%.

The biggest first-past-the-post screw-up was Joe Clark’s 1979 Progressive Conservative minority: not only were the PCs over-representated in the House by 12.3%, but they also loss the popular vote by 4.2% against the Liberals!

But for those of you who just woke up to the unfairness of “fake” majorities, be sure to digest these figures before going on the warpath. Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majorities were:

  • 1993: 41.41% popular vote; 18.6% over-representation
  • 1997: 38.46% popular vote; 13.0% over-representation
  • 2000: 40.85% popular vote; 16.3% over-representation

Stephen Harper’s 2011 Conservative majority, with 39.63% of popular vote (i.e., more than Chrétien’s in 1997), is 14.3% over-represented in the House.

So you can see how easy it is to be accused of hypocrisy by gleeful Conservatives: Just because you may have only recently figured out that the first-past-the-post system is not serving us well, that has been the case in this country for nearly a century.

Are We Really That Ahistorical?

Jack Layton in CommonsEverybody except the elected members of the NDP seem to have concluded that the NDP reaching Official Opposition status within a majority parliament means that it has less power in the House of Commons than it did as the 3rd opposition party holding the balance of power within a minority government. Even the much-respected Chantal Hébert restated this affirmation in one of her Toronto Star columns this week.

As usual, Hébert brings up more valid points than most other pundits as to why this will be the case. For instance, she points to the facts that many of the MPs now in the Commons have operated within the strident environment of the last three minority governments, and that the opposition in the now Conservative-dominated Senate is in fact Liberal, not NDP. But unlike other pundits, she does not put much emphasis (thankfully!) on the relative youth and inexperience of the NDP caucus, which is an argument that’s already getting old.

As a keen observer of the political arena throughout my adult life, I don’t dismiss outright such assertions. However, I also remember other majority governments that were not exactly cake walks for the governing party. For instance, in 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives secured the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history, reducing the opposition ranks to only 71 seats: 40 Liberals, 30 NDP, and 1 independent. But from that little core of 40 Liberals emerged what became known as the “Rat Pack” — Official Opposition members who managed extremely well at becoming a thorn in the side of the governing PCs by finding and exposing one PC scandal or faux pas after the other and raising a lot of dust not just in Parliament, but in the mind of the Canadian public. For its part, the prominence of the then 3rd-place NDP rose to the point that not only did Ed Broadbent become the most popular federal party leader but also that party recorded its best result ever (until 2011) in the election that followed in 1988, raising its seat count to 43.

What’s more, much has been said about how the perceived or actual vote splitting in 2011 was similar to what was seen in that 1988 election, dubbed the “Free Trade” election. The incumbent Progressive Conservatives were in favour and both opposition parties were against. Therefore, voters who were against free trade split their vote between either the Liberals and the NDP. Had they voted for who turned out to be the second-place finisher (mostly the Liberals in Ontario eastward and the NDP west of Ontario), the Liberals would have won a minority government with 61 more seats than the 83 they actually won while the NDP would have won 20 more seats, taking them to 63.

In case you’re thinking that I’m pulling these numbers out of my ass, check out these calculations based on the actual results. You can even identify the exact ridings where vote splitting has occurred. To understand how I came to these numbers: In all the ridings where the PCs won with less than 50% + 1 of the votes, if the second- and third-place finishers were the Liberals and the NDP, I gave all the votes of the third-place finisher to the second-place finisher. Again, some would correctly argue that not all votes to the third-party finisher are that easily transferrable; however, the election of 1988 was focussed on that one issue of free trade, and votes to either party were an irrefutable rejection of it.

This analysis gives a good indication of the shortcomings of an electoral system based on the assumption of having only 2 major parties when there are in fact 3 or more. However, I believe it also demonstrates that there is NOT a simple correlation between the size and the strength of the combined opposition in the House of Commons. A relatively puny opposition from 1984 to 1988 lead to one of the most divisive and historical election against a governing party that dropped from 50% to 43% of the popular vote and had become distrusted by a majority of Canadians, albeit not quite as large a majority as the one following the 2011 election, but then the field in 2011 was even more crowded with the Bloc Québécois pulling just under 900,000 votes (roughly 6% nationally).

Although I expect growing pains for the NDP and its large caucus of newbies, I would think they would have to royally shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly to lose all the gains the party has made in 2011. Assuming that they will do badly is as big an assumption as believing the Liberals will rebuild in 4 years rather than go the way of the Progressive Conservatives after their humiliation of 1993 (when they went from a governing majority to only 2 seats in the Commons). Nothing is certain yet. But I’m hoping that members of the new Offical Opposition might grow well into their job and manage somehow not only to reduce the Conservatives’ fervour but also bring forward legislation that the Conservatives could not afford to ignore if indeed they wish to cling to power. In fact, that may be a danger for the NDP in that it may not get the credit come the 2015 election. Unless, of course, it becomes so effective that the stamp will be unmistakably its own, not the Conservatives’.

Been There, Done That, Want the T-Shirt Back

Weigh InA little over seven years ago, I wrote about having reached almost 200 pounds and what I planned to do to lose weight. I met with great success back then and managed to keep the weight completely off until 2009.

When I arrived in Montréal in April 2008, my weight fluctuated between 168 and 172 pounds on my scale that always adds a few pounds. But then life changed in August 2009. And through some kind of feeble-minded rebellion and lack of interest in cooking for myself, I either ate out or ate take out all the time. And I do mean, all the time.

As a result, this year I reached the high 180s. That’s still not as bad as in 2004 — it’s a good 10 pounds less, in fact. But in view of how I’ve been feeling otherwise in recent months, I’ve come to the conclusion that my self-image being in the toilet is one of the many contributing factors. I know cognitively that it’s superficial and vain, but I need to recognize the sentiment and address it if it’s really bothering me that much.

So, last Monday night, I went on my first major grocery shopping trip since I don’t remember how long. I got salad and meat and fruits and vegetables and not a single bit of snack food. Fortunately I like munching on baby carrots.

I had managed to keep off the weight for so long by controlling my intake of empty carbs. I wasn’t an Atkins or South Beach fanatic or anything like that; I simply didn’t consume carb-rich foods every meal. Not only did I not feel deprived, I also never felt overstuffed — a feeling with which I’ve unfortunately rebecome acquainted.

Already I lost 2 pounds. I still allow myself a reasonable portion of Basmati rice with my main meal. But for the next little while I’ve sworn off bread, bagels — oh my gawd that’s so hard in Montréal! — and potatoes, and I’m being reasonable with portion sizes. If it’s possible for me to continue losing about 2 pounds per week, as I did back in 2004, I could be near or at my 172 target by July — or at least on the “right” side of the 170s.

The lowest I ever reached on my ungenerous scale (even once since I’ve been in Montréal) is 164. On my mom’s scale, which she swears in 100 percent accurate, I’ve often seen myself below 160. Therefore, I’ve often wondered if I could reach and keep 160–162 on my scale. But that might be asking for too much of myself. All I know is that I have items of clothing that I cannot comfortably wear right now, and I refuse to buy new clothes at this point.

Late last summer, a panhandler/hustler in the Village tried to get my attention and called me Hey, le Gros! He actually called me le Gros! That, of course, could mean “big guy” in French in that “hey boss” kind of way, especially since I’m certainly not the fattest guy to hang out in the Village. And really, why should I even think twice about what a panhandler said, right?

Except that it hit me the wrong way. The jury’s still out on whether it’s because I’m thin-skinned these days or that it hit too close to my perceived truth. But if it’s the latter and I don’t like it, I have to do something about it …because I know I can.

Been there, done that, and I want the T-shirt back!

City I Love; City I Fear

Echangeur TurcotThere are probably a few dozen valid theories as to why the infrastructure in Montréal is in such sad shape. Age, shoddy construction, and poor maintenance figure prominently on the list. The collapse of the La Concorde overpass on September 30, 2006 in Laval, just north of Montréal, was the tragic wakeup call signalling that time had run out and the problem could be ignored no longer.

Subsequently, it was found that the Turcot Interchange, pictured above, had reached the end of its useful life. Completed in 1967, today it not only handles 5 to 6 times the traffic for which it was designed, but it also has been found to have structural design flaws in addition to having concrete tumbling from it.

In recent weeks, taking the métro from my place to downtown or the Village has become a very attractive proposition. In February, the Rue St. Jacques exit on Autoroute 720 westbound — the exit just before the Turcot — was closed until July due to the construction of the new McGill mega hospital. The alternate exit became Queen Mary, which is the first from the Décarie Expressway after the Turcot and also my exit. Then, a water main break last month on the Décarie service road required a dreadful detour to get onto the southbound Décarie Expressway towards to Turcot. And finally, the westbound exchange on the Turcot from the 720 to the 20 was reduced to one lane; it would seem support rods were never installed (or at least not properly) when the damned thing was built in the ’60s!

While all this was happening, a report came out declaring that some spans on Canada’s busiest bridge, the Champlain connecting Montréal to the south shore, could collapse in the next 5 to 10 years. Major repairs are now underway, but it’s generally agreed that the bridge needs to be replaced. Memories of the La Concorde collapse are preventing everyone from dismissing these claims of possible collapse.

Crossing the river further west on the Mercier Bridge requires nerves of steel. Under repair since I moved here three years ago, it has seen little chunks of the deck crash into the river below. Southbound truck traffic is currently banned.

The Autoroute 30 bypass of Montréal is expected to be completed in 2012, but no one truly believes that’ll be the case. That means many trucks in transit through Montréal must continue to employ either the Champlain and Turcot or Autoroute 40 (called the Metropolitan through Montréal) that crosses the middle of the Island of Montréal. Truck traffic will probably always be significant on Autoroutes 20 and 40 in the city because of the many industrial parks found alongside each, but the bypass will eliminate many cars and trucks that needn’t come onto the Island.

I realize that driving around in a big city is almost always a nightmare, but here in Montréal, the fear of structures collapsing underneath you is very real. And what gets on my nerves is how slowly things that need to get done are getting done. Residents who have been living in the shadow of the Turcot for more than 40 years are an irritant at best. Of course in an ideal world, there would be more use of public transportation; however, when a structure like the Turcot has been there for so long and has become so necessary, this is not the time for wishful thinking and suggest scaling it back!

Contrary to what some might believe, the population in the metropolitan area of Montréal is still growing. When these structures were designed in the early 1960s, the metro population was 2.2 million; it is now at least 3.6 million, and unlike the métro, those structures have not aged gracefully. Ironically, the Victoria Bridge, opened in 1859, is probably the safest southbound route off the Island. Perhaps we should take a good look at how things were built back then and apply the knowledge to the new structures that now need to be built.

Precisely What We Didn’t Want

On the morning of May 3, about 60% of Canadians woke up with precisely the federal election outcome they didn’t want: a Conservative majority government.

Federal party leaders

But, at the same time, the outcome was filled with surprises:

  • an historic breakthrough of the NDP, going from 4th party in the House of Commons with only 37 seats to Official Opposition (2nd party) with 103 seats;
  • the same NDP taking 59 of Québec’s 75 seats, which is more than the Bloc Québécois’ highwater mark of 54 back in 1993 and 2004;
  • the decimation of the Bloc Québécois to only 4 seats in the Commons, thereby stripping it of official party status;
  • the unexpected defeats in their respective riding of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe to the NDP and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to the Conservatives;
  • the entry of the Green Party through party leader Elizabeth May in her riding in British Columbia.

The vote counting was barely over that many started talking of a “merger of the left” (that is, between the NDP and the Liberals) in order stop the vote splitting between the two that allowed the Conservatives to win a simple plurality of votes in some ridings. On Facebook, someone created a page upon noticing that there were 14 ridings where the race was so tight that just a bit more than 6,000 votes made the differrence between a minority or majority Conservative government.

As intriguing and compelling as that theory is, it is, in my opinion as someone who has studied election results very closely, a bit off the mark. It is true that such a slight shift could have made a difference, but it doesn’t take into account the historical trend in those ridings, plus merely adding the votes of the candidates losing to the Conservatives assumes that those votes are flexible and interchangeable. This approach made sense in the 1990s and early 2000s when the right had splintered from the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform/Alliance, as the sum of the two did represent the vote on the centre right. But there was never such a “divorce” between the Liberals and the NDP; the NDP did not spring out of the womb of the Liberals as the Reform/Alliance had of the PC’s.

So, what I really wanted to know, based on the election results of 2011 and 2008, is whether or not there was bleeding of votes from one party to another opposing the Conservatives that led to actual vote splitting between those two parties and resulted in the Conservtives to come from behind and win enough ridings to tip them into majority territory. Thus I devised a formula that:

  1. eliminated the ridings the Conservatives already held going into the 2011 election;
  2. eliminated the ridings the Conservatives won in 2011 with at least a 50% + 1 vote majority;
  3. found the percentage of votes that “leaked” from the third- to second-place party from 2008 to 2011;
  4. based on the total number of votes in 2011 in each riding, calculated the actual number of votes that moved from the second party to the third (and may have even placed the third party in 2008 the second party in 2011), and finally,
  5. if the sum of the above number and the actual number of votes received by the second-place party was greater than the number of votes received by the Conservatives, vote-splitting was deemed to have occurred.

Interestingly, I also arrived at 14 ridings, but a much higher number of votes that had split, namely 46,496. While that may deflate the bubble of adherents to what I’m calling the Facebook theory, it still represents a mere 0.32% of the 14,723,980 valid ballots cast.

My full analysis can be found here. It concludes that, of those 46,496 votes, only 1,273 moved from the Liberals to the Greens and the remainder moved from the Liberals to the NDP, thereby unseating the Liberal incumbent. Eight of the 14 ridings are in Toronto, where the Conservatives made major gains, but so did the NDP — all at the expense of Liberal incumbents. So, had voters in those eight ridings stayed with the Liberals instead of riding the NDP orange wave, the likes of Ken Dryden and Martha Hall Findlay would still be sitting members of Parliament.

In short, the bleeding of 45,223 votes from the Liberals to the NDP in 13 of those ridings, including my hometown of Moncton, and 1,273 from the Liberals to the Greens in one of those ridings, gave us a 166-seat Conservative majority instead of a 152-seat Conservative minority.

And, of course, if we had a workable form of proportional representation (i.e, a MMP or “mixed-member proportional” system as I prefer and as advocated by the 2004 Law Commission looking into electoral reform in Canada), the Conservatives would be nowhere close to a majority with their 39.63% of the popular vote nationally.

Caution is advised when considering these tables, as they are extrapolating from the actual data from the 2011 election which was a first-past-the-post mode of voting. It is entirely possible that, if given 2 votes, voters might choose a candidate from one party as their local MP and a candidate from another party as their regional MP. That said, the tables below consider the popular vote, retain two-thirds of the seats as FPTP for local MPs, and redistribute the remaining third of the seats for the regional MPs according to a formula that takes into account local seats won to assign a proportion of regional seats so that the final result is a closer reflection of the popular vote.

Federal election 2011: Scheme A
Scheme A divides the country by its provinces and territories, but per the recommendations of the 2004 Law Commission that studied electoral reform, it divides Québec and Ontario into two and three regions respectively. Unlike the commission’s recommendation, however, the three territories are grouped as one region, thereby keeping 308 seats in the Commons.
Reg. Tot. Conservative Party of Canada New Democratic Party of Canada Liberal Party of Canada Bloc Québécois Green Party of Canada Conservative Party of Canada New Democratic Party of Canada Liberal Party of Canada Bloc Québécois Green Party of Canada
NL 7 1 2 4 0 0 2 2 3 0 0
NS 11 4 3 4 0 0 4 4 3 0 0
NB 10 8 1 1 0 0 6 2 2 0 0
PE 4 1 0 3 0 0 2 0 2 0 0
QC1 38 5 30 0 3 0 7 20 3 8 0
QC2 37 0 29 7 1 0 4 20 6 7 0
ON1 35 25 7 3 0 0 18 9 8 0 0
ON2 35 27 7 1 0 0 18 10 7 0 0
ON3 36 21 8 7 0 0 15 9 12 0 0
MB 14 11 2 1 0 0 8 4 2 0 0
SK 14 13 0 1 0 0 8 5 1 0 0
AB 28 27 1 0 0 0 20 5 2 0 1
BC 36 21 12 2 0 1 17 12 5 0 2
No 3 2 1 0 0 0 2 1 0 0 0
Ca 308 166 103 34 4 1 131 103 56 15 3

Federal election 2011: Scheme B
Scheme B divides the country into nine regions of more or less 35 ridings per region. This scheme retains the divisions for Québec and Ontario into two and three regions respectively, as recommended by the 2004 Law Commission that studied electoral reform, and results in keeping 308 seats in the Commons. Atlantic (Atl.) is Newfoundland and Labarador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island; Prairies (P-NU) is Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut; AB-NT is Alberta and the Northwest Territories; BC-YK is British Columbia and the Yukon.
Reg. Tot. Conservative Party of Canada New Democratic Party of Canada Liberal Party of Canada Bloc Québécois Green Party of Canada Conservative Party of Canada New Democratic Party of Canada Liberal Party of Canada Bloc Québécois Green Party of Canada
Atl. 32 14 6 12 0 0 12 10 10 0 0
QC1 38 5 30 0 3 0 7 20 3 8 0
QC2 37 0 29 7 1 0 4 20 6 7 0
ON1 35 25 7 3 0 0 18 9 8 0 0
ON2 35 27 7 1 0 0 18 10 7 0 0
ON3 36 21 8 7 0 0 15 9 12 0 0
P-NU 29 25 2 2 0 0 17 8 4 0 0
AB-NT 29 27 2 0 0 0 21 5 2 0 1
BC-YK 37 22 12 2 0 1 17 12 5 0 3
Ca 308 166 103 34 4 1 129 103 57 15 4