If 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.