Can’t Get Crazier Than That

It seems I get myself in a knot every federal election, and this one is no different, unfortunately.

Federal party leaders

For the uninitiated to Canadian politics, it’s important to remember that we do not vote directly for the Prime Minister; we vote for a member of parliament for our electoral district, with each candidate representing a particular party. As such, francophones better name the current “season”: they refer to it as les élections (plural), for there are in fact 308 distinct races across the country. And the leader of the party that has won the most races is the first to be called by the Governor-General to form a government and gain the confidence of Parliament.

When one party wins more races (or “seats”) than the sum of all the other party race victories combined, we end up with what is called a majority government. But in the previous three federal elections (2004, 2006, 2008), the first-place party has won fewer seats than all other parties combined. Thus we end up with a minority government, or as the British call it, a hung parliament. In order to maintain the confidence of Parliament, the government must have either a formal coalition with another party (or other parties) in the House of Commons, or an informal case-by-case “alliance.” The Liberal minority elected in 2004 and the two subsequent Conservative minorities have operated under the latter scenario.

In my mind, this explanation doesn’t seem terribly difficult to grasp, unless voters get into that “damsel in distress” mindset I decried in my previous post.

I’ve written and researched extensively the perverse effects of having 308 “elections” in what is called a first-past-the-post system (FPTP) like ours. The worse effect is that all the votes cast for losing candidates in a given district (named “riding” in Canada) amount to nothing. The only votes that count are the votes that elected the winning candidate in any given race, and the only thing that counts when forming a government is which party has won the most races.

When there are more than two viable winners in a given race, there’s a very high risk of what’s known as “vote splitting,” where the sum of the second- and third-place finishers may be somewhat or considerably higher than the total of the first-place finisher. In some ridings, the same first-place winning party consistently gets more than 50 percent of the votes, so if that winning party happens not to be your party, you can vote for your party in good conscience yet not expect anything in return, like “winning” your election. On the island of Montréal, there are assured seats for the Bloc and assured seats for the Liberals, with only a few seats liable to swing.

But that was until this election campaign.

A week is an eternity during a campaign, thus what seemed like an obvious outcome 10 days ago may not be so obvious now and may not end up being the outcome on election day in a week. For instance, nobody saw coming the rise of the NDP, especially in Québec. In fact, if some small-sample polls can be relied upon, the NDP may be polling first on the island of Montréal. But is this a real change of heart that will materialize in the privacy of the polling booths next week? Or worse, will this lead to the kind of vote-splitting, this time on the centre-left, that gave the Liberals three consecutive majorities from 1993 to 2000 and this time would lead to a Conservative majority?

Chantal Hébert is by far one of the most respected political commentators in Canada. I have rarely if ever disagreed with her analyses because she merely calls it like it is; whoever pulls a good or a bad political stunt, regardless of party affiliation, she points it out. A few weeks ago, before the sudden rise of the NDP, she suggested that the Liberal stronghold of Mount Royal across the street from me (for which PM Trudeau was the MP and has always been Liberal) could turn Conservative given their strong Jewish candidate, the heavy representation of the Jewish community in the riding, and the Conservatives’ strong stand in defense of Israel. Similarly, on my side of the street in the riding of Westmount–Ville-Marie, I had no worry until a few days ago about voting NDP since I figured the Liberal will get in no matter what. But what if all the NDP votes this time come at the expense of the Liberal but not in sufficent number for either to win the riding? Then the Conservative candidate could sneak up from behind.

Other more partisan commentators, like Liza Frulla on RDI’s Le Club des ex, don’t believe that there’s such a thing as strategic voting — at least not enough to warrant much discussion of it. I’m not so sure, though. If I were in Moncton where the Liberals and Conservatives are very close, I’d probably vote my second choice, namely Liberal. In Halifax, I’d stick to my first choice. But right now, in Westmount–Ville-Marie, am I in a position where I could re-create the 1988 vote splitting that gave Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives their second (albeit reduced) majority? Is this riding so deeply Liberal red that I needn’t worry, or is an orange tsunami sweeping over it as in all of Montréal? It’s hard to imagine tony Westmount ever going NDP, but then there’s neighbouring Outremont which nobody before 2007 could have imagined being NDP.

I hate having only one vote and how that vote won’t count if I choose a losing candidate. More than ever before, we need a mixed-member proportional system in this country. We’ve had too many “wrong winner” elections or crazy results in the past decades both federally and provincially — and by that I simply mean that too many governments have been formed despite not reflecting or downright contradicting the popular vote.

1979 PC minority
35.89% of the popular vote gave Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives a minority with 136 seats, but 40.11% of the popular vote gave Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals only 114 seats.

1984 PC majority landslide
Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won 50% of the votes but got 75% of the seats in the House of Commons.

1988 PC reduced majority
Vote splitting between the Liberals and NDP, who together got 52% percent of the vote in what essentially turned out to be a referendum election for or against free trade with the United States (with the PCs for and the other two strongly against), gave the two parties only 126 seats against the PCs 169 seats won with 43% of the vote.

1987 New Brunswick Liberal sweep
Frank McKenna’s Liberals remarkably earned 60% of the popular vote but was rewarded with 100% of the seats in the provincial legislature.

1998 Parti Québécois majority
With nearly 1% less of the popular vote, the incumbent Parti Québécois formed a strong majority of 76 seats against the Liberals’ 48 seats and the ADQ’s single seat.

The examples of over-rewarding the winning party abound. No party earning less than 50% of the popular vote should ever have a legislative majority. Simple as that.