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’.