Canada to the polls

Update: We can now remove the question mark. It’s on.

Canadian PM Stephen Harper, heading a minority Conservative government since the January, 2006, election, will seek an election before the end of this year. It could come as soon as 14 October.

It is routine for minority governments in Canada to call early elections when they think they can become majority governments. In fact, past minority governments have averaged about a year and half in office, and most of them have then won reelection with a majority. However, Harper had promised a move to fixed-election dates. As the Vancouver Sun notes:

Bill C-16, which amended the Elections Act, set October 2009 as the next federal election date. But it does contain a clause that gives the Governor General the right to dissolve Parliament if the government does not retain its confidence.

So, will the Governor General refuse? If so, would Harper then fake a loss of confidence?

Assuming Canada has an election coming soon, the bigger question is, will Harper and his party win a majority? The current cabinet has the second smallest parliamentary share of any cabinet of 187 first-past-the-post elections I studied for a recent book chapter. Perhaps surprisingly, its small parliamentary basis is why it has lasted so long: it had a lot of convincing to do to have a real shot at a majority. The party would need to pick up 28 seats (out of 308). Even if it wound up short, it could be worth it for the party to go for it while the polls are relatively favorable.

0 thoughts on “Canada to the polls

  1. Damn, I’d been about to predict the governor-general would grant the dissolution but now I’ve blown my chance. Bill C-16 is a law so weak that it barely meets the definition.

    Meanwhile, back at the fort, the state of Western Australia has just elected a hung parliament, the state of New South Wales has a new premier and Australia may be heading for a somewhat rare double dissolution. And all in 3 or 4 days…

  2. It’s official: the election is on. 14 Oct.

    Cool! That means an election in a major FPTP parliamentary democracy the very week that topic was already scheduled in my Policy-Making Processes course.

    Thanks, Canada!

  3. This may not be the most important aspect of the election, but Oct. 14 is the first day of Sukkot. I suspect we’re going to have a lot more advanced polling than is usual, hopefully Elections Canada is prepared for this.

    This election call also cancels the four by-elections currently under way, which I imagine must be costly. Our esteemed Prime Minister is certainly in a rush.

  4. “Perhaps surprisingly, its small parliamentary basis is why it has lasted so long: it had a lot of convincing to do to have a real shot at a majority.”

    Intriguingly, you made the opposite argument after the last election on January 23, 2006 – that the historically small base of seats meant a short parliament.

    I countered back then that the parliament would be long because the minority was strong – all three opposition parties were required to defeat the gov’t. That turned out to be true, but another reason may have been more important: PM Harper wanted Canadians to get used to long-absent Conservative gov’t, and the best way to do so was to continue governing.

    As for a real shot at a majority, there isn’t much of one. I’d give 4 to 1 odds against, and I’m more generous than most.

    Instead, the PM is after something else: the humiliation of the Bloc Quebecois, a regional separatist party. The Bloc’s dismantling is a requirement of Harper’s chief long-term goal of wresting the title of ‘natural governing party’ from the Liberals.

    Harper was patient. It’s taken 31 months to get a shot promising enough to risk government.

  5. I guess it will be the Feast of Voting Booths this year!

    I understand we are a small community here, Canada, or most other countries. And I also understand that there are so many communities with their own holiday traditions that it might be difficult to choose election dates without any such conflicts.

    Still, it would seem that the government of Canada could have avoided calling an election on such an important holiday.

    And, yes, Ross, I recall your previous comment on the minority situation. Thanks for returning to comment now, and hope you will do so during the campaign and after the result is known.

  6. The latest news is that the Green party has been excluded from the leaders debates. This comes despite their having a sitting MP (though a party-switcher), and predictions that they’ll receive ~10% of the vote—plus a large majority of Canadians who seem to want them in the debates, according to the last survey I heard about.

    Strategically, I’m not sure what this means. It seems a little strange to me that the tories don’t want the Greens participating, it seems like they’d take more votes away from the grits and dippers. Sometimes I’m not sure if the parties here understand how FPTP works!

    I think this decision by the TV networks on the advice of other political parties does show how important institutions are in elections. It’s easy to forget the good job Elections Canada has done with reapportionment and polling. We haven’t had to worry much at all about issues like gerrymandering, voting machines, or access to polls. Perhaps I should be more skeptical of cross-country comparisons of electoral systems, seeing as they often barely consider the regulatory bodies?

  7. I think the administration of elections issues are rarely mentioned in cross-country comparison because, with one notable exception, they are no longer controversial and have little impact on election outcomes on developed countries.

  8. In new democracies, on the other hand, administration issues are critically important. What can we learn from seats-votes analysis when Robert Mugabe has the army running elections and Mwai Kibaki is busting opposition heads? It’s unfortunate; democratizing contexts are where we want to know about institutions’ effects the most, yet they’re the hardest to study for this reason.

    IDEA now publishes a handbook on “electoral management design,” which works toward a typology of electoral management body (EMB) structures and catalogs countries by model.

    Variation in administration results in varied access to basic electoral institutions. Even in the most independent contexts, I would not be surprised if subtle variations (in rules or their administration) result in distortions on the votes side of votes-seats outcomes. Take the exclusion of Canada’s Greens from debate, for instance. If that is true, the general lack of control for EMB variation probably introduces some noise into comparative analysis of elections.

    Most if not all EMBs suffer from a basic pathology: in some stage of the game, they owe their appointments to an elected official.

    That point is a strong argument for MSS’ cultivation of a “neo-Madisonian” normative outlook on political institutions. If corruption is endemic – or, to put it another way, democratic institutions are fatally prone to actor defection – an adversarial political environment is the best way to render institutions self-enforcing.

    It is also a strong argument for a chaotic, decentralized EMB structure like that of the United States. Its numerous flaws notwithstanding, that model can localize the effects of corruption.

    Of course, electoral institutions like the American electoral college can nationalize the impact of local instances of corruption or incompetence (i.e. Florida 2000, Ohio 2004).

  9. Final thought:

    Just goes to show how electoral reform is a comprehensive project whose elements might not look intuitively right together (i.e. nationalize redistricting and seat allocation, decentralize counting).

  10. I can second all that Jack has said. I will just add that at one time I thought EMBs and other institutions that are set up to regulate the political process would be a major research agenda of mine. I decided to go in other directions, because the topic needs someone smarter than I am to detect patterns. (This was before the IDEA work on EMBs, which I now use in a course that I teach.)

    My one publication on political-process regulative institutions was a co-authored chapter in a book edited by Scott Mainwaring and Christopher Welna in 2003. We refer to these as “superintendence” institutions, or as agents “once removed,” the latter referring to the basic problem Jack noted: “in some stage of the game, they owe their appointments to an elected official.” Naturally, that is hard to avoid in a democracy, and maybe not even something we should try to avoid. The key is getting the democratic process itself–elections, parties, and educated voters–working well. Those are themes I at least think I am smart enough to address, although perhaps I delude myself…

  11. The great argument against the claim that localised partisan EMBs work is to look at 2 nontrivial facts. The set of democracies that use such EMBs is restricted to one case. The set of democracies that exhibit continuing disputes over the integrity of the electoral process is also restricted to one case. Zimbabwe and Kenya are not exceptions because they do not fit the definition of democracy.

    The Canadian debate issue is not regulated by statute but by an accord between parties and media outlets. It is in fact, a case of an adversarial political environment rendering institutions anything but self-enforcing. I think there is probably a case for better guarantees of access to leader debates, but its hardly an example that makes Canada the second member of our set of one.

  12. Is a reverse plurality a possiblity in this election? The Conservatives win the most seats but fewer votes than the Liberals or Vice Versa.

    What if Bloc Quebecois wins more seats due to the split in the Federalist vote of the Liberal, Conservative, and NDP parties?

    Could the Conservatives loose support in their strongholds like Alberta because of Resentment of their pandering to Ontario and Quebec?

    Would such a result move Canada to Proportional Representation?

    It looks like Canada is regionally polarizied and the U.S Presidential Election shows regional polarization at the max with the Northeast voting Democrat and the South voting Republican.

    Does FPTP make regional polarization worse than PR? or give voters who vote for the opposition in regional strongholds feel that their vote is worthless and nobody speaks for them?

  13. Harper’s political home base is Alberta, so it is hard for me to see how he would lose votes there.

    The set of cases that have moved from FPTP to PR after a minority government, even a reversal, is zero, as far as I know. Someone has to be first, I suppose…

    And, certainly, plurality voting (FPTP or, even more so, multi-seat list plurality) exacerbates regional polarization.

    I will leave the other interesting questions to the Canadians.

  14. > “cases that have moved from FPTP to PR after a minority government, even a reversal, is zero, as far as I know. Someone has to be first, I suppose…”

    Wasn’t this a factor in NZ’s decision to adopt MMP?

  15. NZ never had a minority government during the latter stages of FPTP. It had reversals, but both were majority governments, which presumably are greater political liabilities for FPTP than any minority situations.

    Canada has previously had a minority government formed by the party with the second most votes. It has never had a majority government of that sort. The same goes for the UK, as well.

  16. Jack:
    Thanks so much for mentioning the IDEA handbook, I had no idea this resource existed. I have some thoughts I may share later, but I think I have some reading to do first!

    Disputes over the validity of election results are hardly unique to the US; I think you may need to cast a wider net. There have been serious concerns about the integrity of the electoral process in Japan, Mexico and India, just off the top of my head. Here in Canada, both Quebec and BC have had issues as well, which explains some of the talk about electoral reform. There are also a number of perfectly stable countries aside from the US with decentralized EMBs, though I doubt any take it quite as far.

    * Reverse plurality: If the Liberals can narrow the gap to 1-2% (from the current 6%), then I guess it could happen. But I’m doubtful.

    * Federalist vote splitting: Remember that the Québec-nationalist-lite vote is split too, between the BQ and the Tories (and sometimes NDP as well). Many are speculating this will be a particularly bad election for the Bloc.

    * Conservatives losing votes in the heartland: No way. I think there’s widespread acceptance that they haven’t had free reign so far, so I don’t see them being blamed for not implementing their less, er…mainstream…policies. If they win a majority and then continue their moderate ways, I can see a certain amount of grassroots revolt in the medium-term.

    * Regional polarization: Yes! I’d argue even more so than the US. Remember, we have a large national party that doesn’t even run in nine of ten provinces! I’m not sure that FPTP has too much to do with it though, Belgium seems to have plenty of regional polarization with PR.

    * Electoral reform: I see three plausible scenarios where this election leads to a real i increase in support for electoral reform:
    1. Reverse plurality: Unlikely to occur, and even if it does it’s rarely publicised in Canada. The 2006 New Brunswick election had a reverse plurality, and I doubt most voters or informed citizens have any idea this occured.
    2. Manufactured majority: Fairly likely, but again this doesn’t seem to be considered an injustice here. If the Conservatives win a majority with ~38% of the votes, and then do something truly wingnutty (retroactively annuling gay marriages, joining a war on Iran, even mentioning the word “abortion”…), then maybe somebody will bring up the notion that a strong majority of the electorate was against the idea. But to be honest, I see a unite-the-left coalition/merger between the Liberals/NDP/Greens as a more likely result than a change in electoral systems.
    3. Massive “wasted votes” on the Greens: This is almost certain to occur. The Green leader is feisty, so if the Greens earn get more votes than the BQ yet win bubkes, I expect her to scream it from the rooftops. Definitely the most likely route for electoral reform, if you ask me.

    I had never realized that the 1979 election was a reverse plurality! Thanks for teaching me something about my own country.

  17. Vasi

    You are confusing two kinds of dispute. Disputes over outcomes are not unknown, especially with systems like FPTP which an generate reversed results. I was discussing not outcome disputes, but process disputes, where the process of the election is questioned. I am aware of some outcome disputes in Japan especially since the collapse of the LDP hegemony. I am not aware of any process disputes.

    I don’t have a problem with decentralised EMBs at all, so long as they independent, professional and non-partisan.

    Mexico is an interesting case, where the PRI long maintained its rule by intensive election-rigging. Since the end of the Salinas administration (Salinas’ own election was widely condemned as rigged) Mexico has been moving to correct those abuses (if slowly at times) by adopting the independent EMB model. Your exception proves my argument.

  18. Regarding the Belgium-Canada comparison Vasi raises with respect to regional polarization and FPTP…

    There are two main ways I see FPTP exacerbating regional polarization. The first is votes-seats distortion, which can result in parties having significantly different seat totals even if they have similar vote totals. Of course, it is parties with some degree of regional base that are more likely to be favored over those that are more nationwide in scope.

    The second (closely related) would be that under FPTP, a party that might be a relatively strong second in a region may win no seats, whereas with PR it would. In Belgium, this is not an issue because all the main parties run only in Flanders and not Wallonia, or vice versa. Obviously, no electoral system–even fairly large-district PR–can reduce regional polarization if the parties don’t run outside their main region!

    The question is whether either country’s degree of regional polarization would get worse than it currently is if the countries traded electoral systems. Unless I am missing some very big point here, the answer seems pretty obvious to me.

  19. Lots of interesting discussion above of EMBs, which goes well beyond Canada.

    So, to keep the orchard rows in alignment, and one crop from shading the others, let’s move that part of the discussion over to a new planting.

  20. The kind of broad center-left pre-electoral alliance that Vasi alludes to (# 16) would be even less common in the modern annals of FPTP than is the adoption of PR!

    In fact, only India stands out as a case where parties under FPTP aggregated into pre-election alliances (initiated by the right-wing BJP, then imitated by the Congress Party).

    For lots of reasons, it makes more sense that we’d see alliances like that India, but not so much in Canada. (Let’s see: far more parties to start with in India, many of which were strictly regionalist, stronger central government, few highly programmatic parties like NDP and now Greens… [feel free to add on here]).

  21. As a non-Canadian I have a query. How, if at all, do the left-wing parties co-operate in first-past-the-post Canadian elections? They don’t seem to formally ally, as far as I can tell – they can’t swap preferences (as in Australia) or run joint primaries (as in the US) or run joint party lists (as in Germany). They don’t even seem to have simple “standing-down” electoral pacts, like the Right and Left coalitions in France or the Lib-Lab pacts in the UK (official and top-down before the 1930s, unofficial and bottom-up in 1997).

    Yet relations between the Liberals and NDP, in particular, seem quite cordial. Liberal PMs appoint New Democrats as Senators, Lieut Governors and even Governor-General (Schreyer). Is there some sort of formal or informal understanding in place? Does it help that the different parties are dominant in different elections around the country?

  22. > ” It had reversals, but both were majority governments, which presumably are greater political liabilities for FPTP than any minority situations.”

    Hmmm… Insofar as I can get inside the mindset of an FPP supporter, it seems to me that “Red 45% to Blue 46% votes = Red 51% to Blue 48% seats” is in fact viewed as less of a liability than “= Red 49% to Blue 48% seats”. The primary goal of FPP is to give one party or pre-electoral coalition a majority of seats. That the winner have an absolute majority of votes is immaterial. It is hard, then, to insist that the winner have a plurality of votes. If a “hung parliament” is the worst of all possible worlds (cue Hermens on how “Weimar PR => Hitler”), then the occasional runner-up victory is the price to be paid.

    Enid Lakeman used to argue that the first 1974 election in the UK refuted FPP even on its own terms: the plurality-votes winner won fewer seats than the runner-up, and Labour and the Liberals, with 60% of votes between them, were unable to form a parliamentary majority. But it seems to me that FPP supporters aren’t thinking “Ideally, a plurality of votes should mean an absolute majority of seats, or at least a plurality of seats”, but rather “An absolute majority of seats for someone is essential, and ideally it should be the party with a plurality of votes.”

    Caveat: This is anecdotal, based on my recollections speaking with some politically savvy NZers who visited Aust in the 1987-93 era (ie, after the Royal Commission recommended MMP but before it was actually adopted).

  23. in re Belgium:
    Even when parties don’t compete in the other region, FPTP would make things worse.
    Belgium introduced list-PR in 1899 (the first in the world for the national parliament?) because the voting pattern and the two round majority system was destabilising the country since universal male suffrage was introduced (1894; some voters had 2 of 3 votes; universal EQUAL suffrage was only introduced in 1919; women only since 1949).
    In Flanders only catholic party MPs were elected; other parties only won seats in Wallonia, so the group of MPs from Flanders, all Catholic, were the majority of parliament
    Moderates in every party feared the squeeze out of the third party, the liberals, which would lead in the long run towards catholic versus socialist competition.
    That’s why the Catholic party (or the bigger part of it) eventually supported PR, while they would surely lose seats.
    After the first PR-elections in 1900, the catholic party had a reduced majority, every party won seats all over the country and the liberal party was saved.

    (See this paper in English, making a comparison with the UK in the same period)

  24. Tom asks a very good question about the prevalence of informal center-left cooperation in Canada. I hope someone can answer.

    In his comment somewhat later, Tom may be imputing greater coherence of opinion among FPTP supporters than is the case. There are clearly those who prefer majority government, regardless of whether it is formed by the plurality (let alone majority) party. But I would surmise that most of them at least recognize that reversals created ‘legitimacy’ problems for their preferred system. More to the point, the pro-FPTP arguments that rest on throwing out “rascals” (the more colorful name for what political scientists usually call retrospective voting) would seem to assume that the government is formed by the plurality party in the electorate. Nonetheless, I believe Riker said something to the effect that it does not matter if the median voter actually does throw out the rascals, but only that the government knows it could.

    Regarding Belgium again: Yes, I think it was the first case of PR for a national legislative body.

  25. Although the specific question has been rendered moot by events, I nominate the Pithlord’s post of 4 September as a contribution to this discussion:

    What Should the Governor General Do?

    First paragraph:

    It is now universally acknowledged that Prime Minister Harper will soon ask the Governor General for a dissolution of Parliament. Patrick Monahan argued in the Globe on Saturday that when he does, she has no choice but to give it to him. I think this is wrong. She should accept his resignation, but she should not dissolve Parliament until M. Dion has been offered a chance to form a Ministry and meet Parliament and has either (a) refused the Governor General’s invitation or (b) accepted, and then lost the confidence of the House or been denied supply.

  26. “Tom asks a very good question about the prevalence of informal center-left cooperation in Canada. I hope someone can answer.”

    It’s a good question, with a simple answer: there is no cooperation.

    Of course, rival candidates make appeal for strategic voting in a few districts. In practice, this means NDP voters are asked not to ‘waste’ their vote. (Aside: arguably, no vote is ever truly wasted federally, since it contributes to getting back deposits, and to enhancing a party’s public funding).

    A more interesting question is: why is there no cooperation?

    Three reasons:
    1) Until recently, Green support has been mostly negligible, so any cooperation would be limited to the NDP and Liberals historically.
    3) In some provinces like BC and Ontario, NDP and Liberals have competitive opposing provincial wings, which encourages their supporters and party apparatuses to be adversarial federally.
    3) Most importantly, historically Liberals have enjoyed the most geographically widespread support of all parties, while NDP support is highly concentrated only in particular areas (a few of the most urban ridings and several of the most remote, dependent ridings). Thus, until recently, the NDP usually ran several very local or metro campaigns rather than truly national ones like the two main parties. And in the districts where NDP support is strongest, often their only viable rival is the Liberals. Thus, there are few 3-way competitive seats. This makes cooperation unhelpful and even highly risky to the NDP.

    Having said that, history may not be the best guide to the future. First, the greater strength of the Greens makes more types of cooperation possible and mutually beneficial. However, this may be mitigated when (under other leadership), the Greens are seen as a ‘right’ party i.e. Green Tories.

    Also, any time the Liberals are very weak (e.g. 1984-8, 2006-8), there is a small possibility that the NDP could outperform the Liberals, which has yet to happen. If the NDP can come to be seen by voters as a viable opposition, cooperation could become mutually beneficial and hence more likely.

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