Canada 2015: Less than a week to go

It was not so long ago that the Canadian election looked like it was going to produce a close three-way result. However, the NDP–which led as recently mid-September–has now fallen to a very distinctly third-place position. Just like that old Canadian party system, we might say. Moreover, the Liberals have been steadily gaining. See Eric Grenier’s poll-tracker at CBC.

Assuming there is not some late change in trends, it seems the main thing we now have to ask is whether the NDP will further bleed support such that there is a majority Liberal government. Or are we looking at a minority? Just recently, the seat projection (same page as the prior link) has finally nudged the Liberal Party within striking distance of majority territory, and the Conservatives out of it, unless they have their best possible result (“possible” under the terms of the poll-aggregating and seat-projection tools Grenier uses).

If the race tightens again and/or the NDP retains a strong third place, a plurality reversal is also possible. The Conservatives may do a little better at translating their votes into seats, so in a close election they could end up first in seats–though most likely not a majority–even if second in votes.

I will leave (mostly) for the comment thread, or post-election discussion, what the potential outcomes might mean for the chances of electoral reform. I will say, however, that I suspect a Liberal majority is better for those prospects than a Liberal minority dependent on NDP support. And, no, I do not think a coalition is likely, even if there is no majority, although if in such a situation the Liberals were larger, the odds of a coalition government would be somewhat greater (but still quite low!) than if it were the Conservatives ahead.

We are in the final phase of the Canadian campaign. It should be interesting to watch!

25 thoughts on “Canada 2015: Less than a week to go

  1. “I will say, however, that I suspect a Liberal majority is better for those prospects than a Liberal minority dependent on NDP support.”

    What makes you think that? I think if the Liberals got a majority, electoral reform would be the first thing to go out the door. Why mess with the system that let you win this time and so many times before?

    “And, no, I do not think a coalition is likely, even if there is no majority, although if in such a situation the Liberals were larger, the odds of a coalition government would be somewhat greater (but still quite low!) than if it were the Conservatives ahead.”

    Even if the Tories got into first place but with a minority, I think that the NDP would support the Liberals somehow, to salvage their situation and try to push the governing Liberals leftwards.

    • Thank you for asking. The reason is that reform processes of recent decades in FPTP parliamentary democracies (only one of which has led to actual reform so far) have all been under majority governments. The Liberals have a reform process in their manifesto. Now, if there is no public pressure for reform, I agree with your “out the window” claim. If there is (and I can’t claim to know), then they can be held accountable for not following through, and they know it.

      I figure that a minority government would be too preoccupied with (1) surviving, and (2) aiming for an excuse to break the “fixed term” act and call an election to seek a majority.

      As for a coalition, all bets are off. Do the coalescing parties agree enough to start a process, or do they shelve it for other priorities? The devil is in the details of the coalition bargaining. In any case, a coalition is highly unlikely, and getting unlikelier by the day.

      Of course, all the above comes with plenty of uncertainty. But that is my thinking, based largely on the research reported in my 2008 chapter on reform processes (in André Blais, ed., To Keep or Change First Past the Post).

      As to your second point, coalitions of the second and third party are rare. Yes, we can cite examples. But that does not change the fact that they are by far not the norm–even in countries where the public is accustomed to seeing their parties bargain and form coalition cabinets. And Canada is decidedly not such a country.

      • I can see you’re points. My thinking was that the Liberal’s and NDP’s hatred of the Tories was if one faltered, the faltering party’s leader would choose co-operation rather than allowing Stephen Harper another term in office. As for the Liberals and their platform, maybe I am just paranoid and think that they will junk large amounts of it once within a majority government. I guess I should have more faith…

        A friend said that advanced polling favours the Liberals and the NDP. Advanced polling is up since 2011. Do you have any data support the idea that advanced polling favours left or right wing parties in general? Do you have any specific Canadian data to support the contention?

        Finally, do you think that a shy Tory factor would come into play?

  2. I agree with Christopher, a Liberal majority means next to zero chance of electoral reform. No mention of it in the party platform.

    To your second point, I agree that a coalition is unlikely, but it is more likely in a minority scenario with Tories in front. In fact, that’s the only situation in which it is likely to happen. In that case, the Tories would likely attempt to govern, fail, but the GG may require a firm commitment or even a coalition from the Liberals and the NDP to ensure they have the confidence of the house.

    With Liberals in front, they would surely just attempt to govern as a minority as is the Canadian tradition.

    The momentum however is such that we are likely to see a Liberal majority, an outcome unthinkable as recently as two weeks ago.

      • I think this was the link Alan meant. And it is indeed about as straightforward as one can be about abolishing FPTP.

        Look, I know the argument I am making (that a majority Liberal government is more favorable to electoral reform than a coalition or minority) is counterintuitive. But it should not be. My argument rests on the evidence, although I will grant that the number of observations (i.e. reform processes) is disappointingly small.

    • “a coalition is unlikely, but it is more likely in a minority scenario with Tories in front. ”

      Well, I do not think we will get to test our competing hypotheses here, but I would call that the least likely situation (of the possible combinations) in which a coalition would occur.

      Both the Liberals and the NDP have campaigned for a majority of their own party. Both would have failed. The “mandate” would be muddy, but as much as one could be inferred, it would be for Harper to continue, but on a shorter leash from parliament. And the Liberals would be happy to wait for Harper to hang himself, so they could get another shot at a majority in two years or so.

      • The junkie in me was hoping for a Tory minority specifically for the guaranteed fireworks.

        The Liberals will not wait for Harper to hang himself*. Both the NDP and Liberal leaderships would be flogged by their members(hips) if they propped up a Tory minority by any means. A Tory minority is very, very, very unlikely to sustain a Speech from the Throne. This is about as sure as anything gets in politics**.

        For this reason, a coalition, formal or informal, is nearly guaranteed in this scenario. The only way to avoid it is for the GG to immediately call another election, but this is unlikely since there is no reason to believe that the NDP would not supply confidence to the Liberals, notwithstanding writ-period utterances to the contrary. Note that this is not without precedence in Canada, this exact arrangement of 3 parties occurred in 1985 in Ontario.

        Coalitions, even if likely in other scenarios (which is not the case, but for the sake of argument), is still less likely than the near-guarantee of coalition in the case of Tory plurality.

        *This is not just self-interest or self-preservation, this is pragmatism. The Tories finish this election through public rebates with enough money in the till to max out the spending on another regular-length election, immediately, while the other parties will have much less. This outcome was one of the purposes behind the ongoing 78-day election. (For the record, I previously liked the idea of longer elections – until this one. Everyone should pity the Americans.)

        **The only thing that could save a Tory minority is an NDP leadership desperate enough for governing experience that it commits an error and overlooks the aforementioned flogging. But that too is a coalition. The irony is that this would otherwise be a pragmatic move for both the Tories and NDP, if the long-term goal is the permanent irrelevance of the Liberal Party (a la 20th century UK)

    • I thought the Alternative Vote was in the Liberal manifesto, or at least it had been endorsed at the party convention? I agree that it isn’t likely that they’d follow up on that, but such a reform would be very favourable to them and the left more generally. Of course, even if they did follow up on that, passing the Senate would probably be a major challenge.

      • The Conservatives have a senate majority of 18 over the Liberals. There are 22 vacancies, although Trudeau has also promised a senate appointments commission on the model of the house of lords. I rather hope that (assuming a Liberal victory) the Conservative senators make senate reform inevitable by misbehaving.

      • I’m tempted to ask how a governor-general of Canada would react to a request from a prime minister who had just lost an election to appoint senators to the 22 vacancies. A governor-general of Australia or New Zealand, faced with a similar request, would tend to inquire, gently, if the prime minister were in command of all their faculties, but we have seen in the past that governors-general of Canada can behave somewhat differently.

  3. “The Conservatives may do a little better at translating their votes into seats, so in a close election they could end up first in seats–though most likely not a majority–even if second in votes.”

    True, the Conservatives’ vote efficiency in Ontario, specifically, could result in a reverse plurality. But I notice that the Liberals are now, on average (according to Grenier’s numbers), ahead of the Tories by 10 percentage points. If that holds, the Liberals will win big in Ontario, making a Liberal majority more likely.

    Also, the turn-out at the advance polls last weekend broke records. A few million people have already voted. So the poll numbers a week ahead of election day may matter more than they have in the past.

    • Advance poll turnout, at least in Canada, has generally been dominated by seniors, who tend to lean Conservative federally.

      However, all the parties are increasingly treating advance polling as a regular poll. That is, they try to convince and transport as many of their supporters as possible to attend the advance polls. So increased turnout may simply indicate that one (or likely all) parties are having more success with this strategy. If that’s true, than the relative benefit the Conservatives get from higher advance poll numbers may be on the wane.

      I am not in the Conservative war room to know the truth, but I have to believe that Tory voters are much less motivated than the last 4 elections. To be a fly on that wall…

      Yet I wouldn’t read much overall into the higher turnout. It’s been a long term trend. The Conservatives are likely to be 1 or 2 points up from the polls published on the final weekend, and their vote distribution has been an advantage too, although that may evaporate this time round. So if the Liberals are still up by 3.5 points or more on Sunday, they will likely have a plurality of seats.

      • What’s your basis for thinking the Conservatives will be up 1 or 2 on the final polls? Usually it’s the party with the momentum that winds up higher than expected. There’s a well known effect whereby last-minute decides opt for the likely winner.

      • @Andrew D.

        Any study I’ve seen has shown on average a bump for the Conservatives (earlier, PC) between 2 and 3 points (depending upon the study) rather than the likely winner. The studies usually go back to the 1957 election. From my own memory I can’t recall a federal election since 1980 when this wasn’t true. One would expect this to also be true in the provinces, but there is little such consistency, with Ontario being the most like federal elections (2014 is a good counter-example, however).

        Explanations for the phenomenon vary. The most convincing to me is that it’s an emergent property of senior turnout. Fluctuations in the bump correlate well with the degree of Conservative strength among seniors.

        Having said that, I think the Conservative bump / Shy Tory factor has been trending lower, for two reasons:
        – the trouble polling firms continue to have with landline bias (partially cancelling out the bump, although the jury is out on this one).
        – Conservative parties have been trending lower e.g. Harper’s best effort barely outstripped any of the elections prior to amalgamation.

        With the lone conservative parting polling at 30%, we should expect the smallest bump ever.

  4. Fair Vote Canada ( is working hard to make PR an issue in the campaign. From a distance I don’t know whether it actually is an issue in the sense that voters are thinking about it. I do know that my Google Alerts frequently dredge up forums and debates in which the candidates are asked about it. Canada may not yet be at the point where a governing party or coalition proposes PR, but they are decades ahead of the U.S.

  5. MS, do you really have enough cases to justify the generalization that majority governments are more likely to propose reform than coalition governments? Also, is there a conceptual basis for this, or is just a pattern in your data?

    • I guess Tsebelis’ paper ‘Veto Players and Law Production in Parliamentary Democracies: An Empirical Analysis’ gives some clue why it is more difficult change the constitution with more veto players. However, countries with majority governments have changed their constitutions in the past, so we should not rule out constitutional change, even if it could be slightly less likely in general.

      More specifically, I know the Netherlands switched from a single-member district system to a proportional, nation wide electoral district system, while it had an extra-parliamentary government. So the government was not linked to parties in parliament, and seeing needs 50%+1 vote in the lower and upper house of parliament to initiate a constitutional amendment, and 66%+1 vote in both houses after new elections to finalize the the amendment, I guess that changes in electoral law can be possible while having a lot of veto players.

      • In the Netherlands, though the change of electoral system was codified in the constitution, a constitutional amendment was not actually necessary.

      • The Netherlands, prior to adopting PR, used a two-round system. So did most of the European countries that moved from some form of single-seat districts to some form of PR. There were very few cases of plurality on the European continent.

    • Small sample is an issue, for sure, Bob. I would never claim that there are no paths from minority government to PR, or to a formal process that proposes a change to PR. Just that these formal paths over the past 50+ years have come from majority single-party governments (and other conditions discussed in the chapter), even though several of the jurisdictions in question also have had occasional minority governments.

      Of course, it is impossible to say a coalition would not result in reform, because coalitions in the UK, Canada (including provinces), and pre-MMP New Zealand are so very rare. Again, whether a coalition would initiate electoral-system change depends on what the parties decide to prioritize in bargaining.

    • I can’t recall the various sequences, but yes, some of the cases of PR adoption were part of much larger reform packages and occurred at the adoption of universal suffrage (or universal make suffrage).

      • So did these other European countries require full constitutional change, with all the associated hurdles? If so, did they have coalition governments? Because that would show that, even if less likely, coalition governments are capable of electoral reforms. Then the question only becomes, how different are the expectations parties hold under more or less proportional systems about future support for the party. I suppose in a FPTP system, the two largest parties have stable expectations, usually, so what is their incentive for electoral reforms?

        If indeed coalition governments in FPTP systems are weak, is the increased amount of veto-players has such a negative impact on electoral reforms that even the lack of incentive to reform the electoral system for majority parties in FPTP systems is a smaller hurdle to take?

  6. Of course, coalition governments are “capable” of electoral reforms–if the parties commit to making electoral reform (or a process that could lead to such reform) part of their program of joint governance. The UK coalition formed in 2010 initiated a process (proposing alternative vote, not PR). Then the parties campaigned on separate sides in the ensuing referendum and the status quo prevailed.

    I do not know the answer to the historical question. I’d suggest grabbing a copy of Carstairs’ book.

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