Mr. Wright is wrong

After three consecutive elections that have resulted in minority government in Canada (2004, 2006 and 2008), Ipsos pollster John Wright states in a video interview that nothing will change until legislation to add 32 new seats from the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario is passed and comes into effect two elections from now. In the meantime, his advice to the governing Conservative Party and to the Liberal Party is to “ignore” the province of Quebec as a source of potential seat gains. Why? Because the Bloc Québécois has a stranglehold on that province, which means neither the Conservatives or the Liberals will ever be able to win a majority under existing conditions. Only the addition of new seats will have the potential to change the current political stalemate.

I have a few problems with Mr. Wright’s views.

The first is his assertion that the BQ has a stranglehold on the province of Quebec. For readers of this blog who aren’t Canadian, the Bloc Québécois is a nationalist party that fields candidates only in the majority French-speaking province of Quebec. The party supports the idea of an independent Quebec, and actively seeks to defend what it interprets to be the best interests of Quebec in the House of Commons.

Mr. Wright’s own comments demonstrate that he is incorrect. According to the latest Ipsos poll, the BQ is polling at about 38% support in the province of Quebec, which means that 60% of Quebecers support other parties. Similarly, in the last federal election, only 38% of voters voted for the BQ. Almost 60% supported the other three main federalist parties (the Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP). Yet the BQ won 49 of Quebec’s 75 seats – or 65% of the province’s seats. In 2006, the BQ won 52 seats with 42% of the vote, and in 2004, the party won 54 seats with 48.9% of the vote, their second-best election and almost identical to their best-ever election result in 1993 – the first general election the party contested.

Quebec is not the only province where one party dominates the political landscape. The situation in the province of Alberta is far worse, with the Conservative party sweeping or almost sweeping all 28 seats. In the 2008 election, the Conservatives won 27 of 28 seats with 64.6% of the vote, in 2006, they swept the province with 65% of the vote, and in 2004, they won 26 of 28 with 61.7% support.

The problem in both Quebec and Alberta isn’t that one party is far more popular than any of the others, it’s that Canada’s antiquated First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system results in a seat count disproportionate to the party’s level of support. If 40% of Quebecers are voting for the BQ, that shouldn’t result in the BQ winning 65% of the province’s seats in the House of Commons. Similarly, the Conservatives shouldn’t win 96% of Alberta’s seats with 65% of the vote.

Mr. Wright’s solution to this situation is not to address the problems with FPTP, but to add seats to the House of Commons in provinces other than Quebec. This, in his words, will allow the three main federalist parties (the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP) to gain seats, but not the Bloc. I am not going to argue that these provinces don’t deserve more seats – they are currently under-represented in the House of Commons. My issue with this approach is that increasing the number of seats does not guarantee an end to hung parliaments and minority governments. Any seats added to Alberta will be net gains for the Conservatives as long as FPTP remains in place.  That is the only sure thing in this scenario. New seats in BC and Ontario are liable to be competitive between all three parties, which might still make it difficult for any one party to emerge with a majority of seats. More importantly, however, the addition of 32 new seats will do nothing to address the non-proportional election results we end up with under FPTP.

I am also troubled with Mr. Wright’s advice that the two main parties should “ignore” Quebec as a means of eventually gaining enough seats to form a majority government. He doesn’t suggest that the Liberals and NDP should ignore Alberta, however, even though that province is under a far greater one-party stranglehold. Perhaps he assumes they already have, so it’s not worth mentioning. Granted, with 75 seats, Quebec’s ability to impact the overall result of a general election is greater than Alberta’s, but if Alberta was actually competitive for other parties, that could have a significant impact as well.

But no, the Liberals and Conservatives should “ignore” Quebec, and pin their hopes on 32 new seats being added to the House of Commons. Seats, as I mentioned above, which in Alberta at least, will benefit only the Conservatives, while those in BC and Ontario should be more competitive – for all three main parties. However, there is no guarantee that these new seats will result in either the Conservatives or Liberals winning a majority. If those parties take Mr. Wright’s advice and turn their back on Quebec, that may well strengthen the BQ’s hand in that province even more. If the BQ’s seat count in Quebec were to increase significantly because voters there see that the other parties have turned their back on them, that might nullify any potential gains made by those parties in some of those new seats that will be up for grabs. The regional entrenchment that has become such a chronic problem facing all parties in this country will only get worse, not better.

My final issue with Mr. Wright’s interview is his fixation on majority government. Of course, under FPTP, that is what is supposed to happen – one party is supposed to emerge with a clear majority of seats. However, FPTP was designed for two-party systems (or at least, 2 dominant parties and a few smaller fringe parties), which inevitably did result in one party winning a majority of seats. In multi-party systems, as Canada has emerged to be, with four very competitive parties at the federal level,  FPTP breaks down. The last true majority government elected in Canada occurred in 1984, when the Progressive Conservatives actually received just over 50% of the popular vote (and 75% of the seats in the House of Commons). Since then, all “majority” governments have won a majority of seats without the backing of a majority of voters.

There is nothing wrong with hung parliaments. It isn’t some sort of failing that not a single party has emerged with a clear majority of seats in the last three general elections. If anything, this more accurately reflects the reality that none of the main parties has the support of a majority of voters. The past three election results more closely reflect how voters are voting than would a majority government elected with only 38% support.

I don’t disagree with adding new seats to the House of Commons because population increases in some parts of the country aren’t reflected in the current seat distribution. However, I do think it’s somewhat of a defeatist attitude to see these new seats as some sort of beacon of hope for a return to majority government. The problem isn’t the number of seats, but our voting system and how it exacerbates regional entrenchment. Only the adoption of some form of PR will allow all parties (except the BQ) to elect members from all parts of the country. And only PR will truly overcome the BQ’s dominance of Quebec.

We don’t really need more seats – we need a better way to elect people to fill them.

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  • Anonymous

    Hear, hear! Though the whole topic of electoral reform in Canada is also frustrating, since it has to come through whoever is in power, and whoever is in power never wants to change the system that brought them power. So we end up with absurdities as in BC, where they had to achieve a 60% majority to change the electoral.

    So I don’t know how it will happen. But I would love to see it happen. Canada’s so-called democratic system is not really democratic now.

  • The only other alternative I can see is that we come to grips with a different view of Canadian federalism, and get over our opposition to including the Bloc in a coalition. So we either work with them, or try to implement a voting system that would reduce their power. I’m really not certain which would be easier to achieve!