Friday, June 17, 2005

Canadian Meltdown?

Let's face it. Canada is just not a place that Americans think about all that much. I even thought of writing my first post on PolySigh about another topic because of fears of eliciting mainly a big yawn. However, Canadian politics has been quite turbulent in recent years with Canadian unity, always fragile, under a great deal of pressure.

Americans learned during the 2000 election that the rules governing elections really do matter. Canadians, who use the same method to elect their House of Commons as we do our House of Representatives, are painfully learning the same lesson. In Canada, the electoral system accentuates regional divisions—not a selling point in a nation where national unity remains a major issue.

In 1993, the Canadian party system experienced a meltdown in the wake of the collapse of first the Meech Lake and then Charlottetown Accords designed to gain Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution. Despite dumping incumbent Prime Minister Brian Mulroney prior to the election, the governing Progressive Conservatives (PC) lost all but two seats.

Much of the PCs support went to the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and the Reform Party, parties driven by Quebec and western alienation. While the BQ argued the unwillingness of the other provinces to accommodate Quebec’s distinct character shows why Quebec should leave Canada, Reform contended that Quebec should be treated exactly like other provinces and demanded an American-style Senate to make parliament more responsive to western provinces. Reform also gave voice to socially conservative elements largely shut out of Canadian politics.

Although Reform and the BQ made a big splash, especially when the avowedly separatist BQ became Her Majesty’s “Loyal” Opposition in 1993, the Liberals were the real beneficiaries of all of this change. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien won majority governments in 1993, 1997 and 2000 with 41%, 39%, and 41% of the vote, respectively, as the conservative vote remained split between the old PCs and the new more radical Reform and its successors.

In all three parliaments, the winner-take-all electoral system has greatly magnified regional differences. The Liberal victories were based almost entirely on sweeping Ontario. For example, in 1997, the Liberals won 101 of Ontario’s 103 seats with just under 50% of the vote. Reform won over three-quarters of the seats in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia with just 46% of the vote. The BQ has repeatedly won a majority of Quebec seats even though they have never won a majority of votes in the province.

Although Canada had a near-death experience in 1995 (totally unnoticed in the U.S., of course) as Quebec came within a hair of voting “Oui” in a sovereignty referendum, none of this mattered all too much as long as the Liberals remained popular and the conservatives were disunited.

However, the question remains as to who will govern and hold the country together when Canadians finally want to chuck out the Liberals. The Liberals may have their base in Ontario but are the only remaining party with at least some support in all regions of the country.

Canadians almost found out the answer in 2004. Conservatives had high hopes as the two conservative parties had merged into a new Conservative Party that resembles Reform more closely than the old PCs. New Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals have been suffering greatly from the “sponsorship” scandal in which federal monies intended to be spent promoting Canada (read: waving the flag in Quebec to fight separatism) seem to have found their way into the pockets of prominent Liberal supporters.

Martin nonetheless managed to win a minority government with 37% of the vote and 135 of 308 seats. The election was almost a “perfect storm” in that no two parties that might actually form even an informal coalition have a majority of seats. The sponsorship scandal continues to drag on Liberal fortunes and Conservatives and the BQ recently had hopes of bringing down the government but fell just short.

Political ineptitude combined with their social conservatism has since caused Conservative support to plunge. The left-wing New Democrats, who are currently propping up the Liberal government, actually poll higher than the Conservatives in Ontario. However, the BQ still polls at record highs in Quebec.

For some reason, Quebecers find it incredibly galling that the federal government thinks it can buy its support by placing flags on buildings. The idea that PM Paul Martin, who served as Finance Minister for nearly a decade before becoming PM, should have known what was going on seems to have crossed their minds as well.

Canadians thus have temporarily avoided finding out what happens when the Liberals finally go. That’s probably good for Canadian unity in the short term. If the Conservatives managed to win a majority as an anti-Quebec party, it would be a major boost for Quebec separatism. A Conservative minority government that depends on BQ support appears untenable even though both parties want to send more power back to the provinces. Politically, the Conservatives cannot be seen to depend on Quebec separatists. The BQ would similarly find it hard to explain propping up a party seen as too socially conservative and anti-Quebec.

In the long-term, regional alienation may continue to grow as anglophones in the West and francophones in Quebec feel shut out of the political game. A more proportional system might aid the building of cross-regional coalitions by allowing for the election of greater numbers of MPs from different parties in each region. At the same time, it would make forming single-party majority governments much more difficult and be a radical change in a country that follows the British parliamentary tradition.

Canadians see no easy solutions to these problems and neither do I.


Anonymous said...

As someone who actually does follow Canada, I have to say that was a fine summary.

But you sell short both the potential for proportional representation to ameliorate the problem, and also the likelihood that PR could be adopted.

Consider the 2004 outcome (party, %v, %s, Advantage ratio)
Liberal, 36.7, 43.8, 1.19
Conservative, 29.6, 32.1, 1.08
New Democratic, 15.7, 6.2, 0.39
Bloc Quebecois, 12.4, 17.5, 1.41

It is easy to see the dynamic your refer to, whereby the plurality system exaggerates the strength of parties with regional concentration. Compare the advantage ratios (%s/%v) and see how much the BQ benefits and the NDP is absolutely killed by this. (The NDP is a nationwide party with dispersed support and just a few strongholds.) Liberals also have greater regional concentration, as you noted.

Well, now suppose every party has A=1.00 (that happens strictly in no PR system, but for the sake of having a benchmark). Then you clearly have a governing majority for Liberals + NDP, who combined for 52.4% of the vote, but who won, under first-past-the-post, only 50% of the seats.

And, had the Conservatives managed to bring down the Martin government last month, the resulting BQ-supported Conservative minority government (pending new elections) would have rested on only 42% of the electorate. (Granted, single-party majorities have rested on less in Canada and the UK, as with Balir's reelection on 35%, but needless to say such governments don't typically face a natural governing coalition that had 10 percentage points more voter support.)

So, it looks like PR would help immensely--taking away the penalty for having dispersed support and rendering the BQ what it is nationally--a fringe party.

As to whether Canadians would actually go for PR, we are in the process of getting an idea. On May 17, British Columbians voted on a proposal for the single transferable vote for provincial assembly elections, as recommended by a randomly drawn Citizens Assemly. STV won a strong majority, 57% to 43%. STV got 11 percentage points more than the Liberals, reelected in the province to another majority thanks to the first-past-the-post system. The only catch is that the government had set a 60% hurdle for it to be binding. Something will probably still happen in BC, though not right away.

PEI and New Brunswick will have referenda on MMP (a la New Zealand and Germany, though less proportional by design) soon. Ontario and Quebec have PR discussions well underway.

It is only a matter of time before the idea goes national. In fact, there is a review process underway in parliament now, though no obvious momentum behind it just yet. The momentum will come from below, if provinces begin to adopt PR, or when the next federal election produces a parliament so unworkable that the current one is remembered findly.

PR is on its way in Canada, and not soon enough. It is probably now only a matter of time for the UK, too. Soon the US will be pretty much the last bastion where manufactured legislative majorities (no, Republicans are NOT winning votes majorities in congress) continue to be tolerated.

Anonymous said...

None of the Canadian federal "conservative" parties have ever been anti-Quebec. The Liberal party of Canada is highly skilled at demonizing conservative organizations even as they adopt their (conservative) ideas and policies.