The Conservatives will continue in government after yesterday’s federal election, but the election produced a radically changed Parliament and political climate. The Conservatives gained a majority after two unstable minority governments, while the left-wing New Democratic Party reduced the opposition Liberal Party to third-party status and almost eliminated the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
Nationally, the Conservatives only gained a swing of 1.9% nationwide, but there was a much larger shift amongst left-leaning voters. The Liberal Party’s vote dropped from 26.3% to 18.9%, while the NDP vote jumped from 18.2% to 30.7%. The Bloc Quebecois vote dropped from 10% to 6.1% nationally. The Green Party’s vote dropped from 6.8% to 3.9%.
The Conservatives won their long-sought majority, going from 143 to 167 seats. The Liberal Party’s seats collapsed from 77 to 34, with the NDP going from 37 to 102. The Bloc Quebecois, who have dominated Quebec’s seats in Ottawa since 1993, were almost wiped off the map, falling from 49 seats to 4. The Green Party’s leader Elizabeth May won the party’s first seat in the British Columbia riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. This follows the success of Green parties in winning the first seats in national single-member parliamentary chambers in the United Kingdom and Australia over the last year.
There were few changes in the Western provinces. The numbers remained the same in Saskatchewan and Alberta, each of which elected an almost entirely Conservative delegation, with the exception of a single Liberal in Saskatchewan and a single NDP member in Alberta. The Conservatives won two of the NDP’s four seats in Manitoba. In British Columbia the Conservatives lost one of their seats to the Green Party while the NDP won three of the Liberal Party’s five seats.
In the Maritime Provinces, the NDP gained two seats off the Liberal Party and the Conservatives gained three. The main changes took place in the largest provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The Conservatives also won Yukon off the Liberal Party.
Ontario, Canada’s largest province, was dominated by the Liberal Party as recently as 2004, when the party held most seats in Toronto and Northern Ontario, and a majority in regional parts of Ontario. Over the last two elections the Conservatives and the NDP have made inroads, with the NDP dominating Northern Ontario and the Conservatives taking most seats in Central and Southern Ontario, but the Liberal Party held on to most of Toronto.
In 2011, the Liberal Party lost 26 of their 32 seats in Toronto, losing seats to the NDP, but losing many more to the Conservatives. The NDP had only held two seats in Toronto before this election, those held by NDP leader Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow. Six more NDP MPs were elected yesterday, along with an extra twenty Conservatives. Those twenty Conservatives gave the party the majority government it had long strived to win. The party didn’t make anywhere near enough progress outside Toronto to form a majority, and indeed went backwards in Quebec and British Columbia.
In Quebec, the result was much more dramatic. The Bloc Quebecois had dominated Quebec federal politics since 1993. At every election in that period they won between 38 and 54 seats out of a total of 75 in Quebec. They won 49 seats in 2008. This time around, the party was wiped out, with only four surviving. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost his own seat, along with most of his caucus. Most of those seats went to the New Democratic Party, who have traditionally been locked out of Quebec.
The NDP won their first seat in Quebec at a 2007 by-election, and retained that one seat in 2008. This time they won 58 seats, including many they couldn’t have imagined they could win. A majority of the NDP’s new caucus comes from Quebec. The Liberal Party’s seats halved from 14 to 7, while the Conservatives went backwards from 10 to 6. The NDP dominated every region, winning most seats in the sparsely-populated north and northwest of the province. The party also won all seats in Quebec City and a large majority in Montreal. While the NDP did well in other regions, they would have been even with the Liberal Party on seats if it weren’t for the huge changes in Quebec.
So how did the Conservatives manage to achieve their majority? There are two key explanations. The first centres on Toronto, where the Conservatives gained twenty seats. In the rest of the country the party lost five seats and gained nine. Without the Toronto gains we would have faced a third Conservative minority government. The Liberal Party lost 26 seats in the region, a majority of their 43 losses across the country.
The Conservatives also benefited enormously from vote-splitting amongst left-wing parties. Over 59% of votes were cast for the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party. There were many seats where strong campaigns from the NDP and collapsing Liberal votes allowed the Conservatives to gain the seat. I haven’t had an opportunity to do more detailed analysis, but I’m sure there’s many seats that the Conservatives wouldn’t have won under a preferential voting system. It is certainly true that a proportional voting system would make it very difficult for the Conservatives to ever form a government. There are many severe distortions in terms of vote numbers and seat numbers, both on a federal level and in different provinces. I may do another post on the implications for electoral reform from this election result later this week.
Since the rise of the Bloc Quebecois in 1993 and the rebuilding of the Conservatives in the early 2000s, it has been a theory that neither party could form a majority without making substantial inroads into Quebec. In 2008, Harper put a lot of effort into winning seats in Quebec. This time his strategy largely ignored the province, and he managed to form a government with his majority almost entirely based in the West and Ontario. This majority, however, was largely due to the complete collapse of the Liberal Party. If these seats are recovered by the centre-left in the future, either by the NDP absorbing what is left of the Liberal Party or the Liberals winning back NDP protest votes, it will become very hard for the Conservatives to continue in government. This election had many of the hallmarks of a Conservative landslide, but only produced a small majority in the best of times.
The biggest change in this election was the complete collapse of the Bloc Quebecois and the emergence of the NDP as the party of choice in the province. Quebec has a solid history of wild swings and diverging from the rest of the country. The BQ’s rise in 1993 took place entirely in one election, jumping from no seats to 54. The 2007 Quebec provincial election saw the centre-right ADQ jump from 4 seats to 41, forming the opposition in a hung parliament. They collapsed back to 7 seats in 2008. While the collapse of the Bloc is definitely a blow to the cause of Quebec sovereignty, it can’t be taken as a sign that the issue is dead. The Parti Quebecois, the provincial equivalent of the Bloc, has been consistently leading in the polls for the next provincial election.
It seems that the Bloc’s decline has more to do with their lack of relevance to federal politics. Apart from the issue of sovereignty, the Bloc’s political positioning and attacks on the Harper government were very similar to the NDP, but with Quebec sovereignty out of the spotlight, the NDP had an advantage due to their stronger national focus, and ended up taking the Bloc’s territory.
The Green Party was overshadowed in this campaign by the collapse of the Liberal Party and the Bloc, and the rise of the NDP, but it was a key election for the Green Party. The party focused its energy on a single constituency, and ended up comfortably electing Elizabeth May as the party’s first MP. This decision, however, saw the party fall backwards in the national vote, from 6.8% to 3.9%. Unlike Australia, there is no Senate that forces political parties to spread out their resources and develop a national grassroots organisation. There are much stronger temptations to centralise money and power in an organisation that can funnel resources to a single seat. In contrast, a minor party needs a large network of activists on the ground to compete in a statewide Senate race without the money to compete on a wide scale.
After a very unusual election, we should see Canadian politics settle down. The Conservative government will struggle to maintain their majority at a future election, so are likely to run out the full four years of their parliamentary term. It is yet to be seen how effective the NDP are as an opposition, and whether they can mop up Liberal votes in ridings where a split left vote saw the Conservatives win in 2011. This could give the NDP a shot at a majority in 2015. It is also possible that the NDP’s domination over the Liberal Party and the Bloc could prove illusory, and the defeated parties could make a recovery at the next election. The problem for the Conservatives is that, in either scenario, the party has effectively reached its ceiling in terms of electoral representation, and will have to perform strongly to maintain their majority for a second term.
Here are some more maps showing the change in results in Ontario and Quebec over the past four elections: