Canada Archive

Canada 1993: the benchmark for NSW?

With the NSW Labor government on track for a massive defeat, I thought I’d look into the history of massive landslide defeats in Westminster system countries. Most of the examples I found came from Canada, mainly from provincial elections, along with a few other notable examples. The Queensland elections of 1974 and 1983, the South Australian election of 1993, the 2002 New Zealand election, and elections in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

There is one example, that stands out from all others, which was the 1993 Canadian federal election, which saw the quick and painful death of a political party with over a hundred years of history.

Brian Mulroney had led the Progressive Conservative (PC) federal government from 1984 until early 1993. He had won a landslide victory in 1984, and was re-elected with a smaller majority in 1988. The government’s popularity collapsed in its second term, and its position worsened in the recession of the early 1990s. Mulroney retired in June 1993 and was succeeded by Canada’s first female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. She led the government into the federal election in October 1993.

The election was an extreme result, with a majority of Canadian voters changing their vote compared to 1988. The PCs were assaulted on all sides, losing ground to the separatist Bloc Québécois, the opposition Liberals, and the right-wing Reform party. Reform had been formed as a conservative party with its base in the western provinces, promoting decentralisation and attacking the PC government from the right. The Bloc Québécois was formed in 1991 with the defection of a number of Liberal and Progressive Conservative federal MPs from Quebec, committed to sovereignty for Quebec.

At the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservatives collapsed, falling from 169 seats in 1988 to only two. Only one cabinet minister survived the election. While the party had been polling in the mid-30s six weeks out from the election, by election day this had plummeted to 16%.

The Liberal opposition increased its seats from 83 to 177, giving them a solid majority. Both the Bloc Québécois and Reform won their first seats at a general election, with the Bloc winning 54 seats and Reform winning 52. The Bloc became the official opposition, despite only running in one province. The left-wing New Democratic Party also collapsed, falling from 43 to 9. The 1988 election had been their best, but 1993 turned into their worst. They still won more seats than the PCs, despite polling substantially less.

The Progressive Conservatives never recovered from this devastating loss. They won 20 seats in 1997, but again fell to 12 in 2000.

The PCs merged with the Canadian Alliance, the successor to Reform, in 2003 to form the Conservative Party of Canada. The party is dominated by those aligned with Reform.

Meanwhile the New Democrats recovered their strength, and the Bloc today continue to hold a large majority of federal seats in Quebec. With the continued strength of these two parties, it has become incredibly difficult for either major party to form a stable majority government, despite Canada’s majoritarian electoral system.

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Canadian Tories inch closer to majority in by-election

A guest post by regular commenter Nick C.

Earlier this week by-elections took place to fill four vacant seats in the Canadian House of Commons. The overall outcome saw a net gain of two seats for Stephen Harper’s governing Conservative Party, one at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, and the other being a seat returning to the Conservative fold after having been held by an ex-Conservative Independent. Meanwhile the Bloc and New Democrats respectively retained the other two seats.

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NDP goes for the throat

Only days ago, Jack Layton’s NDP remained in a technical coalition with Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals in Canada. Yet after the coalition was dissolved by Ignatieff supporting the Conservative budget, Layton has lashed out at the Liberals in a new round of radio ads:

“Some things just don’t change,” intones a woman in one ad.

“Another Conservative budget rubber stamped by another Liberal leader. It’s official: Michael Ignatieff failed his first big test as Liberal leader. He’s thrown his lot in with Stephen Harper.”

The ad portrays NDP Leader Jack Layton as the only political leader who can be trusted to look out for average families.

“Jack Layton’s the only leader strong enough to stand up to Harper.”

It’s not that surprising. Clearly the NDP were preparing for Ignatieff to dissolve the coalition which he had never had much love for, and the NDP’s long-term enemy, despite its rhetoric against Stephen Harper, is the Liberals. The NDP aims to supplant the Liberals as the main centre-left party in Canadian politics, and is aiming to tar Ignatieff with the same “weak-leader” brush as Stephane Dion.

In other news, this week’s budget also shows a shift for Harper’s Conservatives away from wooing Quebec voters. After their 2008 election strategy of winning seats in Quebec failed, and the role of the BQ in the stillborn coalition drove a wedge between the Conservatives and swinging Quebec voters, Stephen Harper has shifted his focus.

The problem for the Conservatives is that there don’t seem to be enough seats for them to win to form a majority. They already hold a vast majority in the Prairies states and a large majority in British Columbia. Outside of Toronto, they dominate Ontario, and hold a decent number of seats in the three Maritime provinces. With this impressive result, they only won 143 seats, twelve short of a majority of 155. So where can they win the remaining twelve?

There are only three options: Toronto, Quebec, and Newfoundland. While the Conservatives have room to grow in Newfoundland, the province is too small to have a significant impact. At the 2008 election, the Conservatives made a large push to win seats in the more conservative Quebec seats held by the left-leaning Bloc Quebecois. However, they failed dismally, remaining stuck on 10 Quebec seats. Since then Harper’s relationship with the second-largest province has fallen apart, with much of his ire at the possible coalition being directed at the legitimacy of the Bloc to engage in national politics.

This all comes back to the budget, where it appears that Harper has chosen to strip money out of the two provinces who have bucked the Conservative-voting trend, with the budget being opposed in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador for alleged cuts to funding to those provinces. In contrast, Harper is aiming at the so-called “905″ region around Toronto, named for the telephone area code for the outer suburbs of Toronto. The Toronto metropolitan area, despite the decline of the Liberals, remains almost totally represented by Liberals. There is a 35-seat block which jumps out at you when you look at the electoral map of southern Ontario. Within this block, only two NDP seats and one Conservative seat buck the trend. If only 12 of these 32 Liberal MPs can be toppled, Stephen Harper is on track for that long-sought-after majority.

In other news: The Globe and Mail today includes an interesting email discussion between a Liberal member and NDP member, dissecting the late lamented coalition.

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Canada on the brink

So Canada’s conservative government has brought down a budget, eight weeks after Parliament was prorogued to prevent a new Liberal-NDP coalition government being formed.

The NDP and the Bloc have clearly stated that they will vote against the budget, and have been joined by the Newfoundland premier Danny Williams, who actively campaigned against Harper at the 2008 election. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, is yet to announce whether his party will support the budget, and will make an announcement at about 3am AEDT. If the Liberals decide to vote against the budget, Harper will attempt to call an early election, with the alternative being a new Liberal minority government or Liberal-NDP coalition government.

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2009 election preview: British Columbia

The Canadian province of British Columbia will go to the polls on May 12, 2009, to elect 85 members of the Legislative Assembly, and vote on a referendum to change the electoral system used in future provincial elections.

British Columbian politics is particularly unusual in Canada. The two major parties are the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, but they fill very different roles in the provincial political environment. The Liberal Party is the centre-right party, and has no affiliation to the federal party. Many BC Liberals are aligned with the Conservative Party of Canada. The NDP fills a more centrist role than in federal politics.

The Liberals, under Premier Gordon Campbell, have governed BC since the 2001 election, when the ruling NDP lost all but two of their seats, with the Liberals winning 77 of 79 seats. This was the culmination of half a century of volatile provincial politics.

BC’s peculiar political system dates back to the 1940s, when the major Liberal and Conservative parties formed a coalition to prevent the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to the NDP, from gaining power. The 1952 election saw the coalition split and saw the fringe Social Credit League form a minority government. The CCF was in opposition with the Liberals and the Conservatives reduced to the crossbenches. Social Credit was founded to pursue the policies of social credit parties, who remained a fringe movement in most of the English-speaking world.

The party quickly broadened into a centre-right conservative party, with the CCF, then the NDP, becoming the main centre-left party, and the Liberals and Conservatives almost entirely disappearing from BC politics. This state of affairs continuing for the next thirty-nine years, with the exception of three years of NDP government in the 1970s. In 1991, the Social Credit party was decimated, not only losing the election to the NDP, but being pushed into third place behind the resurgent Liberals. The Socreds disappeared at the 1996 election, and the Liberals defeated the NDP in the 2001 election. 2005 saw a resurgent NDP gain ground but fail to unseat Campbell. The province has one of the strongest provincial Green parties, with the Greens peaking at 12% at the 2001 election, although they went back slightly in 2005.

The huge margin of victory in 2001 was followed by the Liberals carrying out a promise to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The body was made up of randomly selected citizens selected from all provincial ridings. After a period of examination of the various options available, the Assembly approved a variant of the Single Transferable Vote system used in Ireland and Tasmania (known in Australia as Hare-Clark). The proposal was taken to the 2005 provincial election as a referendum, and managed to gain 57% support, as well as majority support in all but two ridings. However the legislation required the referendum to win 60% support, and thus it was defeated. Gordon Campbell’s government has pushed ahead with their plans to introduce BC-STV, and will introduce another referendum alongside the election in 2009, again with a 60% threshold imposed.

British Columbia will also be voting using new electoral boundaries in 2009, and as part of the boundary review process the Commission proposed a set of boundaries to be used in an STV election. These boundaries combine single-member ridings together. For example, five ridings in eastern Vancouver will be combined to make Vancouver East riding, which will elect 5 MLAs as a group. I have converted these files to Google Earth and uploaded them to my maps page. However, I haven’t been able to find any calculations of the notional margins on new boundaries. I would appreciate it if anyone has information on that front.

The prospect of British Columbia adopting the Hare-Clark system is exciting for anyone interested in electoral reform. A successful implementation of BC-STV would not only influence fellow Canadian provinces, and the Canadian federal system, which also suffer from similar problems, it could also see an impact on the neighbouring US west coast, where relatively progressive regimes in California, Oregon and Washington have been the most eager to experiment with new electoral systems. The province of Ontario has already adopted BC’s Citizens’ Assembly model, with an Assembly proposing an MMP system similar to New Zealand, which was soundly defeated at a referendum in 2007. While this failed, victory in BC in 2009 would be a big step towards the end of First Past the Post elections.

How do we elect our leaders? Part one

After the events of the last few weeks further demonstrated the inability of Stephane Dion to remain as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Dion announced last Monday that he would resign as soon as the party chose an interim leader. Dion had announced his resignation following the October election, and a leadership convention was planned for May, with three contenders. On Monday 8th, Dominic LeBlanc withdrew and supported Michael Ignatieff, and Ignatieff’s main rival, former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, withdrew on Tuesday, giving room for Ignatieff to be elected interim Leader by the Liberal Party executive in consultation with the caucus on Wednesday 10th December. The convention will still be held in May, but is expected to be a coronation, with Ignatieff solidly in place as Leader of the Opposition or even Prime Minister. The difficulty the Liberal Party had in reconciling its lengthy leadership process with the need to make a quick decisions raises some interesting issues about how political parties elect their leaders. Canadian parties use various methods of allowing their members to have a say in electing members. The Liberal Party elect leaders at a convention that resembles old-fashioned US presidential conventions, where candidates are gradually knocked out until one gets support of the majority. The last convention in 2006 had about 2600 delegates voting at the convention. The NDP, BQ and the Conservatives all use various processes that give all members a vote. The NDP gives 75% of votes to members of the party, and 25% of votes to members of affiliated organisations, which are mainly labour unions. Over 58,000 votes were cast at the last leadership election in 2003. The Conservatives use a weighted system that gives 100 points to each of 308 ridings. The ridings are distributed proportionally according to how the members living in that riding voted. The BQ appears to use a simple “one vote one value” system, and the last leadership election saw about 48,000 members vote. Most Canadian provincial parties also seem to have shifted towards a “one vote one value” system as well. UK political parties likewise use various systems that put the ultimate say largely in the hands of grassroots members while giving some say to Members of Parliament. The British Labour Party uses a system which weights votes so that 1/3 of the vote is cast by members of the constituency parties, 1/3 by members of affiliated organisations (mainly labour unions) and 1/3 by members of Parliamentary Labour Party. In the only contested leadership election in 1994, Tony Blair won 57% of the vote, with a majority in all three parts of the electoral college. The British Conservative Party uses a process whereby candidates face voting by Members of Parliament until there are only two candidates remaining, and then the two proceed to a vote of all grassroots members. In the 2005 election, four candidates nominated. David Davis received the most votes in the first round, but Cameron took the clear lead after the lowest-polling candidate was eliminated. In the members’ vote, almost 200,000 votes were cast, and Cameron won clearly with 67% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats use a straight one-vote-one-value process, although each candidate must be nominated by at least 10% of the parliamentary party. Members vote with a preference ballot. Following the 2006 resignation of Charles Kennedy, 52,000 members voted, with Menzies Campbell winning 44% of the primary vote, being elected on preferences, beating Chris Huhne with 58% of the preference vote. Another leadership election in 2007 saw Nick Clegg beat Chris Huhne by a slim margin of 511 votes out of 41,000 cast. In contrast, Australia and New Zealand politics tends towards members of Parliament deciding leaders. The only exceptions I can find are the NZ Green Party and the Australian Democrats, although only two state Greens parties have official leaders (ACT and Tasmania), so Greens MPs sit in Parliaments in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia without any elected leader. The New Zealand Green Party has two co-leaders, and they are elected by delegates to the national conference of the party. Their constitution requires that one leader be male and the other female. The party’s original leaders, Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimmons, remained in place for the 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 elections, and the only recent election took place in 2006 following the death of Rod Donald shortly after the 2005 election. The election was contested by MP Nandor Tanczos, former MP Mike Ward and party members Russel Norman and David Clendon. Due to the fact that four of the six Greens MPs were female, there was a high chance that the new male co-leader would not be an MP, and in the end Norman defeated Tanczos in a preference ballot. Norman became leader outside Parliament and was elected to Parliament to fill Tanczos’ seat when he resigned in mid-2008, and Norman was re-elected at the 2008 election. I was planning on going into what we should do in Australia as far as electing our leaders, but this has gotten too long, so: Tomorrow: what should we do in Australia? What would happen to our politics if grassroots members got to decide who became party leader?

The Daily Show does Canada

It’s been a while since I’ve posted Daily Show clips, so I thought I’d put up Monday night’s Daily Show coverage of the Canadian constitutional crisis, I particularly enjoyed the second segment’s meandering into the republic debate.

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Quebec election: Liberals regain majority

I don’t know enough about Canadian politics to do in-depth coverage of provincial elections, but I thought I’d do a wrap-up of yesterday’s provincial election in Quebec.

Liberal Party premier Jean Charest was re-elected as Premier. Charest was a minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was the sole minister to survive the 1993 landslide, becoming PC Leader. After recovering ground in the 1997 federal election, Charest moved to Quebec politics, leading the Liberals into the 1998 election, which saw the separatist Parti Québécois government re-elected with a similar result.

At the 2003 election the PQ was defeated, and Charest was elected Premier, leading a majority Liberal government. While the party is called the “Liberal Party”, it does not have formal links with the Federal Liberals, and the main dividing line between the Liberals and the PQ were along federalist/sovereigntist lines, with Charest effectively leading the anti-separatist effort in Quebec. The election also saw the right-wing Action démocratique du Québec gain seats. After its leader Mario Dumont won the party’s only seat in 1994 and 1998, the party won four seats in 2003.

After four years in office, Charest went to an election in 2007. The surging ADQ won a massive 37 seats, bringing them to 41 seats. The result was an effective three-way tie in both popular vote and seats. Charest’s Liberals formed a minority government with 48 seats, while the ADQ won 41 against 36 for the PQ.

Yesterday’s result, only 21 months after the last election, saw an expected result, with the Liberals regaining a slim majority, with 66 seats, and the PQ regaining its clear position as the Official Opposition, with 51 seats. The ADQ was decimated, falling to 7 seats, which saw Mario Dumont resign as leader of the party he founded.

So after the last 21 months, it appears that Quebec politics has returned to the norm of a centre-right federalist party and a centre-left independence party, which has existed for the last 35 years, and the PQ are now in a position to return to government in 2012.

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Westminster falls apart in Canada

Following Governor-General Michaëlle Jean’s decision yesterday to prorogue the Canadian Parliament until January 26, Canada’s parliamentary democracy is effectively suspended, and the decision has grave consequences for all countries that follow the Westminster system of government, including Australia and the UK.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who theoretically holds office because of success in elections to the House of Commons, now serves in office despite a clear majority of the House making it clear that they plan to vote against his government and support a new Liberal-NDP coalition government.

The Westminster system, as practiced by Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, gives power to a government led by a Prime Minister despite the fact that neither the Prime Minister or his party faces a direct national election, as in presidential systems. The main effect of this system is that the Prime Minister remains accountable to the lower house of the Parliament throughout their term in office. During the later years of George W. Bush’s US presidency, it has been repeatedly noted that, were he a Prime Minister in a Westminster democracy, he would have been defeated.

A Westminster Prime Minister can only be considered to be a democratic leader as long as they have been selected by the Parliament for the position, either directly or indirectly through the election of party leaders. As soon as a Prime Minister loses the support of the House they become illegitimate, whether there has been an opportunity for the House to formally vote no confidence in the government or not.

By preventing Parliament from sitting for the explicit purpose of avoiding the defeat of his government, Stephen Harper has acted in the same way as many dictators around the world who have dissolved or inhibited democratic legislatures in order to prevent their opposition challenging their hold on power.

When Parliament resumes in January, it is expected that the centre-left coalition will vote no confidence in Harper’s government. It appears that the Liberal-NDP coalition will then ask the Governor-General to commission a new government. In contrast, it appears that Harper will ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call a new election. Again, it is blatantly undemocratic for a Prime Minister who has lost the one claimed to democratic legitimacy to insist on staying in office and dissolving a Parliament which has rejected him and embraced an alternative candidate, particularly so soon after an election.

In order to improve the Westminster system, a series of reforms could simplify the process, reduce the role of the Governor-General in crises and clarify the democratic solutions in positions of minority governments and constitutional crises without effecting the day-to-day functioning of parliamentary democracy when stable majority governments exist.

Firstly, the appointment of Prime Ministers should be explicitly handed over to the lower house of the Parliament. The ACT does not have a Governor, but rather the ACT Legislative Assembly elects its Chief Minister as the first act of business after the election of Speaker. Rather than making issues such as a budget “confidence votes”, simply allow votes to dismiss the Prime Minister/Chief Minister/Premier.

Furthermore, the scheduling of Parliament needs to be taken out of the hands of the government. Either Parliament could explicitly approve the parliamentary schedule, or a body that represents all parties could make the decision, to allow for urgent circumstances when the schedule must be altered without Parliament returning. This would prevent the ridiculous circumstance of a government shutting down Parliament to prevent the Parliament acting against the government.

Finally, the calling of elections needs to be reformed. I have always supported fixed terms, but I tend to think it needs to be more nuanced. There are occasions, particularly in a hung parliament where no stable government can be formed, that an early election must be held. Firstly, terms would be regularly fixed to happen on a particular day. An early election can then be held, but only with the explicit support of both government and opposition, which could be expressed through a 75% vote through both houses (or just the lower house in the UK and Canada where upper houses are unelected). This could also be used in circumstances like those in Australia in 1975. If 75% agree that the situation is irreconcilable, the Parliament can be dissolved. Short of that, the parties need to find a way to cooperate. It would prevent the reckless point-scoring of the Fraser opposition in 1975, since it would be impossible for an election to be called without the government agreeing, making the blocking of supply pointless except for policy purposes.

By adopting these simple reforms, almost all of the remaining ways that the Governor-General has a practical impact on the political system. It’s conceivable that, by taking away the power to decide government in minority government situations and resolve deadlocks, the role of a Governor-General, Queen or President could be made redundant.

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Canadian constitutional showdown

So it looks like Canada, only six weeks after an election saw a swing to the Conservative minority government, is headed towards another left-of-centre government.

Today the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party signed an agreement to form a coalition government, with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

The agreement would see the Leader of the Liberal Party as the new Prime Minister in a cabinet of 18 Liberal ministers and 6 NDP ministers. The government would be the third minority government, after the Martin government of 2004-2006 and the current Harper government, with the Bloc holding the balance of power. The BQ has vowed to support the government for 18 months.

The Harper government remains in office until a no-confidence motion is passed, which is currently scheduled for December 8, although there is discussion that Harper will prorogue the Parliament until January, when a budget can be presented to the House. The “opposition day”, when the Liberals have an opportunity to present motions, has already been delayed from the 1st to the 8th.

The immediate cause of the election appears to have been caused by the financial crisis, and in particular Harper’s proposal to drastically reduce political party public funding, which seems to have sparked action on the opposition benches. Harper has backed down on the proposal, but the Opposition appears to have tasted blood in the water, and are on the hunt.

While the recent election clearly saw increased support for Harper and a rejection of Stephane Dion as Liberal leader, it remains true that the three largest left-of-centre parties collectively received a significant majority of the vote as well as a majority of seats.

Indeed, it seems to make sense that the last election would end in the election of a centre-left government. Anyone who watched the election debate would’ve been struck by the clear sense of four left-wing party leaders on one side pounding the Prime Minister. It is also a good step forward for the country in terms of restoring its place in the international community’s push to deal with climate change. Along with New Zealand, Canada is only one of two countries which have gone backwards on climate change in the last decade.

The biggest complication in the Liberal-NDP plans is the upcoming Liberal leadership election. Stephane Dion announced his plans to resign as leader straight after the election, and an election campaign was kicked off. Liberal Party delegates will meet for a convention on May 2 to elect a leader from three candidates. The plans at the moment appear to be for Dion to take over as Prime Minister for less than six months, before giving it up to the new leader after May 2.

So what are the consequences for the political parties? In the short run, the Conservatives will attack the others for supposedly overturning the will of the people, but in the long run the lack of incumbency will surely hurt the Conservatives. Jack Layton’s plans for the NDP will likely remain to see his party overtake the Liberal Party, and if the Liberals struggle it could benefit the NDP. On the other hand, smaller coalition partners tend to get hurt at the next election. Yet the NDP has never previously had the opportunity to govern, and if they govern competently it could push the party to new levels of support.

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