Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

Advertisements

Election 41: When It Happens, Let’s Make It Count

Friday’s vote in the House of Commons means that we Canadians are spared for the time being from going to the polls. Maybe for 10 days, maybe for 10 months. My guess is that the between the support of the NDP and the Bloc, the Conservatives will be able to marshal Parliament through a fall sitting. Following the Vancouver olympics, they will bring forward a motion that neither party can support, sending Canadians to the polls in March or April of 2010.

Canadians don’t seem eager to go to the polls. Which is funny, because if you believe the polls from the last couple of months, a majority of them also want to see someone besides Prime Minister Harper lead the country. Which is even funnier, because polls indicated that Canadians (outside of Quebec) overwhelmingly opposed the idea of a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP (supported by the Bloc Quebecois) when it was proposed several months ago. I’m at a loss for options that will therefore please the majority of people (at least those responding to these polls).

In any case, it looks we’re headed for another election soon – certainly before the 40th Parliament’s mandate expires in 2012, and likely before 2010 is finished. I think the combination of a lack of enthusiasm for an election as well as for the status quo indicates one thing – voters don’t believe the election will change anything. You can’t blame someone for thinking that – polls indicate the next parliament will look like the current one, and if recent elections are an indication, the campaign will be more about fearmongering and name-calling than serious policy considerations.

Most Canadians seem to be unsatisfied not just with government, but with the level of discourse and debate in politics. The next election is an opportunity for voters – to ask tough questions, demand to see policy and discussion surrounding it, and to reward those party leaders and candidates who do so. Done right, another early election can be a good thing.

Which is why I was encouraged to read Michael Igatieff’s speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

Ignatieff Speaks

Almost three months ago, I blogged about Michael Ignatieff’s town hall in Edmonton. He outlined a vision for Canada, and with speeches such as today’s on the economy and last week’s about Canada’s place in the world, he’s starting to articulate how he would move the country towards that vision. We need more of this. There is certainly a place in political speeches to critique the actions and views of other parties, but when that becomes the prime focus of your speeches, and you move away from informed critique to ad hominen attacks and misinformed generalizations, everyone loses out.

While you may not know it if you just tune in during elections, especially the leadership debates, our four national party leaders are all smart, accomplished people – as is BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. Between the five of them we should be able to have a real debate about the values and future direction of our country.

Michael Ignatieff is an accomplished author and public intellectual. He has written extensively about nationalism, national identity, and foreign policy. He has studied and lectured at some of the world’s leading universities. Let’s hold him to account, and make sure he spends his time talking about issues like foreign policy, the economy, and nationalism, rather than demonizing the Conservative government.

Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper addresses the worlds media

Stephen Harper was the Policy Director of the fledgling Reform Party, and one of the more active minds of his generation. He challenged the status quo and helped present a coherent vision of a more conservative Canada. As Prime Minister, he has abandoned selling a vision, choosing instead to advance causes like Senate reform by stealth, and to woo voters with piecemeal measures one microtargeted group at a time. Mr. Harper has been Prime Minister for 3 1/2 years, and there’s a good chance he’ll continue to be Prime Minister after the next election as well. With this office, what is he trying to accomplish? What is his ultimate vision for Canada, and how does he see us getting there? The Prime Minister would be well-served by laying his cards on the table. We can judge for ourselves if someone is not a leader, or just visiting Canada. So let’s hear less of that and more of where you want to take our country.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I

Prior to his election as leader of the NDP, Jack Layton was a respected Toronto City Councillor, President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and author on the issue of homelessness. Since then, he has spent more time on the campaign trail spouting platitudes about “working families”, demonizing the Liberals and Conservatives, and railing against big corporations. Aside from the “NDP Budget” he extracted from the Liberal Party in 2005, we haven’t seen or heard much about what the NDP stands for. Our cities face significant financial challenges, both in raising revenue and addressing the need for infrastructure and services. Homelessness remains a significant problem. Let’s hear you talk about how you would address those.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leadership candidate

And wither Elizabeth May? For all the talk that Michael Ignatieff was invisible all summer, what has Elizabeth May been up to? Besides turning up to announce she was running for, then contest and win, the nomination in Saanich-Gulf Island, Ms. May has been conspicuously absent in recent months. You would think the leader of a party on the outside of parliament would be making a compelling case that her party would be different than the dysfunctional caucuses inside the House. It would, you know, try to make parliament work.

More importantly, where is May, the lifelong environmental leader, to speak out as we head towards the next round of climate change talks in Copenhagen. Isn’t this precisely the type of issue she got into politics to address?

It’s important we don’t place all the burden or blame on our public officials. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. As citizens, we have a responsibility to hold public officials and candidates for office to account. As we head towards another election, we have an opportunity to demand more of party leaders and candidates for office. We can demand that they discuss issues seriously. We can reward the ones who do, and punish the ones who don’t. These things take time and effort – to vote, to analyse and discuss party platforms and policy issues, to volunteer our time in support of people and causes we support – but good government and serious debate don’t magically happen. It takes the time and effort of citizens and officials at all levels.

If our citizens and our public officials are up for it, Election 41 can be a good thing. We should all do our part to make it happen.