Saturday, October 30, 2010

Toronto: A Nascent Cycle

It's fine call Rob Ford the 64th Mayor of Toronto - it's true, and it shows just how old a city Toronto is, but it's rather more illustrative to call him the third mayor. The third mayor of the city as we know it today, that is. The third mayor, winner of the fifth election, of the city that was amalgamated in 1998 from a number of smaller municipalities. Given how much talk is being made at the moment about 'Old Toronto' vs. the 'inner suburbs', this seems like a valuable thing to bear in mind.

After all, how can you argue with this map, from the Toronto Star?

I think it's correct to frame this election as downtown vs. suburbs. Additionally, it was also about the role of government, about the power of populism, and to a limited extent about the traditional divisions of left, centre and right. It was about downtown vs. the suburbs, so people are right to talk in those terms. People are wrong, though, in pretending that there's anything new about that. It's kind of the way this city works, actually. And though five campaigns is obviously not enough to detect trends, there does seem to be a common thread among them.

The first post-amalgamation election was explicitly downtown vs. suburbs, pitting the incumbent mayor of (Old) Toronto, Barbara Hall, against the decades-long incumbent mayor of North York, Mel Lastman. While one needn't assume that everyone would root for the home team, and while it says nothing about how Etobicoke, York, East York or Scarborough would vote, the results seem oddly familiar:

Barbara Hall's narrow defeat is actually, interestingly, the only time so far an incumbent mayor has been defeated in post-amalgamation Toronto, and even at that it's a half-exception, since she was beaten by an incumbent too. The map above is not quite downtown vs. suburbs so much as north vs. south, but it's definitely a polar split, with the left-leaning candidate winning the vote in the most heavily concentrated urban core and the right-leaning candidate winning in the (slightly) sparser outlying areas.

It's not accurate, however, to say merely 'that's the dynamic in Toronto'. After all, four years later Lastman was re-elected with such a landslide that they might as well have put a crown on his head. Lastman served two terms as mayor of what was once called Metro Toronto, and left on a high note. He didn't seek re-election in 2003, an election which came down to David Miller on the left and John Tory on the right. The resultant map of the 2003 election?

This is admittedly not quite a map of 'old Toronto vs. the suburbs': three Scarborough wards went Miller, for example, and he won fully three wards bordering Steeles. But there is still a duality here, one remarkably similar to 1997... or similar to last week too. And it bears mentioning: not just 'inner' vs. 'outer' but also 'left' vs. 'right', with downtown on the left and the suburbs more likely to trend right.

Again though... just 2003. The next election in 2006 was much more decisively a victory for Miller, whose 57% of the vote was no Lastman-style coronation but was even throughout the city: he won 42 of 44 wards. And did not seek re-election this time around.

What do we see? Well, a pendulum, one that swings every eight years, not four. We see that Toronto likes its incumbents regardless of traditional left/right or urban/suburban divides, but when not faced with an incumbent, resort to traditional, predictable trends. With a (official) lack of partisan branding, Toronto's municipal elections inevitably feature a wide variety of candidates but tend to coalesce around two major candidates, who are then distinguished as broadly 'left' and 'right'. Some of the parts of Toronto that just handed Ford a victory are among the most faithful Liberal seats both federally and provincially, so I would question the importance of the left/right divide, as we traditionally view it, in the current election. I think there's a lot to consider, in fact, in the current election, but if history tells us anything, the divides we feel in our city now will dissipate over the next four years. And if there really is a cycle in Toronto municipal politics, then four years from now cries of "Four More Years" will ring from Ford supporters all the way from Rexdale to Harbourfront. Stranger things have happened. Er... I think.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Canada: "The Progressives", a Fiction

A green maple leaf, recoloured from Image:Cons...Image via Wikipedia
So I'm looking at the newest EKOS numbers - they have a few extra parameters this week. I've been considering a particular fiction that crops up every now and then: the idea that more unity existed on the left side of the spectrum. I'm not talking about some grand coalition or merger between the Liberals and the NDP; considering the Liberals to be what Trudeau once called the 'radical middle', I consider the three mainstream parties that have left-of-centre platforms (regardless of the political alliegances of their supporters): the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party.

Let's consider a particular fiction: that these three parties somehow merged and shed no support to other parties. Would it affect the political landscape? Wow, would it ever:

  • Nationwide, the Progressives have a slight lead over the Conservatives at 35.5% to 34.4%. The Liberals trail at 27.8%.
  • In BC, the Conservatives have a slight lead, at 40.9% to the Progressives' 38.7%. The Liberals are far behind at 16.3% (though British Columbians are to pollsters as Samoans are to anthropologists).
  • 'Fortress Alberta' remains firmly in Conservative hands with an amazing 61.8%. The Progressives and the Liberals are far behind at 19.9% and 15.0%.
  • The Prairies are also safe for the Conservatives, with 45.0%. The Progressives are in second at 30.7%, with the Liberals trailing at 20.2%.
  • Ontario is a tight race between the Conservatives at 37.8% and the Liberals at 37.3%. The Progressives trail at 23.8%.
  • 'Fortress Québec' remains firmly in Progressive hands, with a remarkable 59.8%. The Liberals and the Conservatives trail at 24.0% and 13.7% respectively.
  • Atlantic Canada has the Liberals out front at 37.0%, but it's a rather tight race, with the Progressives polling second at 33.7% and the Conservatives at third at 26.9%.
  • Urban centres look like the following:
    • Vancouver: CPC 43.6%, Prog 34.0%, Libs 16.5%
    • Calgary: CPC 57.6%, Libs 22.0%, Prog 16.0%
    • Toronto: Libs 44.4%, CPC 35.8%, Prog 17.9%
    • Ottawa: Libs 37.5%, CPC 35.0%, Prog 27.5%
    • Montréal: Prog 62.6%, Libs 27.2%, CPC 8.1%
  • The gender gap is strong.
    • Nationwide, the Conservatives lead among men at 40.0% to the Progressives' 32.4% and the Liberals' 25.8%.
    • Women, on the other hand, put the Progressives ahead at 38.6% with the Liberals in second at 29.9% and the Conservatives in third at 28.5%
  • Huge gaps surround age too.
    • Under 25s have the Progressives at 45.1 to the Liberals' and Conservatives' 26.5% and 25.4%.
    • The 25-44 age group also has the Progressives in the lead at 38.6%, but the Conservatives overtake the Liberals 31.8% to 27.1%.
    • In the 45-64 group, the Conservatives overtake the Progressives 36.3% to 34.8%. The Liberals trail at 26.7%.
    • In the 65+ group, the Conservatives are well in the lead at 41.8%. The Liberals pass the Progressives 32.4% to 24.1%.
  • Country of birth matters as well.
    • Canadian-born Canadians have the Progressives ahead at 38.0%, with the Conservatives at 32.8% and the Liberals in the basement at 26.2%.
    • Foreign-born Canadians put the Liberals in the lead, however, with 38.1% to the Conservatives' 31.4%. The Progressives trail at 27.8%.
  • Education also makes a significant difference.
    • People with no post-secondary education put the Conservatives and the Progressives almost exactly equal, at 38.3% and 38.0% respectively. The Liberals trail at 20.7%.
    • People with a college or CEGEP education are similar, though they push the Progressives ahead at 36.4% to the Conservatives' 34.5%. The Liberals again trail at 25.7%.
    • Among university grads, though, the split is effectively three-way, with the Liberals at a slight lead with 33.8% over 33.2% for the Progressives. The Conservatives keep it tight at 31.9%

Quite interesting, no? Considering it this way shows a rough three-way split nationwide but all kids of variation across demographics. Looking at these stats a little more graphically, in each case I'm forgetting the numbers and just looking at the one-two-three positions, colouring them blue for Conservatives,  red for Liberals and green for the theoretical Progressives:
  • #1, #2, #3: Nationwide
  • #1, #2, #3: BC
  • #1, #2, #3: Alberta
  • #1, #2, #3: Prairies
  • #1, #2, #3: Ontario
  • #1, #2, #3: Québec
  • #1, #2, #3: Atlantic
  • #1, #2, #3: Vancouver
  • #1, #2, #3: Calgary
  • #1, #2, #3: Toronto
  • #1, #2, #3: Ottawa
  • #1, #2, #3: Montréal
  • #1, #2, #3: Men
  • #1, #2, #3: Women
  • #1, #2, #3: Under 25
  • #1, #2, #3: 25-44 years old
  • #1, #2, #3: 45-64 years old
  • #1, #2, #3: 65+
  • #1, #2, #3: Canadian-born
  • #1, #2, #3: Foreign-born
  • #1, #2, #3: High school
  • #1, #2, #3: College / CEGEP
  • #1, #2, #3: University grads
Or, what is probably a better way to view this whole mess:

  • #1, #2, #3: Nationwide, 25-44 years old, Canadian-born, College / CEGEP
  • #1, #2, #3: BC, Alberta, Prairies, Vancouver, Men, 45-64 years old, High school
  • #1, #2, #3: Ontario, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, 65+, Foreign-born
  • #1, #2, #3: Québec, Montréal, Women, Under 25
  • #1, #2, #3: Atlantic, University grad
There is no demographic ranking Liberals first, Conservatives second and Progressives third.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Toronto: It's All in How You Look at It.

Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.Image via Wikipedia
I wish I'd bought them today. All day long I couldn't help looking at Toronto Sun boxes and Toronto Star boxes as I passed by them. It was just too funny not to note. The big news was Angus Reid's poll showing Ford at 41% and Smitherman at 40%.

The Sun blared out something like "Rob rides the wave", commenting how the Angus Reid poll still had Ford out front. The Star, meanwhile, looked at the same data and decided they showed Smitherman and Ford 'neck-and-neck'. While both are technically true, it says a lot about how the media in Toronto has sacrificed any attempts at unbiased reporting.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Canada: One Loser, No Winners

So Nanos has some new numbers out.

Nothing spectacular about them - just corroboration of EKOS, both of whom see, surprisingly, a Conservative rise this week. But apart from the current numbers, what caught my eye was a chart tracking voting intentions all the way back to 2002. I'm not happy to cut-and-paste from another site, but the graph that I'm including here, for reference, comes directly from the link at the top of the page.

Interesting it certainly is. Looking across the chart from 2002 to present, the main thing you note is the terrible dive Liberal numbers have taken: from 49.0% to 32.9%, meaning fully one in three 2002 Liberals can now be found elsewhere.

But where exactly? While each of the other four parties has shown an increase in the interim, the increases are all mild: to the Liberals' -16.1% drop, we see relatively paltry gains of 1.6% for the Conservatives, 3.8% for the BQ, 6.3% for the NDP and 4.9% for the Greens, since they weren't even on the survey in 2002.

There are a few huge caveats to observe here: first, it's remarkable that in 2002, 35.0% of the country was willing to vote for a party that wouldn't exist for another year and a half. I have to presume that 35.0% was the combined total of the PC and CA numbers, rather dodgy science to be sure. And even if this is true, conventional wisdom has it that the redder Tories reacted badly to the merger, drifting to the Liberals or elsewhere. And yet the first major thing we see happening after December 2003 is not a drop in the blue line but a huge drop in the red line. What's that all about?

After all, after that drop, the Liberals are sitting at 37.0% - it had already shed 12.0 of the 16.1% it was due to drop, and the remainder is not all that significant, statistically. You might call it stasis since then.

If it is stasis, though, it's highly unstable. Based on unreality as those numbers may be, the left side of the graph shows a political scene Canadians are well familiar with - two clearly dominant parties with not-insignificant additional parties laying well below the others. Somewhere between bipartisan and multipartisan. That's still true when you look on the right side of the graph, perhaps, but it's much muddier. For a while now, the combined totals of the NDP, the BQ and the Green Party have surpassed or at least drawn even with the two 'ruling' parties. Not that that means anything except as an intriguing reading of the statistics, but parties are hardly 'fringe' when in combination the rival the 'majors'.

We've been here before. The merger of the PC and CA parties really was a game-changer, but it only brought back the appearance of a renewed bipartisanism. The 1990s were a strange time for Canadian politics. Chrétien's Liberals were able to get back-to-back majorities with as low as 38.46% of the vote. That bears consideration: Chrétien was able to secure a majority with just a percentage point or two more than Harper's Conservatives are currently polling.

The cure in 2003 was to 'unite the right'. The death of bipartisanism was dealt with by attempting to revive it. I'm sceptical of equivalent 'unite the left' talk at the moment, because the perception of unity the Liberals, the NDP, the BQ and the Greens appear to have (all parties are happy to admit that at the moment 'us vs. them' means Conservatives vs. everyone else) is little more than skin-deep. I think we need to have a discusison in Canada about the permanent death of bipartisanism, and how to overcome adversarial politics in a landscape where it's no longer feasable.

32.4% is an atrocious number for the party that has spent the majority of Canada's time as a nation as the government. 36.6% is a horrible number for the party currently controlling the government. But those are bad numbers only in the context of 'how we do things in Canada': in Germany in 2009, the CDU/CSU had a 'decisive' victory with only 33.8% of the vote, in Italy in 2008 Berlusconi comfortably won with 37.4%. Our closest parliamentary role model, the UK, just saw the Conservatives take power with 36.1%. This is how democracy works in modern western countries. Multipartisanism is the norm.

Within the Canadian context at the moment, the word 'coalition' is always assumed to mean a Liberal/NDP coalition. The is mostly based around the adversarial character of the Conservative Party at the moment: both that it suits their purposes to frighten people about the spectre of a 'coalition of losers' (perhaps with the BQ tossed in) and also that it's quite impossible to imagine the conservatives entering into a genuine power-sharing agreement with any of its opponents.

But that will have to change sooner or later. Harper is right when he says a coalition of parties that excludes the single party that earned the most votes lacks legitimacy. Globally there is increasingly a sense that in multipartisan democracies, the single party that gets the largest share of votes and/or seats has the right to attempt to form a viable coalition. For the sake of the maturity of our political system, I would welcome the idea of the Conservatives entering into formal coalition talks after the next election, provided they got the most votes.

A majority of Canadians, EKOS tells us, want a return to majority government. That might be all but impossible; what we need is to turn away from unstable minority governments. The unchecked power to follow an agenda as far as possible is a risk we might in the long-term be happy to avoid. But operating under the constant threat of, and the well-honed dread of, elections has caused out entire political system to coalesce around opinion polls. Never before have Ipsos, Angus Reid, EKOS and Nanos wielded so much power. Canada needs to enter into a discussion about how to learn to accept the idea of coalition.

On the other hand, though, at present the Conservatives would seemingly be unable to put together a stable coalition with any other party. What then? I suspect that the 2008 attempt by the Liberals, the NDP and the BQ to form a coaltion was so poorly recieved because it seemed undemocratic. Perhaps it was: but if the first party proves unable to put together a stable parliamentary majority, it should fall to other parties to attempt to do so. This would, I think, be the beginnings of a modern political system, one where a multitude of voices does not come at the price of an increase in instability, and one, hopefully, that can get over the destructive adversarial nature of Canadian politics at the moment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Toronto: AV by Attrition

Rocco RossiImage via WikipediaIn a recent blog entry, I extolled the virtues of Alternative Vote as it applied to the Toronto mayoral election. Canada is already a country where multipartisanism is the norm, despite the obvious difficulties of maintaining an entire party organisation. Municipally, where there are no parties, the chance of vote splintering is markedly high (the full list of candidates for mayor alone is an amazing 40). Ultimately, however, in a true winner-take-all battle, a multitude of voices ought ultimately to come down to a two-person race only for the fact that the winner needs some kind of legitimacy: winning with some 30-odd percent of the vote is not, whatever we have become accustomed to here in Canada, a viable mandate.

What's interesting is how something like that is already happening, what I call 'AV by Attrition', but what more accurately appears to be a run-off election with the initial phases of the run-off paid for not by the municipality but by Ipsos Reid.

At the end of September, Ipsos Reid put out a poll that had Rob ford well ahead but had Sarah Thomson tied at the bottom of the pack at 8%. What happened? She dropped out, leaving four candidates. Half a month later and another Ipsos Reid poll, showing Smitherman having miraculously pulled ahead of Ford and showing Rocco Rossi alone at the bottom of the pack with less than six percent of decided voters. So what happens next? Rossi drops out.

I like Rossi. I wasn't planning to vote for him, but he seems affable. Seems like a decent enough guy and, silly 'Goodfellas' misstep aside, seems quite dignified by the standards of this race. But he was never going to win, and Toronto has a culture of candidates dropping out once they've realised they have no shot, like curling teams. Or, I should say, like Canada at the UN.

Anyway, and then there were three. It's interesting just how much power Ipsos Reid is wielding at the moment. One wonders if they'll be able to squeeze another poll in before the big day, and if so, what Pantalone will do about it.
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Friday, October 8, 2010

Toronto and Canada: One vs. the Others

The municipal race currently 'heating up' in Toronto, an election campaign that makes the American presidential race seem like a sprint, is an interesting paradox: it's by far the most partisan non-partisan electoral system I've ever seen. While there may tehnically be no parties on the bill, it still feels very much like a  party system. And furthermore, as superficially different as they might look on the outside, it reminds me most of our federal political landscape.

How? Well, post-Sarah Thomson there are now four major candidates. Similarly, federally we have four major candidates outside of Québec. Seemingly a healthy multipartisan democracy. But one which, after the battle lines are drawn, still seems quite polar. Still seems 'us vs. them', or rather 'us vs. him'.

Neither Toronto as a whole nor Canada as a whole is especially conservative. Within the '416', in fact, conservative viewpoints (small-c intentional but capital-C too) form a distinct minority of the public discourse. In both cases, the front-runner is a distinctly conservative candidate, but in both cases they are running at the front with far less than 50% of the vote.

Whenever people are talking about Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and claiming to like one while hating the other, I am baffled. "But they taste the same!", I call out, and people disagree vehemently. "Put it this way," I say, "Compare Coke to Pepsi and, say, a glass of milk. Don't they seem the same now?"

Municipally and federally, it seems like the same kind of thing. Looking merely at Joe Pantolone, George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi, there seem to be a million differences between them, and in fact those three names alone do roughly represent the left, centre and right of the spectrum. Yet introduce front-runner Rob Ford into the equation, and suddenly the first three seem like mirror images of each other. How is this? Well, Rob Ford and Stephen Harper are both highly polarising figures, and the influence we inevitably must tolerate that comes from south of the border in waves familiarises us with the politics of polarisation. For a large variety of reasons, Rob Ford and Stephen Harper represent American-style politics in a way that our other candidates don't. I think to a certain degree the inability of the other candidates to catch onto this new dynamic, or their unwillingness to respond to it, is a good part of the reason they lag behind. Let's take a second to look at current polls:
  • Federally, averaged for the month of September by
    • Stephen Harper and the CPC: 33.4%
    • The Non-Stephen Harpers: 65.0% (LPC: 29.6%, NDP: 15.2%, GPC: 10.2, BQ: 10.0)
    • Others: 1.6% (I won't be so Manichaean as to lump everyone into the non-Stephen Harper camp, since some of these other voices might well be conservative; my point is that the four I listed above are very specifically not Stephen Harper; in other words, they are Coke, Pepsi, RC and Cott next to Harper's milk)
  • Municipally, I can't find anything more recent than the one from 28 September here:
    • Rob Ford: 28%
    • The Non-Rob Fords: 47% (Smitherman: 23%, Pantalone: 10%, Rossi: 7% and the ghost of Thomson: 7%)
    • Undecided: a whopping 20%
Similarly, even though Rossi is a rightist, he seems to have more in common with Smitherman and Pantalone than with his wingmate. Muncipal debates give the impression of Ford on one side and everyone else on the other, just as, federally, the 2008 leadership debates seemed to pit Harper against a 'gang of four'. And importantly, the poll I referenced put Ford ahead but also claimed that if it were a two-person race between Smitherman and Ford, Smitherman would win. I have to imagine if it were a two-person race between Ignatieff and Harper as well, that Harper could win.

But it's not. Neither race is bipartisan, and both races run the risk of seeing a man elected who is disliked by a majority of the electors: not a great way to establish a mandate.

What is there to do about it? Well, every time the opposition appears united against them, Harper and the Conservatives like to paint the other parties as a 'coalition', a strategy that I think might backfire if it succeeds in making the public familiar with, and used to, the idea of a 'coalition'. The truth is, though, that federally we are sooner or later going to have to get used to post-election coalitions; our electoral landscape is too fragmented to ever again see majorities on the horizon, and our ability to tolerate minority rule is being tested, it would appear. It's really only possible to envision a Liberal-NDP coalition at the moment, and indeed it is that very possibility that is mentioned so often you'd be excused for thinking it already exists. But there might be any kind of coalition in the future. They will come; as a country we have no choice.

But municipally? The election for mayor is the closest we in Canada get to American-style politics, because it's voting for an individual, in a very strict winner-takes-all fashion. There is no opportunity for coalition here: the losers go home, out of a job. True "Anyone-but-Ford" believers might claim that tactical voting is even more essential municipally than it is at other levels, and certainly tactical voting must be what Smitherman dreams of when he crawls into bed at night.

An Alternate-Vote system is probably the answer for mayoral races. I don't love AV, but it's tough to see an alternative in a winner-takes-all scenario. I don't suggest that (a) this is useful merely to keep out Rob Ford or that (b) every supporter of Pantolone or Rossi would by default put Smitherman higher than Ford on the list. Though three of the post-amalgamation mayoral races have been cakewalks (in one case with over 80% of the vote), I think future elections will be less so. AV would be useful not just now but subsequently. If FPTP would, at the moment, produce a Ford victory but AV would produce a Smitherman victory, that clearly indicates that voter intentions are not reflecting reality.

Which I think is a contributing factor to voter malaise. One thing that has Ford running first at the moment is that, for better or for worse, he's the only candidate that inspires much of a reaction at all either way. Otherwise this campaign has largely been a disappointment, and it's difficult to be anything but disspirited about it.