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.

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