Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Canada: When to Leave

Beleaguered Alberta premier Ed Stelmach is stepping down.

It's interesting news: we've had three premiers retire or resign in the past few months. Danny Williams of Newfoundland retired with levels of support the likes of which we rarely see in Canada . The question there is how much the PC's sky-high levels of support depend on the personage of Williams himself - in other words, how much of those astronomic poll numbers are now available for the Liberals and (snort) the NDP to cherry-pick.

Gordon Campbell and Ed Stelmach wish that was their parties' main concern at the moment. You get the sense that Campbell understood that the BC Liberals were in a real free-fall, and that they had yet to bottom out. You sense that Campbell 'took one for the team', stepping down for the good of the party in order to take the blame personally for BC's current problems and let the party carry on without him. Amazingly, due also to similar stories in the NDP opposition, it may actually have worked. Time will tell, but on the day of Campbell's resignation he was looing at polls so terrible that an NDP victory at the next election seems like a done deal.

Alberta's somewhere in the middle, and this is where it intrigues so much. Its history is one of single-party dominance, where one party dominates politics for a generation and then in a single election is crushed into insignificance by another party, who holds the reins for a generation. Since 1935, these have been parties on the right: Social Credit until 1967, when they were challenged by the reemergent Progressive Conservatives, who have held the reins ever since.

By March of 2010, Stelmach's PCs were in a freefall, and the Wildrose Alliance had overtaken them in the polls. Projections based on the polls at the time showed that the WRA would have decimated the PCs, overtaking them as the party of government and as the main party of the right. And if we can understand anything from Alberta's history, that change might have been permanent.

Were Stelmach Cambell, that is the point at which he would have resigned. But he's not, and interestingly in the past 10 months or so, polls suggest the PCs have come around: surpassing the WRA or at least drawing even with them. "The inevitable" suddenly seemed a good deal less so.

I'm genuinely curious and unable to guess what this means for the 'battle for the right' in Alberta. The captain abandoning a sinking ship might be the single event that pushes Danielle Smith's Wildrose Alliance to electoral success (for thirty-some years, perhaps). Or does Stelmach see in Campbell's departure an example to imitate? Will Albertains forgive the party now that Stelmach is gone? One thing I can say for sure is that it's a huge gamble, one that I never saw coming.

Another thing I can say for sure is that while Dalton McGuinty is probably nonchalantly pretending not to care, Jean Charest is almost certainly in the curious position of wonder if there is anything - anything at all - that Québec can learn from Alberta.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Canada and the UK: Lessons From Britain

What we know, heading into 2011, regarding the Canadian political scene is this: there might be an election, but there might not. And if there is an election, it might change a lot, but it might not. Not much to go on, really.

The interesting thing, though, is that those among us who sense that the stasis that has set in regarding our political landscape might be shaken up (might need to be shaken up) have by-and-large ignored the Westminster System just across the Atlantic that has a half-year leg up on the changes we might well be seeing in Canada in 2011.

If we really do enter an era of coalitions, we shouldn't be looking at countries like Germany or Italy that know them well: we should be looking at the UK as it stumbles through its first proper coalition. The other way the UK presents a model for us is in the existence of Caroline Lucas, the UK's first-ever elected Green MP. This matters because (for now, anyway) the UK has the same problematic FPTP system that we do. So if Nick Clegg's reform referendum fails, sticking the UK with its current dysfunctional system, Caroline Lucas's successes and failures will tell us a lot about the feasability of having a Green Party in a Westminster FPTP system.

The comparison is not entirely valid. For instance, the three-party system that the UK has right now might seem to match ours quite closely (with the same colours, even), but since the mid-nineties, the non-right of the political spectrum in the UK has been really confused. The Liberal Democrats, whose participation in the current coalition has been disastrous for their popular support, appeared to be an option more progressive than the Labour party - an appearance not borne out of the histories of the two parties but on recent trends in parliament, current platforms, and to a large degree on the personages of Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg was the story of the 2010 election, and his party seemed like a vital alternative to the two stagnant main parties.

Things are different here. Setting aside the Greens and the BQ (who, of course, correspond to the SNP and the PC), we're quite clear on who our left, our centre and our right are - to the extent that the actual beliefs and policies of the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives respectively would do little to change that popular perception. A Conservative/NDP coalition seems even less plausible than a Conservative/LibDem one, which means that Nick Clegg's noble aspiration, as the third party, to negotiate with the first party before talking ot the second party might be dead on arrival domestically. It's a pity, because it's a mature and intelligent working system in a 'coalition era' of politics. But the concept of coalition has coalesced so firmly around the Liberals and the NDP that nothing else is even considered. Realistic in the short-term, I realise, but dangerous in the long.

Dangerous, perhaps, for the NDP. Whatever the rank-and-file might think, I think the NDP as a party has grown comfortable with its role as kingmaker: in Ontario it has been kingmaker a few times before and in 2011 there is a decent chance it will be again. Federally it was kingmaker in the 1970s, and was more comfortable in the role under Martin than it has been under Harper. If the scales tipped just enough this year to give the Liberals more seats than the Conservatives, I think the NDP would be happy to 'prop up' a minority - if they could introduce some key legislation during that time (say, regarding Afghanistan), then it might even help them. If the Conservatives still lead in total seat count (which seems likely), then the NDP are stuck where they were before - either discussing the so-called 'coalition of losers' that so inflamed popular opinion in 2008 or carrying on as they have been for five years now.

A genuine Liberal-NDP coalition presents an interesting challenge for the NDP: as we saw in the 1970s, failures would taint the NDP brand while successes would not necessarily vindicate them. It's tough for a junior partner to take much credit in a coalition, and it's here also that we need to look at the LibDems.

The numbers in the UK are horrifying: scant months ago at the polls, the LibDems took 23.0% of the vote to Labour's 29.0 and the Conservatives' 36.1. This happened after a heady post-televised-debate bubble that had all three parties polling equal numbers; there were even four polls that put the LibDems out front - on 24 April, YouGov posted the LibDems at an unbelievable 34%.

It was unbelievable. Unrealistic and unsustainable. YouGov today posts the following numbers: Labour 43%, Conservatives 37% and the LibDems 9%. The cost of coalition has been astonishing for the LibDems, though you could argue (quite rightly) that the LibDems' numbers were artificially inflated by wavering Labour supporters who have since returned home. Why they have returned home is important, and I don't think it's merely a distaste for the government side of Commons (though there's that). Yet think this way: of any five people who voted LibDem just a few months ago, only two remain faithful. More than half have wandered away. Obviously the tuition fiasco is of great importance. But it reflects the strange situation the LibDems, historically a centrist party, find themselves in: are they responsible to their party loyalists or to their most recent electors? If their intentions have been misunderstood by a large number of the people who cast votes for them (though the tuition fiasco is a bit different - it does seem to be a genuine turnaround), is that really their fault? And how grateful should they be for the votes they managed to secure last time around, if many of those votes were cast against the other two parties as opposed to genuinely for them?

For the moment at least, the LibDems and Labour are tied to each other: one party's success is the other party's failure. One wonders how well a Labour/LibDem government would have performed - and one wonders how well the LibDems would be polling were Nick Clegg Ed Miliband's junior partner. One also wonders where the UK Greens - a more soundly left-wing party than the Green Party of Canada - fit into all of this (quite well in the short-term, at least - were an election to be held tomorrow, Caroline Lucas's seat would seemingly be secure and perhaps joined by a few others). All this matters over here because whatever fluidity can be squeezed from the stone of Canadian politics falls clearly on the left side of the Conservatives-vs.-everyone-else axis. Coalition, merger, collapse, whatever: it's only a shakeup in the relative positions of the four non-Tory parties that can really change the composition of parliament. The signals from the UK are mixed at best. But we need to be reading them much more carefully than we currently are.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2008 Election: Provincial Microcosms #1: Québec

So I'm still looking at the 2008 election. I got to thinking primarily about Québec, and how the 'provincial averages' tell so little of the story, as one riding could have numbers remarkably different from another. I got to wondering where in Québec the 'average riding' might be - where 'average' can be defined as having vote percentages closest to the provincial averages. So if province-wide 38.1% of people voted BQ and 23.7% voted Liberal, in this riding as close as possible to 38.1% of voters voted BQ (sending a Bloc MP to Ottawa) and as close as possible to 23.7% of voters voted Liberal.

So for each riding, I calculated the per-party 'deviation' from the provincial average and added them together. So, in this example, if a riding saw a 36.4% BQ vote and, say, a 29.0% Liberal vote, that would be a 1.7 point deviation for the BQ and a 5.3 deviation for the Liberals, totalling 7.0 - before calculating other parties. Well, before calculating the Conservatives, the NDP and the Greens. I didn't bother with minor parties and I didn't bother with independents - which obviously screws up Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier. Actually my numbers for that riding would be doubly screwed up, since the lack of a CPC candidate doesn't mean an additional 21.7 deviation (as it probably should) - it merely means that there are no CPC numbers for the calculation at all. In any case, the extent to which votes for André Arthur can be seen as distinct from CPC votes in debatable. There are a small handful of Québec ridings that didn't have a Green candidate either.

So anyway, here are the results:
  • The winner for "least deviant Québec riding" - or "best Québec microcosm"... is a tie. Both Shefford and Compton-Stanstead deviate from the Québec norm by a total of only 9.6. Those are pretty impressive numbers, really. Compare:
    • BQ province-wide: 38.1%. In Shefford: 42.8%. In Compton-Stanstead: 41.9%.
    • Liberals province-wide: 23.7%. In Shefford: 21.4%. In Compton-Stanstead: 22.5%.
    • CPC province-wide: 21.7%. In Shefford: 19.6%. In Compton-Stanstead: 19.4%.
    • NDP province-wide: 12.2%. In Shefford: 12.5%. In Compton-Stanstead: 11.3%.
    • Greens province-wide: 3.5%. In Shefford: 3.7%. In Compton-Stanstead: 4.9
  • Both of these ridings are in the Eastern townships, an area whose linguistic demographics are rather typical of the province as a whole (despite a minimal allophone population). Both have gone BQ in the previous two elections, and before that both supported a PC candidate in 1997 who crossed the floor to the Liberals for the 2000 election (both Jean Charest and Paul Martin are native sons, incidentally). Shefford has existed as a riding since confederation, so it might be interesting to look at older elections to see how much of a microcosm it really is. Another day, though.
Rounding out the top five for 'least deviant Québécois ridings' are the following:
  • Vaudreuil-Soulanges at 10.7. This Montérégie riding has traditionally been a pretty safe seat for the Liberals, so it's impressive that star candidate Marc Garneau managed in 2006 to lose in this riding to the BQ candidate.
  • Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine at 12.0. This is the easternmost riding south of the St. Lawrence, and it's a bit tough to trace its history, since the Gaspé has been carved up several times recently. But it seems to be a pretty competitve area with no real historical loyalty to anyone, having elected the Liberals, the (Progressive) Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois in recent history.
  • Alfred-Pellan at 12.3. This riding in the city of Laval has tended to go BQ since the creation of that party, though like Laval as a whole has been a two-way BQ-Liberal race.
Though the two least deviant ridings are both in the Eastern Townships, it's interesting otherwise how wide-ranging the top five are, geographically. They are by necessity ridings that have to be competitive in more than merely two-horse races, since Québec's numbers as a whole are quite disparate - which hides a very regionalised electoral map where you can find two-way BQ-CPC races (Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean), two-way BQ-Liberal races (Papineau) and even two-way Liberal-CPC races (Pierrefonds-Dollard).

By contrast, here are the five most deviant ridings. It doesn't mean much, really: it either shows loyalty to one star candidate or another or otherwise shows location in Montréal. Still, they're five interesting ridings, wildly atypical at present:
  • Beauce, at 83.2. Beauce's deviation is due to its remarkably strong support (62.4%) for local Conservative hero Maxime Bernier (which leads, of course, to relatively dimmer support for his competitors). Beauce is also an Eastern Townships riding, though it's closer to Québec City than the others we've looked at. It has also existed since Confederation and has a long and proud history of lending strong support to newsmaking MPs, including Bernier's father Gilles, elected twice as a PC and once as an independent, Fabien Roy, the last major leader of the Social Credit Party, and three-time independent MP Raoul Poulin. It has never returned a BQ MP.
  • Jonquière-Alma at 79.9. This Côte-Nord riding, like Beauce, has a strong Conservative MP in Jean-Pierre Blackburn, who got 52.6% of the vote. This riding is noteworthy for having almost no Liberal presence in recent years: in 2008, they got 5.16% of the vote, and in 2006 before that, they got less than 3%, the lowest Liberal performance in the whole country.
  • Mount Royal at 76.6. Réal Caouette's famous comment that a mailbox could win an election in Mount Royal (merely because it's red in colour) holds true. Mount Royal is the safest Liberal seat in the country, having returned Liberal MPs in every election since 1940. It was Pierre Trudeau's own riding. An amazingly diverse riding where Francophones are a smaller population than either Anglophones or Allophones and the largest religion is Judaism, it has never seen a BQ candidate get more than 7% of the vote (in 2008, the BQ candidate finished fifth). Current MP Irwin Cotler was first elected in a 1999 by-election with 92% of the vote.
  • Outremont at 74.3. Outremont is Mount Royal's neighbour on the island of Montréal, and like it tends to return Liberal MPs, though not with such resoundng majorities, as the Bloc tend to do well too in this riding that straddles East and West Montréal. A 2007 by-election saw both parties lose support to the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, who in 2008 became the first NDP candidate ever to win a Québec riding in a general election. Obviously it is his high numbers that skew this riding.
  • Westmount-Ville-Marie at 73.7. Neighbour to both Mount Royal and Outremont, this riding occupies a very 'deviant' area of Montréal. Again it's a Liberal stronghold, with high Liberal numbers by Québec standards, but it also brought in the province's second-best NDP numbers in 2008. The two parties combined for almost 70% of the vote. At 7.3%, the Bloc are no threat in this riding., where Anglos are a larger number than the statistically-tied Francos and Allos. This is where Marc Garneau in 2008 finally managed to get elected.
I've also done the very same thing for Ontario and BC. We'll see those numbers soon.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2008 Alternate Scenarios #1: D'Hondt, Part One

Prince Edward Island farm rainbow 2009Image via WikipediaSo I've decided to look back at the 2008 election and crunch some numbers to consider how the votes cast in 2008 might have brought a different parliament had Canada had a different voting system than it currently does. I'm starting with the D'Hondt Method, a proportional representation system that delivers MPs in a ratio approximating the ratio of votes they recieved. It's a 'party list' system in principle, meaning you vote for a party and not an individual, and the MPs are chosen from lists. It might not necessarily have to be that way, but that's how it's applied generally.

Now, 2008 gave is the following result:
CPC 143, Lib 77, BQ 49, NDP 37, Ind 2.

A simple nation-wide proportional representation calculation using the D'Hondt method would have returned this:
CPC 118, Lib 82, NDP 56, BQ 31, Green 21.
Which is a huge decrease for the Conservatives and the BQ but a huge increase for the NDP and Greens. I'm surprised to find the Liberals actually gaining seats in a prop-rep simulation.

I can't really see a system like this flying with the Canadian people, mind you. It's too anonymous, and it sees Canada as one huge mass as opposed to a federation of provinces. It might go over better to apply the D'Hondt method to the results of each province (retaining the current number of seats per province). If we do that, we get the following:
Newfoundland and Labrador: Lib 4, NDP 2, CPC 1.
Prince Edward Island: Lib 2, CPC 2.
Nova Scotia: Lib 4, NDP 3, CPC 3, Green 1.
New Brunswick: CPC 4, Lib 4, NDP 2.
Québec: BQ 29Lib 18, CPC 17, NDP 9, Green 2.
Ontario: CPC 42, Lib 37, NDP 19, Green 8.
Manitoba: CPC 7, NDP 3, Lib 3Green 1.
Saskatchewan: CPC 8, NDP 4, Lib 2.
Alberta: CPC 20, NDP 3, Lib 3, Green 2.
British Columbia: CPC 17, NDP 9, Lib 7, Green 3.
Yukon: Lib 1.
Northwest Territories: NDP 1.
Nunavut: CPC 1.
Which gives us a grand total of:
CPC 122, Lib 85, NDP 55, BQ 29, Green 17.
Not radically different from the nation-wide D'Hondt: a few extra seats for the Conservatives and Liberals, a few fewer for the Greens - closer to reality, maybe, except for a further BQ drop. But you can see how having this additional distribution of numbers might make for a more convincing system: Prince Edward islanders, for example, would be able to identify the two Conservative MPs and the two Liberal MPs who were 'theirs'. The North, incidentally, remains exactly the same, since a prop-rep region of one seat is effectively a FPTP region.

Ontario and Québec in particular, however, remain pretty impersonal. How would someone from, say, Trinity-Spadina or someone from, say, Nickel Belt know which MP was 'theirs'? Which one to write a letter to for whatever reason it is that normal citizens write MPs? Sure, with 105 riding and 105 MPs, we could arbitrarily allocate one MP to each riding, but that would be a sheerly bureaucratic decision. Which eight ridings would get Green MPs?

The smaller a D'Hondt region gets, the less useful the D'Hondt system is. But if you broke up larger provinces into smaller regions, you might have results that gave an increased sense among the public that the MPs actually represented a constituency and not merely represented their parties. That's what I'd like to do, but it'll take a bit of time, and number-crunching...

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