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Canadian Federal Election of 2008

by Gary J Wed Oct 15th, 2008 at 09:55:21 AM EST

Update - the provisional results

The Conservative Party of Canada secured 143 seats for 37.63% of the popular. This was an increase of 19 seats and 1.37% since the 2006 election. However the party is still short of the 155 seats needed for an overall majority. The Conservative minority government will continue, with a somewhat stronger minority.

The Liberal Party of Canada retained official opposition status. It elected 76 MPs for 26.24% of the vote. This is a decrease of 27 seats and 4% of the popular vote. It seems likely that a new leader will be needed.

The Bloc Quebecois went down to 50 seats from 51 at the last election. They polled 9.97% of the national vote, which was a reduction of 0.5%.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) had its second best result ever, winning 37 seats which was an increase of 8. The vote was 18.2%, an increase of 0.79%. One interesting point is that for the first time ever the party took a Quebec riding, in a general election.

Two Independents were elected, but no Green Party candidate won. The Green Party did however poll 6.8% of the national vote, an increase of 2.47% and can hope for continued growth.

The result was not enormously different from that in 2006. This was the second time in Canadian history that three successive general elections produced minority governments. Presumably if Canadians continue to fill almost a third of Parliamentary seats from outside the two leading parties, future majority governments will be rare.

I have set out, after the fold, some brief notes about history, politics and the election.

Brief summary of the political system

Canada is a realm of Queen Elizabeth II. It was the first self governing dominion in the British Empire, created in 1867.

The country has a federal system, being divided into ten Provinces and three Territories. The federal Parliament is bicameral. The Senate is a body with appointed members, which is not directly involved in the general election (although Senate reform has been an issue in the election). The House of Commons comprises 308 Members of Parliament (MPs), elected from single member electoral districts (known in Canada as `ridings')  using the normal Anglo-American first past the post system.

The constellation of political parties

There are five parties represented in the outgoing House.

1)    The Conservative Party of Canada (party colour blue, sometimes known as the Tories) forms the current minority government. It is led by Stephen Harper from the western province of Alberta. This Conservative Party is a recent creation. It was formed by merging the historic Canadian centre right party, the Progressive Conservative Party, with a western based right wing party. This latter group was called the Canadian Alliance (which itself was a merger of the Reform Party with a few dissident PCP members, which had failed miserably to create unity on the right).

In 2006 they won 124 seats (out of 308). By the dissolution there were 127 MPs in the caucus.

2)    The Liberal Party of Canada (party colour red, sometimes known as the Grits)  is the current official opposition. It is lead by Stephane Dion of Quebec. The Liberal Party was last in government in 2006, under the rather unhappy minority government of Paul Martin. The Liberals occupy a centre position in Canadian politics. They can lean left or right, as seems necessary. There is some suggestion that they tend to campaign as centre left and govern as centre right, but that is probably a bit unfair.

At the last election 103 Liberal MPs were returned. The number had fallen to 95 by the dissolution.

3)    The New Democratic Party (party colour orange, sometimes known as the Dippers), led by Jack Layton of Ontario, are a (somewhat) trade union backed party with some mild democratic socialist leanings. They used to be strongest in the western provinces, but have lost ground in Saskatchewan (home of the first socialist provincial government in Canada, first elected in 1944) and made modest gains in other regions in the last couple of decades. In particular the NDP gained the Outremont riding in Quebec at a by-election in the last Parliament. This is only the second time they have ever held a Quebec seat.

The 2006 Dipper tally was 29 seats and with the by-election gain there were 30 of them by the dissolution.

4)    The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe of Quebec), are a Quebec nationalist party. They won 51 of Quebec's 75 seats last time, but were down to 48 by the dissolution.

5)    The Green Party (at a guess the party colour is green, but I am not aware they have acquired a nickname) is led by the American born Elizabeth May, who is running against the former Progressive Conservative Party leader (and member of the current Conservative Party cabinet) in the Central Nova riding of Nova Scotia. The Green Party acquired one seat in Parliament, when a British Columbia MP defected to them. They will however be very lucky if they elect a member in the next Parliament. However Elizabeth May seems to have held her own with the other party leaders in televised debates, so the Greens have a higher profile this time than they ever have before.

Regional politics

As Canada is a big country, with diverse regions, there is not so much a single national political system as four or five regional ones. National opinion poll numbers are not particularly useful, so pollsters normally try to give regional breakdowns as well.

1)    Atlantic Canada
This region comprises the three maritime provinces of Nova Scotia (11 ridings), New Brunswick (10 ridings) and Prince Edward Island (4 ridings), as well as Newfoundland and Labrador (7 ridings). All these four provinces have the minimum number of ridings they are guaranteed by various constitutional laws. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have the same number of MPs as Senators and the original British North America Act 1867 (now known as the Constitution Act) prevents further reductions. Newfoundland was guaranteed seven seats as part of the deal when it joined Canada in the 1940s. Nova Scotia benefits from the so-called grandfather clause, under which its minimum number of seats was frozen at eleven so no further reduction was allowed.

The over-representation of Atlantic Canada in Parliament is one of the grievances of the western provinces, which led to the formation of the Reform Party, which was correspondingly weak in the region.

The Atlantic provinces have the most traditional two party political structure of any Canadian region. This was the Liberal versus Progressive Conservative region. The NDP had historic strength only in the Cape Breton coalfield area of Nova Scotia.

In modern times the collapse and reformation of the Conservative Party has weakened Atlantic Tory support. Maritimers were much more comfortable with the old PCP than the modern CP. All the regions provincial conservative parties have retained the Progressive Conservative label.

There is an added burden to the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada. The Progressive Conservative provincial premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, thinks he was double crossed by Stephen Harper over promises made during the 2006 federal election. As a result Williams, the dominant political figure in his province, has launched the ABC (Anything But Conservative) campaign.

In the last generation the NDP made significant gains in the region, particularly when Alexa McDonagh (the retiring MP for Halifax, Nova Scotia) was the federal leader of the party. However the NDP regional strength now appears to be declining.

This is currently the strongest region for the Liberal Party, but there is a regional tradition of supporting the party likely to win the federal election. The poorest region is the one most dependent upon federal patronage and so Atlantic Canadians may reluctantly feel it necessary to vote Conservative.

2)    Quebec
This predominantly French speaking province is guaranteed seventy five ridings, as the national ratio of votes to seats is based on that number of Quebec seats.

For much of the twentieth century the Liberal Party dominated the federal representation of the province at most elections. The PCP were usually weak in Quebec, except when they won a national landslide. The NDP had almost no support in Quebec.

However in the 1990s the political battle became one between the Liberals (with support based on the largely English speaking areas of western Quebec and the city of Montreal) and the Bloc Quebecois (with most appeal to rural and small town Francophone Quebecers). The PCP had little support, the NDP had very little and the Reform Party was almost non existent.

At the last federal election the position changed. The Conservatives won ten seats in the province. They demonstrated some appeal in both the formerly Liberal and Bloc inclined areas.

The outcome of the election in Quebec will probably determine the result of the election. It is extremely difficult for the Conservatives to win a national majority without making substantial inroads in Quebec.

The NDP will try to retain Outremont. The NDP has always hoped to establish a foothold in Quebec. Their weakness in the province is probably the major reason why they have never been in a position to seriously challenge for national government.

The Liberals have some very strong areas in Montreal. However they continue to display little appeal to French Canadians outside the city (despite having a Francophone leader).

The Bloc, whose whole reason for existing is to represent Quebec, seem to be in decline. It will be interestingly to see if the Conservatives continue to make inroads and win seats from the Bloc.

3)    Ontario
The most populous province contains 106 ridings. It is a province where Liberals, Conservatives and NDP are all competitive.

Liberal support is strongest in the Greater Toronto area. The Reform Party/Canadian Alliance/ Conservatives have gradually been moving through the rural and small town portions of the province.

4)    Western Canada
This region comprises (from east to west) Manitoba (14 ridings), Saskatchewan (14 ridings), Alberta (28 ridings) and British Columbia (36 ridings).  There are also three ridings, one each  for the northern territories (North West Territories, Nunavut and Yukon) .

Alberta was the centre of the Reform Party revolt against the over regions, which were seen as trying to exploit the wealth of the west, without giving the area the political weight it deserved.

This is the Conservatives strongest region, but there are relatively few additional seats for them to gain. They already hold all the ridings in Alberta and almost all in Saskatchewan. They are probably not going to change the three party balance in Manitoba very greatly. Mainland British Columbia is also fairly good territory for the Conservatives, but they are less successful on Vancouver Island.

Most Liberal and NDP strength in the region seems to be in Vancouver and Winnipeg, but very large, remote rural northern ridings with large First Nations populations are winnable by non Conservatives.

Expectations are for the Conservative Party to end up with a slightly larger minority. However Harper has been somewhat slow to react to the world economic crisis. This seems to be damaging him in the later part of the campaign.

The Liberals seem to have handicapped themselves with a dud leader (ranked fifth out of five in polling after the leader's debate). There is some speculation that he will be replaced by former Ontario NDP provincial premier and now federal Liberal politician, Bob Rae, very quickly after the defeat thought to be coming. Most people in the Canadian blogosphere seem to think the Grits will have another term in opposition to sort things out. Strength in the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver (as well as Atlantic Canada) should ensure that there is no risk of total meltdown and the loss of official opposition status.

The NDP is, as ever, hopeful of a breakthrough. It will probably be disappointed but should continue to be a significant third party.

As mentioned above the fate of the Bloc Quebecois may be the key to the outcome of the election. If Bloc strength remains about the same there will probably be a Conservative minority government. If the Bloc loses most or all its seats, then the Conservatives may have a majority government.

It may occur to some European readers that there is scope for a Liberal-NDP coalition. The Bloc is also more left wing than the Conservatives. Canadians seem to rule out this possibility. There is a lot of rivalry between the Liberals and NDP. The only Canadian federal coalition was during and just after the First World War. The Conservatives of that era (long before they were known as Progressive Conservatives) joined forces with most of the Anglophone Canadian Liberals to carry conscription over the strenuous objections of Quebec and the veteran Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier. This divisive example does not encourage thought of new coalitions in Canada.

Update - polls and predictions

For a table with lots of Canadian polls see Nodice.

The polls in general seem not to have changed enormously during the campaign, if you allow for margin of error and the possibility of outliers. They are also not very different from the national figures in the 2006 election.

Since the start of October there have been six national polls (two each from three polling organisations). The Conservatives vary between 34 and 37% (they got 36.3% in the 2006 election for 124 seats). The Liberals may have dropped a bit since 2006, in October 2008 between 22 and 30% (2006 30.2% for 103 seats). The NDP were between 18 and 19% (17.5% for 29 seats in 2006). The Bloc vary between 9 and 10% (compared with 10.5% and 51 seats in 2006). Green support is about double than in 2006 (fracturing the anti Conservative vote still more, if the support holds up at the polols) 8-12% as opposed to 4.5% in the previous election. No Green victories are predicted.

In a multi-party environment there is no such thing as a consistent national swing, so the simplistic seat projections beloved of UK broadcasters become totally unreliable. A party with concentrated support in a limited number of ridings (like the Bloc Quebecois) does significantly better in seats than a party with more support overall, which is distributed more thinly (like that of the NDP).

However Democratric Space have been trying to cope with the complexities and come up with a seat projection. This is much the same as other such projections I have seen. At the start of the campaign the projections were for slight falls in the Liberal and Bloc seats with corresponding Conservative increases. This process continued to Tory benefit in the middle of the campaign, so that even a majority seemed possible. It has now fallen back again.

Todays Current Space estimates are Conservative 34.6% vote for 134 seats (gain of 10 from 2006 but still short of the 155 needed for a majority), Liberal 26.1% vote for 90 seats (-13 since 2006), NDP 19.1% for 33 seats (+4), BQ 9.9% for 49 seats (-2). The Greens are estimated at 9.4% of the national vote but no seats (4.5% 2006 vote also for no seats). There are an estimated two independent MPs in 2008 compared to one in 2006 (who is seeking re-election in Quebec without a Conservative opponent).

Overall the new Parliament looks as if it is not going to be enormously different from the previous one. However small shifts in vote distribution could have enormous effects in seats. The Conservatives typically pile up enormous majorities in safe seats (over 75% in one Alberta riding last time). If the ABC campaign or other factors enables different opposition parties to win narrow victories in enough ridings the seat totals could turn out unexpectedly.

I understand there is a point when the mathematical distribution of seats to votes (in this sort of electoral system), becomes chaotic. It seems to me the Canadians may be moving into that area. We may just have to wait and see what happens.

As someone who follows Canadian politics from the states, I have to wonder: wasn't it a risky move for Harper to call an election just before an American election in which the dominant political wind is to the left?  I know that Canada is independent from the US, but still, Canadians do seem to be influenced by US trends.  Bush is hated in America and Canada, and the closest thing to Bush in Canada is...
by gobacktotexas (dickcheneyfanclub@gmail.com) on Tue Oct 7th, 2008 at 12:47:28 PM EST
I follow Canadian politics from the UK, so it is difficult for me to speculate on Harper's motives. However I will not let that stop me.

It is clear Harper did not have to go for an election now. He was doing quite well in Parliament by playing the different opposition parties against each other. None of the opposition parties really seemed eager for an early election, so the Conservatives usually got their way without too much trouble.

Harper has not given a clear answer to why the election was necessary. Apparently he claimed in a speech it was because the Parliament was dysfunctional but in the latest leader's debate yesterday he denied saying that. His latest answer was that Parliament was about to reach an impasse.

I suspect the major driver for the election was that Harper saw an opening which might enable him to pick up more seats for either a larger minority or even a majority government. His party was doing better and the opposition parties less well, than at the 2006 election, in opinion polls before the election was called.

The most critical political responsibility of the Prime Minister, in a Westminster style system, is to choose the right election date for maximum party advantage. Do it right and you are revered as a great and successful leader (at least for a few weeks). Get it wrong and a despised failed leader is in severe danger of an abrupt end to his political career.

One possible point Harper may have been concerned about was, that if the election was delayed, then the Liberals might have changed to a new more credible leader.

Harper may also have thought that he could get the election out of the way before the world economic crisis had a major impact on Canada. If that was part of his thinking, the plan was overtaken by the pace of events.

Insofar as American events influenced the Canadian decision, Stephen Harper may have thought John McCain would do better and Obama worse than seems to be the case. I imagine Harper has most of his American contacts with the right wing part of the US population, so they may have indulged in mutual wishful thinking. To be fair also, Obama has only gotten far ahead of McCain since the writ was dropped (an idiosyncratic Canadian phrase, we do not use in the UK) for the election.

I suspect Harper would be attacked as the Canadian Bush whenever the election was held, so that may not in itself have been a major factor in a decision to go for an election now.

by Gary J on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 06:36:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, great summary.

National polls may not be predictive of the parliament makeup, nor descriptive of the regional differences; however, they still tell about the relative strength of various ideologies/political leanings in the population. (For example, in the first elections after the PCP and the PA united, the new party gained seats despite losing votes.) So, could you cite some recent polls?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Oct 7th, 2008 at 01:15:31 PM EST
Thanks. I did intend to include some polls, but I ran out of time before I had to leave the computer yesterday, so I posted the diary as it was. I will do an update with polling data during the course of today..
by Gary J on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 05:54:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(Eitorial note: when you update an already posted diary, AutoFormat no longer works, you have to use HTML tags for line breaks. I now added those to your update.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Oct 8th, 2008 at 02:19:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the help.
by Gary J on Thu Oct 9th, 2008 at 04:35:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... eight seats to their left to the New Democrats and 19 seats to their right to the Tories?

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 16th, 2008 at 01:14:20 PM EST
Yes and the Liberal attempt to bring the Green Party into Parliament by not opposing their leader failed.

I get the impression that Stephen Harper's master plan is to reduce the Bloc Quebecois and Liberals to minor party status and create something like the British political system of the 1950s.

In a Conservative/NDP two party system, the Tories would win most of the rural and suburban seats in most elections. In a Canadian context the big cities represent a minority of the country, so a party which only wins the urban seats is going to be in opposition. As the Liberals have more chance of winning significant numbers of seats outside the cities than the NDP in a good election, it would be in the Conservative interest to have the latter as the principal challengers.

Frequent elections would be very difficult for the Canadian Liberals, who are short of cash and have a decaying organisation. This could have the same effect as the British elections in 1922, 1923 and 1924 which cemented the British Liberals into third party status, in a Conservative/Labour two party system.

by Gary J on Fri Oct 17th, 2008 at 06:42:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... to drain off support in the suburbs that would otherwise end up in the Liberal or NDP camp?

It would seem if Liberal resources are stretched, that an Federal electoral cease-fire with the NDP, where the NDP does not field against sitting Liberal MP's and conversely, would increase the prospects of entering into a coalition government, and then of course being in government might allow some minor repairs and maintenance of party machinery.

(And I suppose a push for electoral reform in favor of second-preference voting? Are Canadian Federal ridings first past the post?)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Oct 17th, 2008 at 04:42:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The present state of Canadian politics is a result of a realignment on the right. It took about fifteen years to bring the bulk of the Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives together in one party. This was by no means an easy task.

Until 2003 the Liberals were able to win enormous majorities because their opposition was fragmented. This probably contributed to the scandals which eventually led to them losing power to the new Conservatives.

Is the eventual reaction to unity on the right going to be greater co-operation on the centre-left?

Outsiders might see it as being in the interests of the Liberals and NDP to join forces, to secure a proportional representation system. I see no sign that either party actually wants to do that at the moment.

The problem may be that the Liberals are a party with a majoritarian ethos, who see themselves as the natural governing party of Canada. They were in power for most of the twentieth century. It is therefore natural for the Grits to assume that sooner or later things will return to normal with a Liberal administration being installed.

As with the British Liberals it may be that only after losing the status of being one of the two parties of government, they will adopt proportional representation. As with the British Labour Party, if the NDP became one of the two leading parties, they might lose all interest in proportional representation.

However if the current stalemate continues for many more Parliaments, Canadian politicians may realise that coalitions and electoral reform are necessary.

by Gary J on Sat Oct 18th, 2008 at 10:25:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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