Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Alberta election and the divided right

When Stephen Harper brought together the old Canadian Alliance with the national Progressive Conservative Party no one could have imagined that less than a dozen years later that a split on the right in his own province would contribute to ending the almost forty-four years of Progressive Conservative rule in Alberta, and that the result would be an NDP government.

Some have suggested that the experience in BC in 1972 and Ontario in 1990 of electing provincial NDP governments means one term and out for the NDP, while others have pointed to the Alberta experience of selecting parties that then dominate federally and provincially for decades. If the NDP does not last long in Alberta, the BC experience is the more relevant precedent. Fragmentation on the right was a key element in Dave Barrett's victory in 1972, and reunification on the right by 1975 was critical to its ouster (the NDP was just as popular in BC in 1975 as it had been in 1972). Already there have been calls for unity on the right by former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith (who now says her actions were naive) and Tom Flanagan, who was campaign manager for Wildrose in 2012.

However, a simple 'unite-the-right-defeat-the-left' paradigm may not capture what was happening in Alberta on May 5. As I noted in my pre-election commentary:
Alberta is more and more an urban province with more than half the constituencies to be found in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas.... Relative to other parts of Canada Alberta is a younger province. Demographic breakdowns in polls by Ekos and Mainstreet Technologies tell us that the only age category where the PCs and Wildrose exhibit any real strength is among those over 65, while the NDP is doing exceptionally well among the younger electorate.
Sometimes what an election reveals is the maturation of deep-rooted social and economic changes, which have been slowly developing over time, suddenly expressed as significant political change. In Alberta's history the federal PCs started to win almost all of the province's federal seats in 1958, but it would be another 13 years before they took the provincial government away from Social Credit, as the province began to shift from its rural, agricultural character to a more urban and energy focused economy. Something similar could be developing now.

Politics are intrinsically unpredictable. All parties are coalitions that could, under particular circumstances, fragment. A key development in another part of Canada might presage another split on the right. In assessing the victory of Patrick Brown in the Ontario PC leadership contest, Toronto Sun columnist Christina Blizzard (a longtime small 'c' conservative) commented, "Now the tough slog begins. He’ll have to unite a party that’s bitterly divided after a long, fractious campaign." Brown won with the support of both social conservatives and the anti-government Ontario Landowners Association. He was a backbencher with a limited résumé under Stephen Harper. As columnist John Ivison noted in a column during the campaign:
He’s never been in cabinet, he hasn't been a parliamentary secretary and he has not chaired a committee since being elected in 2006.“Does Stephen Harper think he’s ready for prime time? It would appear not,” said one Conservative, who is supporting a rival candidate.
In this respect Patrick Brown strongly resembles Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean, now Alberta's opposition leader, who replaced Danielle Smith after she crossed the floor to join Jim Prentice's PCs. Brian Jean is one reason that the NDP has formed the government in Alberta. In particular, he was singularly unimpressive in the critical TV debate won decisively by Rachel Notley.

Can Patrick Brown keep the Ontario PC coalition together in terms of outlook and organization? It will be difficult for him to manage, and seeing him on TV in recent days, one has to say his media inexperience is quite visible. So far, all he has done is dodge questions about policy specifics, while trying to network with far right. In a recent effort to tilt to the centre, he contacted columnist Chantal Hebert to protest his mainstream credentials, citing as an example his participation in a Barrie Pride Parade. It will require a good deal more political deftness than trying to pitch different messages to different audiences for him to progress.

For the moment the political right will be represented by one party in the federal election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives, so vote splitting is not an immediate issue. However, the federal Conservatives have lost considerable ground in Alberta since the 2011 election. From January to March of this year their average loss was 13 percentage points. This accelerated to 23 points during the course of the provincial campaign (it is clear many poll respondents confuse federal and provincial politics). Either way the federal Conservatives, despite representing a unified right, have lost ground in Alberta, as they have in most other provinces. The federal Alberta poll losses mean that the Harper Conservatives are set to lose several seats in the province if things don't change (around 5 if the January to March average prevails, more if it is greater). Stephen Harper is a highly skilled politician, but he is no miracle worker. Losing ground in his home province is looking more and more likely come October and the split on the right provincially is no help.

There are divisions in all parties - blue and pink Grits, for example - but rarely do they erupt in formal party splits. Since the eighties there have been two major splits on the right emerging from Alberta, one federally that spread across Canada in the form of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, and more recently in Alberta itself. There is an echo in BC in the form of the BC Conservatives who, for example. registered significant vote shares in two 2012 BC by-elections. While we should not expect to see an early split in Ontario, the tensions that were clear last weekend are no doubt real and will likely endure. Looking west the Alberta election will give a morale boost to a united federal NDP, and its opposite to the divided Conservatives.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

What rough beast slouches toward Edmonton?

The end of an era is approaching. The current Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty assumed office on September 10, 1971 and has now lasted 43 years and eight months, but its end is nigh.
Alberta Legislature

Proliferating polls during the final week of Alberta's election campaign all point to a first-place finish for the NDP and a majority in the legislature on May 5. Given Alberta's political history of conservative governments both federally and provincially, this could only happen as the product of a perfect storm, an exceptional confluence of events and personalities.

A key factor is that the coalition that backed the Progressive Conservatives shattered with the breakthrough made by the Wildrose Party in 2012 when it captured 17 seats and almost 35% of the popular vote. Attention focused at the time on the PCs last minute comeback in the campaign and the errors in the polling preceding voting day. The coalition of right-wing and more centrist conservatives in Alberta is now deeply split, a fact that may have adverse consequences for Stephen Harper in the fall.

At the same time the NDP has effectively united the centre and left: it is the only progressivee political force with a full slate of candidates. By contrast, the Liberals have nominated candidates in just 56 of the 87 constituencies, and have been led ineffectively by an interim leader.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice made two key miscalculations. First, he thought he would get political cover for an unpopular budget by getting former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and others to cross the floor to the PCs (the floor crossings did severely damage the Wildrose Party). Prentice also brought in a budget with health and education spending cuts along with sundry tax increases, but none on big corporations, sending completely the wrong signal in an era when there is mounting concern about inequality. Not all Albertans were asked to sacrifice for the public good.

Wildrose tried to capitalize on unhappiness with the tax hikes, but only NDP Leader Rachel Notley could address the sense of injustice that came with protecting the well-off, but asking ordinary citizens to pay more taxes and to surrender access to valued services. Her leadership and campaign performance in developing this theme have been central to the NDP's success.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley
There was one leaders' debate that Notley won decisively. During the debate, she had the good fortune to have Mr. Prentice launch an attack on her that was both wrong and appeared patronizing, when he said to her that "math is difficult". Often in politics it is the riposte demolishing the original charge that has the lasting impact, and so it was here as she instantly corrected his mistake (he confused the NDP's proposed percentage increase in corporate taxes 20%, from 10% to 12%, with the proposed rate of tax).

Alberta's history of voting for conservatives both federally and provincially in recent decades should not blind us to aspects of Alberta that point in the opposite direction. Alberta is more and more an urban province with more than half the constituencies to be found in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas. Beyond their boundaries lie other urban centres such as Lethbridge and Red Deer whose four seats are likely to be swept by the NDP. In 2010 while the City of Toronto was electing Rob Ford, Calgary elected the progressive Naheed Nenshi. Past voting on the centre and left has given Edmonton the sobriquet, "Redmonton".

Relative to other parts of Canada Alberta is a younger province. Demographic breakdowns in polls by Ekos and Mainstreet Technologies tell us that the only age category where the PCs and Wildrose exhibit any real strength is among those over 65, while the NDP is doing exceptionally well among the younger electorate.

Looking deep into Alberta's past we find that the United Farmers of Alberta, which governed the province from 1921 to 1935, included significant left of centre elements. To illustrate, eight of its nine federal Members of Parliament left the UFA to join the CCF when it was formed in 1932.

This is ancient political history. The modern NDP was originally built up by Grant Notley, Rachel's father, who led the party from 1971 until his death in a plane crash in 1984. Despite never having more than two members in the Alberta legislature, Notley nevertheless took governing seriously.

Many years ago I was told of a seminar organized in Edmonton in early 1983 by two academics that included the leaders of the NDP in the three prairie provinces. In addition to Notley, other attendees were Alan Blakeney who had recently finished serving as Premier of Saskatchewan for eleven years and Howard Pawley, Premier of Manitoba, who had been in office a little over a year. The seminar focused on the problems and prospects of governing a prairie province from a social democratic perspective. Notley was nowhere winning power, but he was fully engaged in the conversation.

This legacy of a serious political outlook and pragmatism is the family inheritance of Rachel Notley and is reflected in the Alberta NDP platform. Jim Prentice's mistake in the debate was based on the glib assumption that it was a radical, impractical document. Not so. A modest increase in the corporate tax rate to 12%, making it just half a point higher than in Ontario, hardly constitutes storming of the barricades. Alberta's corporate leadership would have better spent their political energy urging reforms like this themselves rather than castigating the NDP.

A majority seems imminent, but last minute or unexpected shifts could make a difference. The NDP has the least efficient vote in Alberta (due to its inordinate strength in Edmonton) while the Wildrose vote is the most efficient. In 2012 a comfortable Wildrose lead was reversed at the end of the campaign as Alison Redford's PCs stole a last second victory. There will continue to be both high hopes and nail-biting at NDP headquarters. My estimates of seat count, depending on the poll, range from the low forties to the high fifties (minority government remains a possibility). Unlike 2012 there is no sign of a last minute swing back to the PCs. A Forum poll released on May 3rd stands in stark contrast to a poll from the same firm in 2012 that did report a shift towards the PCs.

Once elected the Alberta NDP will face the difficulties of governing in hard economic times (at least relatively speaking in that province). However, Albertans know well what they are facing. That likely gives a new government some political space.

This is quite unlike the situation in Ontario in 1990 when Bob Rae's New Democrats won power. Then it was the end of a long boom and the full effects of the deep downturn of the early nineties had yet to make themselves known. Ontario's economy was just beginning to feel the negative impact of the tightening of monetary policy by the Bank of Canada and a high dollar, arguably the most important sources of that era's deep recession in Ontario (the Ontario deficits in those years were the effect of the downturn not the cause).

Alberta under conservative governments has lived off its oil wealth when it should have been running its finances approximately like other provinces and using the oil surplus as savings for a rainy day. Rachel Notley's government must deal with the consequences of decades of fiscal mismanagement by the Progressive Conservatives, but she appears to have the pragmatism and common sense to do so. I know these observations run counter to the fiscal reputations of the two parties and conventional wisdom generally. but electing an NDP government in Alberta turns the world of Canadian politics as we have known it on its head.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Coalition Game

A revised version of this post has now been published at iPolitics.

Recently Justin Trudeau made headlines when he declared that he might be interested in a coalition with the NDP but rejected the idea because of Tom Mulcair's 'old-style' way of doing politics. By the next day he firmly closed the door on coalition saying he was 'unequivocally opposed'.

When Trudeau declared his opposition he was following a well-worn path for Liberal leaders. During the 2008 election campaign then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion on September 23 rejected an alliance with the NDP, declaring, "We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period".  But two months later he helped launch the coalition that failed when Mr. Dion was driven from the Liberal leadership after Stephen Harper was permitted to prorogue Parliament. As the 2011 campaign got underway Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he would not enter a coalition with the NDP although he softened that declaration when called coalition a 'legitimate constitutional option'.

As we now know from the experience of Mr. Dion's behaviour in 2008, it is best to take Liberal pre-election protestations of this kind with a grain of salt. It is perfectly rational for a leader such as Mr. Trudeau, occupying first or second place in the polls, to seek votes from third and fourth parties in order to improve his standing.

However, after the election the choice of government rests with an electorate of 338, the members of the House of Commons, and the incentives change radically. If the Liberals are in second place but could potentially, with the support of the NDP, acquire the support needed to form a government their opposition to cooperating with the NDP will melt away. Expect to see Liberal enthusiasm even for a formal coalition with the NDP in such circumstances.

My current seat projections currently give the Conservatives a slight advantage in seats over the Liberals in recent polls but all surveys also report strong third party support for the NDP who currently would control from 18 to 25 percent of the seats post-election, with both Liberals and Conservatives falling well short of a majority. On average the Bloc and Greens together would control no more than 2% of Commons seats and won't be a factor in government formation.

The Liberals must confront the fact that sooner or later without a majority as appears likely, they must deal with the NDP.  Should the NDP make gains and get past the Liberals the incentives would switch parties but the overall dynamic would remain the same. In recent weeks the NDP share of seats in this potential coalition has been rising so one shouldn't rule out the possibility of them seizing the leading role here from the Liberals.

Seat projections I have made from polls dating back to June 2013 have almost all produced a House of Commons where the Liberals and NDP combined would control a majority of the seats.  If the Liberals finish first projections currently say they can only form majorities with the support of either the NDP or Harper's Conservatives.

They would need to define a relationship with the NDP that makes sense over the medium term to sustain themselves in government. They could not  'govern as if they had a majority'; they would need a working agreement with the NDP.

The last time the Liberals had to govern as a minority with the support of the NDP was after the 1972 election. While a recent Forum poll suggests Canadians support the idea of a coalition government in principle, an Environics poll conducted last year (see pages 294 to 299) suggests they would be much more comfortable if the dominant party in that coalition was in first place. However, even if the Conservatives finish first they will be headed downhill with limited prospects for lasting in office long, much like the re-elected Diefenbaker Progressive Conservative government in 1962-63. It lasted less than a year.

The 1972 to 1974 period of minority Liberal government supported by the NDP is described well in a Master's Thesis written in 1977 for Queen's University by Peter Harder who would later become Canada's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, having served as deputy in five other departments. The Liberal two-seat advantage coming out of the election was a key factor in the NDP's decision to sustain them in power.In a confidential interview for the thesis, a Liberal cabinet minister said that if the Liberals had come second in seats behind the PCs they could only have met Parliament if they had a formal, public understanding with the NDP.

The 1985 Ontario election gave the Liberals the most votes but the PCs four more seats. The outcome was a Liberal-NDP Accord.  It would not be surprising to see something similar this year. There is something of an absurd game played between parties and the media about this. The unstated inference the press makes is that it is a damaging admission to suggest that in order for Parliament to function two parties must cooperate. Those who assert this need ought to recognize that in the case of a minority it is a simple question of math. The historical precedents tell us there is a strong chance of Liberal-NDP cooperation later this year.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Elections and expectations: what will matter in 2015?

There has been much media speculation about a spring election.  If Stephen Harper saw the opportunity he would not hesitate to call one, but current polling makes it clear his majority would disappear. Back in 2008 Harper actually said that his fixed election date law meant there should not be an early election call. According to Lawrence Martin's 2010 book Harperland: The Politics of Control in an August 26, 2008 press scrum:
When journalists pressed him about his legislation on election timing, he replied, "We are clear. You can only have certainty about a fixed election date in the context of a majority government."
I have little doubt there is video tape of this quote in some media outlet's news archives.

In the pre-campaign skirmishing now underway the party leaders are articulating alternative visions of what they would like this fall's election campaign to be about. In the last couple of weeks Justin Trudeau delivered a major speech on "Canadian Liberty" , emphasizing his party's support for multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights, while Thomas Mulcair spoke about an urban agenda to a rally in Toronto where he promised reforms such as a federal minimum wage, support for public transit, and restoring the retirement age to 65. The Stephen Harper warned about the dangers of the niqab, advised an audience in Saskatoon that guns are needed by rural Canadians for personal protection and promised an extension of the Canadian military mission in middle east.

What are Canadians to make of this? Will voters cast ballots motivated by fear of the niqab, affirm their support for the Charter of Rights, or vote on bread and butter issues such as those raised by Mulcair?

The Reasoning Voter is a 1991 book by Sam Popkin, a political scientist who was a one-time polling advisor to CBS News, and a consultant to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.  He argues that it is important to understand the voters do reason about their voting decision.  In the introduction to his book he says:
...voters actually do reason about parties, candidates, and issues. They have premises, and they use those premises to make inferences from their observations of the world around them. They think about who and what political parties stand for; they think about the meaning of political endorsements; they think about what government can and should do. And the performance of government, parties, and candidates affects their assessments and preferences. 
The term low-information rationality - popularly known as "gut" reasoning - best describes the kind of practical thinking about government and politics in which people actually engage.
In the end they vote on their perceived interests and who can deliver on them. Often what dominates headlines in lead-up to a campaign turns out to have little impact when the votes are counted, even if it is something that can evoke strong opinions and make for dramatic headlines. What serves media interests is not the same as the interests of voters.

The 2014 Ontario election is a classic example: the opposition parties spent much of their time in question period and media scrums talking about the gas plants scandal. Later it was the most important theme in the campaign's TV debate, which Kathleen Wynne was deemed to have lost. They opposition leaders were wasting their time. The agenda for the election was actually set by the Liberal budget that introduced reforms such as a wage increase for home care workers, a higher minimum wage, and a possible Ontario pension plan. The Liberal focus on economic and social policy combined with PC leader Tim Hudak's promise to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs is what fundamentally determined the outcome. Practical social and economic issues that affected voters' day to day lives was what mattered.

It was not just Ontario. In Quebec's 2014 election a campaign that was supposed to be about the PQ's Charter of Values wound up being about not having another independence referendum. One effect of the Charter was to strengthen the electoral participation of the Charter's opponents non-francophone non-anglophone voters. This directly lead to the loss of three PQ seats in Montreal.

It is not enough to know what voters think about an issue.  We need to know if they care about it in the context of voting and how they are reasoning about it. Many of the issues we see in polls and headlines don't necessarily have any connection to the voting choices that will eventually be made. A Forum Research poll out this week reported that two thirds of Canadians oppose allowing women to wear the niqab while the same poll respondents gave the Liberal Party a 36-32 lead over the Conservatives. On the clear face of it this is not a voting issue - there is a complete disconnect between partisan choice and vote intention on the part of those taking part in the Forum survey. This should not be surprising given what happened last year in Quebec, where the PQ Charter was generally not a voting issue, except where it hurt the PQ.

At the moment, the debate about the niqab and "Canadian Liberty" is seizing more media attention than Thomas Mulcair's emphasis on social and economic issues but I suspect it is the latter that will be more important in the campaign this fall. This doesn't necessarily mean that the NDP is poised to surge upwards. Voters could end up preferring the economic and social policy approaches of Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. However, it is likely that Mulcair is right about the terrain of the campaign, when it does come. This is likely bad news for Stephen Harper. The fact that he is emphasizing terrorism and foreign policy suggests he does not see domestic concerns as one of this strengths in 2015.

In the end voters will make choices based on reasoning that relates to how they view the world and the partisan and leadership choices before them at the time. One should not jump to conclusions in the spring about how that process is going to play out in the fall.

Monday, March 02, 2015

NDP leadership in Manitoba: the final stretch

In the late 1970s I was a current affairs documentary producer with the local CBC supper hour program in Winnipeg. On a few occasions I heard from a long-haired, bearded social worker from north Winnipeg with story suggestions centred on issues affecting low income residents in that part of the city. The result was that I ended up producing a handful of documentaries focused on issues such as the need for more affordable housing, and, in one particular case, a local problem with adolescent glue sniffing in one of Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods. The social worker always stayed in the background of these stories, never agreeing to be interviewed. I moved away from the city and lost touch, but encountered him again in 2008 at a conference on Manitoba politics and government, beard gone, hair shorter, in jacket and tie. By 2008 Greg Selinger was Manitoba's Minister of Finance and a year later would become Premier.

He is now fighting for his political life and may cease to be premier after the NDP leadership convention vote on March 8. However, Greg Selinger never forgot the poor of north end Winnipeg. If you are poor, aged or infirm, Manitoba is one of the better places to live in North America, mainly as a consequence of 30 some years of social democratic government in the province since 1969 (I worked for an NDP candidate in that election). One of the first large initiatives was legislated immediately after the 1969 provincial election and implemented before year's end: "On November 1, 1969, premiums for medical care insurance were reduced by 88%, and the revenue loss was replaced with an income tax increase as promised in the election". Others have been small but over the years help for those on low income has been a continuing theme. Greg Selinger's government has been faithful to the NDP's core constituency, which is one reason he continues to be supported by anti-poverty activists and other party progressives.
However, he may well lose. His government's popularity took a big hit from the poorly managed introduction of a sales tax increase in 2013 (a topic I discussed in an earlier post). All governments of whatever stripe don't get to continue in office forever; they gradually accumulate grievances against them. Tax increases, however justified, can seem particularly burdensome in an era where inequality means the less well off typically see their wages and incomes stagnate.  
The internal party rebellion against Selinger has been a futile effort to stave off a defeat that is all but inevitable. This was a serious error in political judgment, made in particular by Theresa Oswald and her allies. Had she and the other party rebels waited, the likely defeat would have cleared the way for her to replace Selinger and rebuild the party in opposition. Voters are likely to hold Theresa Oswald, if she becomes leader, to account for the tax increase despite her promise repeated yesterday of an offsetting tax credit for those on low income. She would represent a shift in age and gender but the long years in office of the NDP will inevitably take their toll. As it stands Oswald and Selinger may well lose to Steve Ashton. Defeated by Selinger in 2009 Ashton, who has engaged in some ethically dubious campaign tactics, almost certainly would have the weakest popular appeal of the alternatives on the ballot. 
This divisive leadership contest is a low point for the Manitoba NDP and has been compared to the party's defeat in the 1988 Manitoba election. The leadership divisions have clearly diminished the NDP's odds of winning the next election, scheduled for April 19, 2016.

However, a recent analysis by Nelson Wiseman concludes that, whatever the immediate future holds, in the long run the Manitoba NDP has every reason to expect a strong political future:
A generation of new voters in the next election, most likely to occur next year, will have known only an NDP government in their politically conscious lives. To them, the "natural" political order will be an NDP government. This does not mean the NDP will prevail in the next election. The odds it will do so are remarkably long. However, the NDP long ago left its position on the margins of provincial politics. It is now deeply embedded in the provincial political culture, worthy of being known as Manitoba's natural governing party for the foreseeable future.
All indications are that the leadership contest is a close three way race. I expect Ashton will finish either first or second with one of Selinger or Oswald being eliminated in third place. Were it not for the internal feud one would expect the supporters of Selinger/Oswald to go to the other. However, unity does not prevail in the Manitoba NDP. Internal jealousies and bitterness about the race may contribute to producing the least desirable outcome.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Political Waivers: Eve and Dimitri claimed by Team Trudeau

A version of this post has already appeared on iPolitics.

Major league baseball's spring training begins next week. My favourite sport came to mind as I was thinking about the move of Justin Trudeau's Liberal team to claim off Tory waivers high profile Conservative MP Eve Adams. It has made quite the media splash, provoking a storm of editorial and social media criticism directed at the acquisition of the new member of the Liberal team whose previous profile led CTV News to say euphemistically that she was "No Stranger to Controversy".

In baseball there is a trade term called the "player to be named later". It refers to the acquisition of minor league prospects where the exact terms of a big deal (usually involving a big name player being acquired by some team making a pennant run) are not finally resolved when the trade is executed. Among 'players to be named later' who later achieved star status is the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

The analogy is not exact but the real potential benefit in this transaction for the Grits is not the high profile MP with the dubious past. Rather it was the player named later in all the media stories about the Tory to Liberal team transfer: her fiancé, former Conservative Party executive director Dimitri Soudas. He was fired by the party in March 2014 for inappropriately assisting Adams in a nasty Conservative nomination battle.  However, one can assume he was privy until then to some important Conservative Party secrets.

So what might he potentially bring? We don't know for sure but there are a couple of possibilities. Consider previous Conservative success in undermining the popularity of previous Liberal leaders such as Stéphane Dion with TV ads that greeted them as neophyte leaders:

The destruction of Dion was followed by this attack on Michael Ignatieff:

Their efforts to undermine Justin Trudeau have so far not been as successful; the Liberals continue to perform competitively in the polls. The key point of the Conservative attacks, like the previous efforts, is that Trudeau is not capable of being PM ("in way over his head").

Going into the 2011 election, on average the Conservatives led the Liberals by about seven points over the course of the six months prior to the election call. At the moment the two parties are roughly even in the polls. This recent Abacus poll hints at why that might be: whatever success the Conservatives have had in portraying Trudeau as incompetent - Justin has made his own substantial contributions to this reputation - he continues to be liked and admired widely. The Abacus Poll found that Trudeau was the political leader most Canadians would like to have over for dinner or accompany them to a movie. However, he was not deemed someone to give you advice about how to invest money. His weakness on competence appears to be offset by his likability.

The fact the Liberals clearly wanted Soudas suggests they are quite nervous about what the Conservatives might have in mind. Even if the Conservatives' strategies and tactics shift, Soudas would know what the Conservatives think about Trudeau and the Liberals, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the Conservative Party's assessment of their own party's strengths and weaknesses. Soudas was there nearly a year after the Conservatives started up their attacks on Trudeau. He would know their assessment of why these attacks were less successful than the previous campaigns against Dion and Ignatieff and what more needed to be done. Clearly this is potentially an invaluable contribution to the Liberal campaign this year. It also makes it more difficult for future Conservative communications to catch the Liberals off guard.

The fact that the Liberals are willing to put up with the inevitable abuse suggests they feel strongly about the potential benefits of Soudas' knowledge; it is clearly worth the hostile editorials and social media mockery. This move may appear foolish on its face but it is easy to see why the Liberals made it. The prize was not Eve Adams.

The Adams deal also suggests other aspects of Liberal strategic thinking. Acquiring a defection from a Conservative MP fits with an apparent Liberal goal of winning over 2011 Conservatives who now perceive Stephen Harper as mean-spirited - it was the one clip in her press conference that had real value for the Liberals. It reinforces an emerging narrative.

Liberal support for Keystone and other efforts in Alberta suggest further that it is voters on the right rather than the left that intrigue Liberal strategists. Who better than a pair of Conservatives to help out with that.  The Liberal vagueness on policy also suggests acute anxiety about potential Conservative attacks on new policy announcements, or perhaps they are concerned about Liberal ideas designed to lure Conservatives appearing in the April budget.

A final note: the media seem to think defeating Joe Oliver will be exceedingly difficult. Based on current polls in Ontario my seat projection for Eglinton-Lawrence would suggest an easy victory for the Liberals there if the polls hold. However, Eve Adams will likely encounter other potential candidates making the same assessment. Winning the nomination is going to be the hard part for Eve Adams and Dimitri Soudas. Making a late season trade does not guarantee a pennant for a baseball team; that goes for this deal as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How well is the Harper government really doing?

Many political writers have concluded that there is growing support for the Harper government. However, there have only been three polls released in January, one of which from Ipsos reported a strong result for the Conservatives, leading to a claim the Conservatives were on the "cusp" of a majority (my own seat estimate from that poll, however, would actually see the Harperites winning 141 seats, enough for first place but nearly 30 short of a majority). The other two polls, from Ekos and Forum, would see the Liberals winning the most seats.  Averaging Ipsos with the two other January polls would give the Conservatives 132, Liberals 126, the NDP 71, Green 1 and Bloc 8.  A majority for anyone is a long ways off but the race between the Liberals and Conservatives for first place is appears to be close.

Many recent analyses have been comparing the late autumn/ winter to a summer when there were few surveys, some of which had exceptionally strong numbers for the Liberals (enhanced in part by spillover into the federal realm from Kathleen Wynne's victory in Ontario). If we look at quarterly polling averages for 2014 we find the autumn looks much like the spring (January polls are not included here):

Compared to four years ago, however, there is much stronger antagonism to the Harper government. Nanos Research has been conducting surveys annually since 2007 for the Institute for Research on Public Policy on the mood of Canada. Its most recent write-up reports finding "signs of life" for the Harper government. This document is useful because we can compare current circumstances to previous years, particularly 2010 and 2011, when the polls were conducted five or six months before and after the May 2, 2011 general election.

One question asked respondents to grade the performance of the Harper government (See survey details here on page 3). I have isolated those who thought the government's performance either "very good" or "very poor" and put the numbers into the chart to the right. My view is that the "somewhat" category should be seen as expressing ambivalence; they are therefore excluded from the chart (along with the "average" category).

While the Harper government continues to a have small group of enthusiastic supporters, beginning in 2012 and continuing in 2013 when the Senate scandal dominated headlines, a large percentage of Canadians came to judge the government's performance as "very poor". The number dipped a bit in 2014 but given the limited interest of most Canadians in politics the 30% who say the performance of the Harper government is "very poor" is a remarkably high number.

The last couple of months have produced events that should have strongly favoured the Harper government, including announcements of a balanced budget (now in doubt), imminent tax cuts, and a higher profile for national security issues following the events on Parliament Hill and the House of Commons vote the same month supporting the international campaign against ISIS. Even the drop in oil prices should have helped given that the Conservatives have the reputation of managing the 2008-2009 economic crisis well. The government has spent millions on TV ads to remind us all of their fiscal virtues, and terrify us about the prospect of marijuana being legalized. All the while the Conservative Party has offered up continuing reminders via radio, television and internet of why in their view Justin Trudeau should not be considered a suitable prime minister. Given all this shouldn't we be asking ourselves why the Conservatives aren't stronger?

While the polls have moved somewhat in Harper's favour in recent weeks, they are nowhere nearly good enough for the Conservatives to aspire to another majority. Ontario was the key to Harper's 2011 majority. There the Conservatives captured 44% of the vote and had an 18 point lead over the NDP and the Liberals. Recently an Angus Reid poll gave the Conservatives 43% of Ontarians in a poll of eligible voters (there was a slightly smaller share of 40% among the firm's estimate of likely voters). If accurate does the poll mean a repeat of Conservative majority looms? Here is a comparison of the 2011 election results in Ontario to a 2015 seat projection based on the Reid poll.

In a first-past-the-post electoral system an 18 point lead gave the Conservatives 73 Ontario seats in 2011 (83 if applied to the expanded House coming in 2015). The Tory performance was a mathematical sweet spot nearly impossible to repeat, as the projection based on the Reid poll illustrates. The 18 point advantage is gone; even with almost the same vote share the Reid survey tells us Conservatives would lose about 18 seats in Ontario alone. Some recent surveys have given the Conservatives a lead in Ontario, but nowhere nearly enough to repeat its 2011 performance there.

The importance of Ontario to Harper can be gauged by his recent decision to cave in after many months of refusing to meet with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. What led to the change of heart? I have little doubt that this Abacus poll released January 2 (see page 7) played a role. It reported that a substantial majority of Ontario's citizens (57% to 23%) disapproved of his refusal to meet the recently re-elected premier of Canada's largest province

Utilizing an average of national polls from October through December I projected with my forecast model, a Liberal plurality of 135 to 129 for the Conservatives, 71 NDP, 1 Green and 2 BQ in the next House of Commons, again a narrow margin that could tilt either way.

Stephen Harper is no fool; better to keep the majority he has as long as possible. Even if the Conservatives fortunes have turned up (by no means certain) the current political context rules out a spring election. 

Liberal strength remains as far from a majority as the Conservatives. What the next election appears most likely to produce is a House of Commons we haven't seen since 1972, when Pierre Trudeau's Liberals emerged on election night with a one seat margin over Robert Stanfield's Progressive Conservatives.  The Liberals were able to govern because they secured support from the NDP, giving them a working parliamentary majority. A Liberal plus NDP majority has not happened since then (apart from the Trudeau/Chrétien Liberal majority governments).

However, with the near disappearance of the Bloc Québecois, polling over the past couple of years tells me via my seat projections that an election reflecting the polling would have produced the Liberal plus NDP majority of 1972 to 1974 in almost every case.

What could matter in the next parliament is inter-party cooperation between the Liberals and the NDP, something we have not witnessed in over forty years. Our Westminster-style House of Commons is too regionally fragmented to easily produce governing majorities given the current party system. It is time for the NDP and Liberals to develop a viable model of party cooperation - one that is in the interest of both parties.

The NDP in principle is committed to cooperative parliamentary behaviour, given that it would be an inevitable consequence of proportional representation, a key plank in their current platform. In running for leader of the Liberal party Justin Trudeau endorsed ranked voting, which, if implemented, would create an incentive for inter-party cooperation, although Liberal Party commitments with Mr. Trudeau as leader have so far been vague.

Some argue that recent conflicts between the Liberal and NDP caucuses make cooperation impossible. It seems more likely that parliamentary math would trump personal and partisan sensitivities, as would pressure from the parties' grassroots to oust the Harper government.