Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Election 2019: Where are we headed?

Polls and Seats: Divergent messages

The polls in this campaign appear on the surface to be telling a similar story: a close election, outcome uncertain. However, different surveys, examined closely, reveal dramatic contrasts.

Here are two examples covering the same October 8 to 10 period (the day after the English debate to the day of the second French debate), one survey from Nanos Research, the other from Angus Reid. I provide a seat projection below based on the provincial/regional numbers from the two polls. What matters, however, is the dramatic difference between the two: one a Liberal plurality of seats won, the other Conservative.

There is also higher uncertainty because the polls are more variable at the level of regional details. So which survey should one trust? Even past performance is not an absolutely reliable guide since a given polling firm can have a bad result. That said, the best performing firm in elections since 2006 has overwhelmingly been Nanos. With the exception of 2008 when they had a bad result, Nanos has either been the most accurate pollster, or just a whisker away from being the most accurate. The table below tells us what happened in 2015. It compares the national numbers in the polls for each party compared to the election result. Overall the polls performed well. The firms are ranked by total absolute error. The red numbers indicate numbers that fell below actual vote shares, the black are above. The polling was fairly accurate, mostly within the margin of error.

I have been tracking polls compared to election results for some time. Generally polls conducted by phone either with a live interviewer or electronically by a method called Interactive Voice Response (IVR) have been the most accurate as in the table above. However, on occasion, an online survey outperformed the others.

I still regard online polls as experimental partly because there is no standard commonly accepted methodology. For example, some of the internet panels (meant to stand in for the Canadian or provincial population as a whole) are randomly recruited on the phone while others are self-selected or put together using other methods.

I would like to see full transparency in this area, which does not happen now: the size of the panel (including the size of provincial and regional sections), how it is selected, the number of surveys distributed and response rate. Online polls are attractive to polling firms because they are cost-efficient so they are probably here to stay. Online polls do generally report a margin of error. However, it should be remembered that the margin of error is simply a function of sample size. Online poll samples are drawn from the limited population of the internet panel, whereas phone or IVR polls sample all of the population with access to a phone (land line or cell). This difference is something that appears to be widely misunderstood. When you see margin of error in an online poll the population that it applies to is the population of the panel not the population of Canada. Sometimes a poll such as the Reid poll above will describe the margin of error using fudge language such as: "For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20." In fact the margin of error does apply to a sample of the size noted but the population it applies to is that of the internet panel.

Election trends: growth in support for the NDP and the Bloc

It is clear by now that the NDP has dramatically improved its prospects in the last couple of weeks, in part because of Jagmeet Singh's performance in the debates and his deft response to the Trudeau blackface controversy and other issues.  The Bloc has been growing too, in part because the new leader, Yves-François Blanchet, is an effective communicator, but also because of the appeal in Quebec of the province's xenophobic Bill 21 (it imposes restrictions on the headgear of religious minorities) especially to older, more rural residents (see the demographic numbers on page 5 of this Leger survey). However, Chantal Hebert also makes a convincing case that other factors are at play.

I don't think the NDP is doing better because of Singh's debate performances per se. Instead, it has rejigged the campaign because his performance has drawn voters to take a new look at the positions he has emphasized. Voters don't look at elections as beauty contests (I get the impression some reporters do), but rather as a way to solve problems they face, so the NDP's promises in areas like dental care or housing and other issues are ultimately what is delivering the support to the NDP not the qualities of his debate performance.

In a way this should not be a surprise. All governments disappoint and it has been clear for some time that some of the electorate has been casting about for an alternative. The NDP does appear in current circumstances to be drawing at least some support from both the Liberals and the Conservatives reflecting the new dynamic.

Historically, the NDP has done well in elections following Liberal majorities. This happened in the elections following Liberal wins in 1968, 1974, 1993 and 2000. It is not a new phenomenon. At the moment the NDP would not match its 2015 seat total of 44 but there are several days to go. Intuitively, I have wondered if this election might produce a scenario like that in 1972 when the Liberals of Trudeau the elder finished a single seat ahead of the Stanfield PCs. The next two years brought a Liberal government dependent on support from the NDP.  However, increasing Bloc strength suggests it may be a House of Commons where neither major party can govern with the support of just one opposition party. This suggests a period of parliamentary instability to follow.

It will be remembered by some that there was considerable speculation about how well the Green Party would do following their by-election win in May. The situation is actually the same now as then. The Greens have improved in the polls since the last election but they only have real strength on Vancouver Island. Their leader Elizabeth May has stumbled during the campaign in part because of her dishonesty. For example, she claimed a new Quebec recruit from the ranks of the NDP was a sovereignist not a separatist, although the two words have the same practical meaning (the new recruit used 'separate' in French himself). She has gotten away with a great deal of this kind of use of political weasel words for a long time, but the real problem for the Greens is that they just don't have much organizational muscle off the island.

The Conservatives could have improved their prospects if they weren't so determined to be a party well to the right. Andrew Scheer doubled down on this approach in the English debate - it seems he is somehow trying to thread the needle - but this behaviour overall is self-marginalizing in the context of the reality of Canadians' political views. It also inspires some fear among progressives leading many of them to look to cast a tactical ballot, even though that is a practical alternative in only a small number of circumstances.

High turnout at advance polls mean some of the result is already baked in, i.e. developments in the last week cannot change votes already cast (two million ballots were cast in the first two days of advance voting). That suggests the current numbers already guarantee no party will control a majority in the House of Commons come October 21.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Manitoba Election - Closer than it appears?

The Manitoba election is on September 10 and while most polling suggests an easy PC win, it may be closer than it appears.  The most recent poll from Mainstreet Research has an overall margin of nine points - 43% to the NDP's 34% with the Liberals trailing at 15% and the Greens at 6%. The Free Press headlined it Poll Predicts Tory Majority.
However, this same poll actually gives the NDP a six point lead in the City of Winnipeg (an earlier poll suggested the parties were tied in the city) while the PCs have a thirty point margin in the rest of the province.  This is significant. The PCs win by enormous margins in rural Manitoba, sometimes by greater than sixty percentage points - a vast number of  'wasted' votes.
When I apply my seat calculation forecast using the regional numbers from the survey I get a PC majority but a tight one. Of the 57 constituencies the PCs would win 30, the NDP 24 and the Liberals 3.  There is nothing certain about these numbers. One should expect both polling error and errors from the seat forecasting methodology. However, if the poll is right about a real NDP lead in the city then this election may be closer than has generally been thought. At the individual riding level I see quite a few close margins with tight PC leads (and a few NDP). Several are suburban Winnipeg seats formerly held by the NDP under Gary Doer and Greg Selinger.
The PCs have not run this campaign as if they were coasting to a comfortable victory. They know that polling suggests that PC Premier Brian Pallister is personally unpopular. In addition the NDP with some effect has been campaigning strongly against cuts to health care.
The PCs have used attack ads including some that I think qualify as dirty politics. For example, the PCs have been running an ad attacking NDP leader Wab Kinew. For the moment you can see it here on Youtube. Kinew engaged in serious misbehaviour in his youth, which he described in a memoir, The Reason You Walk. He has acknowledged his misdeeds but is a different person, in particular because he has overcome his alcohol addiction.
The image in the ad, which appears for 4½  seconds, is not long enough to read but long enough to get the impression of someone really terrible. You will note the "charged with" outnumbers the "convicted" but that is the idea, to conflate the two and leave an impression of someone unfit to be premier.  The political goal of this ad, which clearly says that Kinew's background makes him unqualified to lead, is to sow doubts about him in precisely those previously NDP suburban Winnipeg constituencies where the PCs do not have safe leads.
Something that has had next to no discussion in this campaign is anti-indigenous racism in Manitoba. Clearly it exists and will have at least some negative impact on the NDP among the non-indigenous population. How large an impact it might have is a subject for conjecture, but it will no doubt matter to some extent.
I don't really see how the PCs can lose at this point but if the NDP keeps the outcome close, it can matter in Manitoba's political future. The Pawley NDP government was re-elected in 1986 with just 30 seats. I think a government needs 31 to be assured a full term of four years. Two years after the 1986 election at a point where their popularity had plummeted, the NDP lost a budget vote. In the subsequent election they ended up in third place.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Reflections on the 1969 NDP Election Win in Manitoba

In June I attended a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the election of Ed Schreyer's NDP government in Manitoba in 1969. Fifty years ago I had just turned 21 and cast my first vote that day for the NDP, having worked during the campaign for Cy Gonick, the NDP candidate in Crescentwood. His victory was one of a number of outcomes in close contests critical to the NDP's success. Most of the speeches at the dinner were devoted to the (highly successful) record of the government, which I will touch on, but I want to reflect here on how it happened.

Back in 1970 I was generously given co-authorship by Tom Peterson, a member of the University of Manitoba Political Science Department, for an article published in the Lakehead University Review titled "Some Factors in the 1969 NDP Victory in Manitoba".  This analysis reflects arguments made there but adds to them.

The Diagonal Line

Fundamental to the NDP victory was that politics in the province divided along a northwest to southeast diagonal line, poorer and more ethnically diverse to the north, more prosperous and more British to the south. Here is the line as it appeared in the 1970 article:

The pattern is clearly visible in coloured maps of the 1969 results below:

The line would become deeply entrenched over time.  Several factors converged in 1969 to produce the NDP victory:

1. Redistribution and the end of rural preference. For decades Manitoba had legislated rural over-representation. However, the provincial government had also implemented a non-partisan system for redrawing constituency boundaries in 1955. Further reform meant a 1968 redistribution permitted no more than a 25 percent allowance on riding size. This increased representation in Winnipeg where the NDP's victory was centred - the party captured 17 of 27 constituencies with 45.4% of the vote (compared to 38.3% province-wide).

2. The Liberal party had not been small 'l' liberal for a long time. There was a reform Liberal government in Manitoba from 1915 to 1922 but it lost to the United Farmers (later the Progressives) in the 1922 election, and thereafter was a small urban party. The Liberals entered into coalition with the Progressives in 1932 and became part of a small 'c' conservative regime that lasted until 1958. I described the consequences in a paper in 2008: "By joining a farmers’ movement with its emphasis on fiscal frugality the Manitoba Liberals put themselves on a course that would leave them vulnerable in a modern urban world that wanted a more activist state than their inherited beliefs would permit."

Under leader Gil Molgat the Liberals did project a moderate image in the sixties. After by-election defeats in February 1969 Molgat resigned and was replaced by Robert Bend, a man who hailed from the coalition days, and who described himself as 'a little more right of centre'.

Although the provincial party leaned right there were many small 'l' liberals in the province (many had voted for Pierre Trudeau the year before). For them Ed Schreyer was an attractive commodity. The Liberal convention that chose Bend preceded the NDP convention by a few weeks. However, the name of everyone's lips at that convention was not Bend or his opponents. It was Ed Schreyer.

3. The PCs also shifted to the right. When they selected Walter Weir to replace the urban and reform minded Duff Roblin it represented a significant ideological shift within the PC universe. More progressive candidates were defeated at the leadership convention that chose Weir.

With an echo of today's Ford-Trudeau relationship, media accounts at the time suggested Weir had successfully confronted ideological adversary Pierre Trudeau in February at a federal-provincial conference. Shortly thereafter his party won three of four by-elections. He also made it clear that French language rights would be a low priority for him. The PCs subsequently tested the waters with a private poll, the only political poll of any kind taken in 1969 in Manitoba. Thinking they would catch their leaderless opponents off guard, they called an early election.

4. Luck mattered.  Something that should never be underestimated in politics. While three of the four February by-elections were won by the Weir PCs, the fourth in Churchill was won by the NDP's Joe Borowski. Key to the June 25 victory were the three wins in the northern seats of The Pas, Flin Flon and Thompson (a new constituency in 1969 won by Borowski). I think the by-election win had a demonstration effect that encouraged voters in the other two northern ridings to view the prospects of the NDP as a realistic alternative in electoral contests at a point where they were ready to vote for change.

The leadership contest the NDP were forced to call in the middle of the campaign received extensive television coverage, granting free media to a party that could not afford to buy time on TV. The northern seats have been dominated by the NDP ever since.

5. Ethnic diversity in Manitoba in 1969 was quite different from diversity and politics as it is thought of today in much of Canada. Ethnic political strategy in the current environment is conceived of as appealing for votes among relatively recent immigrants. In 1969 the NDP made significant gains among Manitobans of Indigenous and Francophone descent, although the latter continued to exhibit residual loyalty to the Liberals. Other minorities from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds were composed mostly of a population that had immigrated to Manitoba prior to World War I more than fifty years in the past in 1969. Initially Liberal and Conservative politicians were highly successful in recruiting leaders in ethnic communities and, by granting recognition and status to them, they were able to secure electoral support. However, by the sixties as Thomas Peterson noted the "second and third generations of non-British immigrants became less susceptible to ethnic appeals. Among this younger group, in contrast to the 'hesitant conservatism' of their elders, there was a greater drive toward improvement of their material circumstances as well as a skepticism that this could be achieved within the existing system." [This is drawn from an article by Thomas Peterson titled Ethnic and Class Politics in Manitoba]. CCF-NDP leaders had always been from British backgrounds. The selection of Schreyer as a leader signalled that the NDP was a party that could be trusted by minorities whose class status inclined them to support social democratic reforms. Increasingly, they were less interested in questions of ethnic status.

6. Mistakes by the governing PCs mattered.  An increase in health care premiums just prior to the campaign became a major election issue. Manitoba joined the national medicare program on April 1, 1969, nine months after the federal implementation date of July 1, 1968. Prior to that Manitobans paid health care premiums to help finance the already existing hospitalization program, introduced in the late fifties. As a political gambit, the Weir government created a premium 'holiday' for the period leading up to medicare implementation. However, when premiums returned with the introduction of medicare they were dramatically increased. The unpopularity of this move made slashing premiums a key election plank for the NDP.

Following the election, the NDP secured a governing majority when re-elected Liberal, Laurent Desjardins, supported the NDP.  Weir's hostility to French language rights compared to Schreyer's support for bilingualism made the difference.

The new government called an early session and adopted the outgoing government's budget with two key changes, the premiums were cut, and personal income tax rates were increased to pay for the change. It was the first of a series of fiscal changes that led to a more progressive tax structure in Manitoba by the time the NDP left office in 1977.


The election represented a fundamental departure in the province's history, what political scientists would call a re-aligning election. Its consequences for Manitoba's politics are still clearly discernible today.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Ontario Paradox

The post below was published as part of a longer article in Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion in their new issue released this week. In it several contributors assess prospects in their regions for the forthcoming federal election.

However, I actually finished writing it on April 29 prior to the publication of three polls (by Pollara, Ipsos and Mainstreet) that report a significant drop in public support for the Ford government.  An analysis prepared by Eric Grenier of CBC on May 29 suggests Ford is costing the federal Conservatives significant support. What I suspect will be the case come autumn is that it will likely be the difference in determining the winner, and so far my assessment is that it has cost the federal Conservatives relatively little. I think Doug Ford's political problems are just getting started. The cost to Andrew Scheer is likely to get worse.

An updated version of this has now been published by Rabble. 


Trying to establish Ontario’s place in the federation’s politics presents a paradox. Critically important, Ontario cast thirty-seven percent of all votes in 2015, contributing 80 of the Liberals’ 184 constituencies. However, having elected a small ‘l’ liberal prime minister that year, the same province proceeded less than three years later to select the conservative Doug Ford as premier. Justin Trudeau introduces a carbon tax while Ford leads a charge against it, going so far as to enact legislation to require stickers on gas pumps denouncing the tax. Trying to get a fix on Ontario’s prevailing ideological winds is no easy task.

Ontario was governed by a progressive version of conservatism in the sixties and seventies when premiers such as John Robarts and Bill Davis, quite compatible with the era of Trudeau the elder, held office. 

Take education as an example. The PCs invested prodigious resources in all levels of education, particularly post-secondary. It would pay off economically.  Toronto’s current prosperity is directly connected to those investments.  As a producer with CBC’s Journal in 1985, I made a short documentary profile of a small high-tech firm in Toronto that had just sold its new design system for cars to GM. Why in Toronto? CEO Stephen Bingham said that the staff’s advanced technical skills were attributable to investments by Bill Davis in places like the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo and Sheridan College. 

However, a new hard-edged conservatism took over in the Mike Harris years of the nineties, enthusiastic about cutting education spending, prioritizing tax cuts. However, deep cuts to postsecondary were offset to some degree by tuition increases and private sector support particularly for elite universities such as Toronto and Waterloo. Those years featured strong economic growth imported from a boom south of the border (dubbed by economist Joseph Stiglitz the “roaring nineties”) and aided by a continuously declining Canadian dollar that fell from the moment the PCs took office from about 72 cents U.S. to 62.5 cents in January 2002. Conservatives mistakenly liked to think the growth was about them and Harris’ Common Sense Revolution. 

The Dalton McGuinty Liberals would reverse the anti-education policies of Harris, earning kudos along the way from the OECD for its reforms. But taxes did not rise much, marking a key political and ideological success for the Conservatives. Spending remained low in part by postponing significantly outlays for public services such as chronic care. When Doug Ford became premier succeeding the seemingly progressive Kathleen Wynne (cap and trade, research on guaranteed basic income, changes to the sex education curriculum), Ontario had the lowest per capita program spending of any province despite the left of centre image cultivated by Wynne, and low overall revenues per person, a tribute to the tax-cutting fervor of the Harris years. Nevertheless, Canada’s largely conservative print media has misleadingly portrayed Ontario as a high spending debt-ridden basket case. As noted, spending and taxes remain low, the latter a key contributor to debt, itself primarily a product of the financial downturn following the last recession. Even per capita debt, compared to other provinces, is relatively high but not the largest in Canada.  

It is not always true that, as has often been said, Ontarians choose one party for Queen’s Park and send another to power in Ottawa, but it is true that federal-provincial political dynamics matter. A deeply unpopular provincial regime can harm the prospects of its federal counterpart, a clear and present danger for Andrew Scheer as evidence accumulates that some of Ford’s actions - unpopular cuts to treatment of autistic children, increasing high school class sizes, slashing public health spending, rollbacks to local flood fighting capacity and libraries, are taking a toll on Ford’s popularity. 

As if contrasting ideologies were not enough, we find that many of the senior personnel serving Trudeau - such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford - were imported from Queen’s Park political circles, while Ford has surrounded himself with former Harper staffers such as Jenni Byrne who served for a time as his principal secretary.

One key to the paradox perhaps is that Ontario, with a population of fifteen million, is too large to have a single political culture. In the centre is Toronto – Liberal stronghold, political home to key Trudeau ministers such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.  Toronto’s suburbs, better known by area code 905, harbour considerable Conservative strength. The ambiguity of Ontario’s outlook seems rooted here: mostly PC in the 2018 provincial election but heavily Liberal in 2015. The region is the political home of Jane Philpott of SNC-Lavalin scandal fame. However, scandals past have generated headlines but had little impact on votes.

Meanwhile the southwest, including London and Windsor, with the exception of tech centre Kitchener-Waterloo, experienced post-recession some of the manufacturing stagnation characteristic of neighbouring American states and this bred discontent, although even here recovery has taken hold. There is longer term stagnation in the north, also home to a large indigenous population, politically a relative stronghold for the NDP. Eastern Ontario is a rural sea of small ‘c’ conservatism, except for Kingston, and metropolitan Ottawa.

Trudeau the elder won three majorities, in the elections of 1968, 1974 and 1980, but in between he had a near miss in 1972, winning one more seat than the Tories (but continued to govern propped up by the NDP) and a minority loss to Joe Clark in 1979, overturned in 1980. A key difference between the Liberal majorities and their poor results in 1972 and 1979 was fickle Ontario, charmed by the Trudeau mystique in 1968 and 1974, with deep disappointment producing the minorities of ’72 and ‘79. Having been weakened by scandal, history may repeat itself for Trudeau the younger in 2019. A potential key difference: Ontario’s provincial politics played no role in the elections of the seventies; that is not likely to be true this year.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Will Jagmeet Singh Win Burnaby South?

A great deal of recent punditry is creating an expectation that Jagmeet Singh will lose the Burnaby South by-election, forcing him to resign as leader, creating a dilemma for the NDP as the 2019 election looms.

Jagmeet Singh
Having looked at the politics and precedents, my view is that he is actually more likely than not to win Burnaby South. First it needs to be said that overall the NDP is not all that badly off. It is clear now that it was a mistake for the party to oust Thomas Mulcair, but to suggest this means the NDP is about to be permanently decimated is unjustifiably melodramatic.
The state of the NDP was addressed by UBC political scientist Richard Johnston who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation. One of the best analysts of public opinion in Canada, he recently wrote a post on his website titled: Is the NDP tanking?

A few excerpts:
That the NDP is tanking seems to be something of a media commonplace. The image is often invoked as part of the coverage of Jagmeet Singh’s pending contestation of the Burnaby South by-election. He is damned for not running for a seat–somewhere, anywhere–before now. (Where he might have run is not obvious, a neglected fact.) Justin Trudeau’s delay in calling the by-election and the suspicious timing of the potential opening on Singh’s home turf feeds the sad sack narrative. 
But do the fact(s) support the tanking perception? Not really, although danger does lurk in the shadows. ...
The party currently sits within the range of typical outcomes since its first election (as the NDP) in 1962. ... 
If there is a general pattern, it is one of equilibration, of bring the NDP back to its long-term average. Occasionally, the trajectory is downward. More often, it is upward. ...
Coming back to the present, recent polls do suggest a modest drop, and the trend may continue. ... The nation-wide pattern may disguise special weakness in Quebec. 
There is no doubt that the NDP is weak in Quebec, due in part to dumping Mulcair. The NDP is currently down about 11 percentage points from the 25.4% it won in Quebec in 2015. However, this is not the case in British Columbia, which is what matters for the by-election. The average of recent polling numbers suggest the party might actually be slightly stronger than in 2015. Polling data is noisy in BC so it is difficult to say for sure.

Many reports cite the closeness of the result in Burnaby-South in 2015 when NDP candidate Kennedy Stewart defeated the Liberal candidate by just one percent. But any given election outcome is contingent on its context, not carved in stone. 2015 was very good election for the Liberals. In Burnaby South the Liberals gained over 20 points from its showing in the same area in 2011 (this is an estimate done by as the boundaries changed). There were elements of a wave election in 2015, and it well may be that the Liberals picked up support in 2015 from voters who previously supported parties such as the NDP and the Greens.

The Green vote will matter a great deal in this by-election as the Greens are not running a candidate to permit the NDP leader to gain entrance to Parliament. An environmental issue that could easily affect the race is the Trans Mountain Pipeline whose terminus lies a few kilometres north of the riding. The Green Party has decided in the case of this by-election to extend "leaders' courtesy" by not running a candidate, in effect, endorsing Singh, who will be the only major candidate opposed to the pipeline. If opposition to the pipeline actually proves to be weak here as a vote motivator, it suggests smooth sailing ahead for Trans Mountain.

Leader's courtesy no doubt played a role in the initial election of Elizabeth May in 2011 in Saanich-Gulf Islands. The Green vote there jumped from 10.5% in 2008 to 46.3% in 2011.

The phenomenon of 'leader's courtesy' can also be detected in much older election results. One striking example was the victory of John Turner in Vancouver Quadra in 1984 general election. Not only did the Liberals lose in a landslide to Brian Mulroney but the party won just forty seats overall. However, despite losing all those seats in this case a constituency that had voted four times in a row for the PCs saw its incumbent defeated by Mr. Turner.

A second example is provided by Calgary Centre in the 2000 election when Joe Clark, in his second stint as PC leader, won a seat that had voted Reform twice in a row despite the fact that overall PC fortunes declined by a third from 1997 TO 2000.

Yet another example was provided in provincial politics in Manitoba in 1972 when Liberal leader I.H. Asper won a by-election in Wolseley constituency, a riding that had been represented since its creation in 1958 by Progressive Conservatives including former Premier Duff Roblin. The Liberals at the time were a weak third party in the legislature.

Will Jagmeet Singh win Burnaby South on February 25th? In politics you never know but most facts about this by-election suggest the answer is yes. A more likely NDP loss would be Thomas Mulcair's constituency of Outremont. As noted Liberal support is up in Quebec; the NDP significantly down, and of course leader's courtesy will not apply. However, even there look for the NDP to win polls in the eastern end of the riding, an area that recently voted for the left wing provincial party Québec solidaire in the October 2018 provincial election.

Update since posting
Since I posted this item on January 13 there have been two important developments. A poll was released by Mainstreet Research on January 15 reporting a large lead for NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh, placing him over 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, Liberal candidate Karen Wang.

In one respect the poll became immediately outdated as on January 16 the Toronto Star's Vancouver edition reported:
The Liberal candidate running against NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in the Burnaby South byelection has resigned following a Star Vancouver report on her post on the Chinese social media app WeChat that urged people to vote for her, the “only Chinese candidate,” and not “Singh of Indian descent.
The Liberals still have a couple of weeks to find a new candidate but this type of incident contradicts their message and values and can only be harmful.

Both developments reinforce my conclusion that the answer to question posed in the title is yes.

Friday, November 16, 2018

British Columbia's Electoral Reform Referendum

The first thing that needs to be said about this is BC may well vote to change its electoral system. Much of the polling to date has been favourable to electoral reform although the margin has been tightening and the most recent survey has those favouring the existing first-past-the-post system ahead by one point 50.5% to 49.5% - effectively a tie.

The question on the ballot is in two parts. The second part asks the electorate to choose among three options. When I looked at the choices it struck me that of three there is only one realistic choice and that is Option Two.  Here is my analysis of the three options.

Option One is called dual member proportion, explained by Elections BC here. One key aspect of the proposal that is also its greatest weakness is that parties would normally be expected to nominate a primary candidate and a secondary candidate in a series of two member districts. Without going into the details the result is proportional (indeed I find the design rather ingenious), but we have a political culture that would not at all understand the idea of primary and secondary candidates. The system is new and is not in use anywhere, so it is highly likely to have some unforeseen consequences.

Option Two, which I would support if I had a vote, is Mixed Member Proportional (the Elections BC page on it is here). In this system you vote for a local candidate in a local constituency and that constitutes about half the legislature. Remaining members are chosen from lists in regional districts on the basis of overall province-wide proportionality. This system is in place in many countries around the world, notably Germany and New Zealand, but also in sub-national parliaments such as Scotland. There is deep experience with it and it is probably the system that best reflects generalizations made about PR by political scientists such as Arend Lijphart:
"The conventional wisdom concerning the choice between majoritarian electoral systems and proportional representation (PR) – and, more broadly, between majoritarian and consensus forms of democracy – is that there is a trade-off: PR and consensus democracy provide more accurate representation and better minority representation, but majoritarianism provides more effective government. A comparative analysis of 18 older and well-established democracies, most of which are European democracies, shows that PR and consensus democracy indeed give superior political representation, but that majoritarian systems do not perform better in maintaining public order and managing the economy, and hence that the over-all performance of consensus democracy is superior."
A recent poll by Mainstreet Research reports that this is the preferred option in BC.

Option Three, which Elections BC labels as Rural-Urban Proportional actually would deploy two systems, the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member urban districts, while Mixed Member Proportional as described above would be used in rural areas. This makes little sense to me and it baffles me to see it as an option. The Single Transferable Vote requires voters to rank their choices, 1, 2, 3 etc. It then requires a complex, indeed an opaque system for counting the votes. It has been used in the past in a number of Canadian jurisdictions but no longer. In my view it is not strictly proportional (political scientist Rein Taagepera has demonstrated how it can actually produce a non-proportional outcome) but more often than not, and certainly more than FPTP, it generally does produce proportional outcomes. Apart from the complexity a new system will be seen as more legitimate if it is the same everywhere, a virtue that characterizes the first two options. However, it was recommended by a Citizen's Assembly in BC in 2005 and supported by a majority in a subsequent referendum but failed as the government of the day required a super-majority of  60% and the YES vote obtained was 57.7%, so it fell just short. This would explain its presence on the ballot here, although I think it would make more sense as a province-wide choice.

If one views this period of Canadian history as a whole one can see numerous attempts at fundamental electoral system reform.  Even if this one fails it appears increasingly likely we will see successful electoral reform in the near future. In Quebec the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec government has promised a new electoral system by the time of the next election without a referendum.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Proportional representation - Arguments in favour based on the results of the 1993 election.

This is an essay I wrote in 1997 titled Ten Arguments for Proportional Representation. I used the 1993 federal election as a starting point. Some of the discussion is clearly dated but the extent of vote distortion in 1993 makes it an ideal candidate for analysis of this kind.

The tables above illustrate the difference between the results of the 1993 federal election and what the House of Commons might have looked like had it been elected by proportional representation.

[The PR table distributes seats based on provincial vote shares from the 1993 Election using the St. Lague method of allocating seats.  It uses a 5% threshold as the minimum requirement for parties to gain seats in the House of Commons.  The Yukon and the N.W.T. results are combined for the purposes of this exercise as PR ordinarily requires that a larger number of members be elected from a single district to achieve proportionality.  Provinces are used for the calculation here with the exception just noted, but most PR systems use multi-member local constituencies.]

I will use this illustration to advance the following ten arguments in favour of  proportional representation, some of them specific to the situation which emerged following the 1993 election:

1. The most compelling argument is that Proportional Representation (PR) more faithfully adheres to the democratic ideal. Unlike our current first past the post majoritarian system, PR would elect a House of Commons which accurately reflects the real preferences of voters.  Each party’s share of House of Commons seats would roughly approximate their share of votes. As the size of a party’s contingent of MP’s depends on its total vote, each voter can take comfort in the knowledge that their ballot contributed in some measure to that result. Currently many voters see their votes “wasted” on individual candidates who simply lose. In a PR election, in a very real sense, every vote counts. The sole exception is votes cast for parties who fail to achieve a minimum threshold. Such minimum levels of support (5%, for example) are common in countries with PR. As a consequence of a greater sense of efficacy on the part of individual voters, countries with PR have on average higher voter turnouts - about 10 percentage points more.

2. PR always produces a more balanced outcome.  What astonished many about the 1993 election were the extraordinarily lopsided results - 98 of 99 seats in Ontario going to the Liberals being the example that springs first to mind.  In fact, the outcome was lopsided in most provinces and Liberals weren’t the only beneficiaries. Reform won 75% of the seats in B.C. with 36% of the vote while the Bloc won 72% of the ridings in Quebec with 49% of the vote.  Even the NDP managed to win 36% of the seats in Saskatchewan with just 27% of the votes.  Only the Tories lost out everywhere (having benefited from the system in 1988).  The 1993 election was probably somewhat extreme in the lack of symmetry between the distribution of votes and constituencies won but such outcomes are characteristic of our current electoral system, and by definition impossible under PR.

3. The Bloc would have been denied its status as official opposition. The tradition of the parliamentary system is that the party with the second largest number of seats becomes the official opposition.  That it should fall to the BQ after 1993 seemed both inappropriate and bizarre. The Bloc was a purely regional party whose raison d’être was to exit the institution to which it had just been elected following what it expected to be a YES vote in a Quebec referendum. If PR had been in place not only would Reform have assumed its rightful place as official opposition but there would have been another equally important outcome in Quebec itself. Under PR the Bloc would have been entitled to 38 MP’s, only half of Quebec’s ridings - a more realistic reflection of Quebec opinion. The Liberal party did elect some francophone federalist MP’s but many were elected in ridings with large English speaking or multi-ethnic populations. Under PR francophone federalists would occupy a number of seats commensurate with their real numbers in Quebec society - around 40 per cent. Note that some would likely have been among the 11 Tory MP’s that would have been elected in Quebec.

4.  The Progressive Conservatives and the NDP would have retained party status and held on to a significant number of seats in the House of Commons. The PC’s and the NDP between them commanded the support of over 3 million Canadians in 1993 but won a total of just 10 seats. Immediately following the 1993 election the media all but ignored both parties because reporters naturally equated House of Commons representation with the real preferences of Canadians. Under PR they would have continued to enjoy the status in Canada’s political scene to which their millions of voters were entitled.

5. The real political diversity of Canada that exists within the various regions would be reflected in political representation in Ottawa. Regional tensions are exacerbated when the first past the post system systematically elects full slates of one party.  For example, under PR Reform would have had more members from Ontario than Alberta or B.C., and even two MP’s from Atlantic Canada. The Conservatives, all but shut out in 1993, would have had representation from every province.  The House of Commons would lose its appearance of being divided between a Liberal party with a largely Ontario face, a western Reform party and a Bloc Quebecois apparently representing most of francophone Quebec.

6. PR would encourage the formation of new parties and groupings that represent real social trends in Canada and help them get into Parliament.  If European experience is any indicator, it is likely that the environmentalist Green party would win seats at least in B.C. if not elsewhere. Many Canadians experience a sense of alienation from the political system that is caused in part because the electoral system rewards older well-established political parties and punishes upstarts. The only exceptions historically have been regionally rooted parties such as the Bloc and Reform.

7. PR allows for a clearer expression of real ideological differences among Canadians. The Winds of Change Conference held in Calgary in 1996 represented a major effort to bridge the differences between the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party. It collapsed partly because both sides have an interest, in the context of the current system, in driving the other out of business. As well, despite their similarities, there are genuine differences between the two parties. For example, Reform and the PC’s have radically different approaches to national unity. Under PR they would have the opportunity to coalesce around issues, and perhaps someday to form a government, while retaining the integrity of their philosophical outlooks. It was dissatisfaction on the part of some small ‘c’ conservatives with the Mulroney government which led to the creation of the Reform party. Under PR, this diversity among conservatives could be reflected openly in political discourse. Under the current system, the alternative to perpetual opposition appears to be that the two parties will be forced to amalgamate. [Note: as it turned out coalition of the two parties occurred via what amounted to a takeover of the PCs by Reform with the new party adopting the name Conservative.] But this is likely to lead to an ongoing war between right and left for the surviving party’s soul. Under PR both could continue to reflect the divergent views that led to the current situation in the first place.

8. PR would diminish the opportunities for arrogant or capricious governance. Our majoritarian government vests too much power in the leader of the party which wins a majority in an election. The Prime Minister has the power to hire and fire and cabinet ministers (and even to appoint candidates in local constituencies).  The greatest difference that PR would have made in 1993 is that the Liberals would not have formed a majority government.  In fact, majority governments would become rare under PR.  This inevitably forces inter-party bargaining and compromise and power becomes more diffuse. No single individual can dominate.

9. PR systems better represent minorities and other under-represented groups such as women. Political Scientist Arend Lijphart found that PR parliaments have about four times as many women as non-PR legislatures. PR could provide better representation of the different strands of an increasingly diverse Canadian society and so help ease social tensions.

10. Last on this list of arguments but of enormous importance in a country with a history of constitutional paralysis: the political system can be reformed and improved by Parliament acting alone. After trying out proportional representation and finding it not to their liking, Canadians can, if they so desire, restore our old way of doing things. Unlike constitutional change, legislated institutional change can be used to experiment with a better way of doing things.

In my next post I will discuss the options facing citizens of BC in their current proportional representation referendum.