Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The current state of play in Canadian poliltics

The current state of Canadian politics has been the subject of many columns emerging from Ottawa.  The absence of a parliamentary sitting has led many to conjecture on the current state of our politics.  One topic that has attracted some attention is the by-election race in Toronto Centre between Liberal Chrystia Freeland and New Democrat Linda McQuaig (both appear to be highly capable candidates) where it is presumed there will be a race that turns in part on a debate over inequality. More on this later.

Overall one impression left by the surge in Liberal support following the selection of new leader Justin Trudeau is that there is something of a return to pre-1993 normalcy in Canadian politics. Commentator and journalism professor Andrew Cohen explicitly endorsed this idea recently:
Is Canada creating a new political realignment, which looks an awful lot like the old one? Is it returning to a three-party system in which the Conservatives and the Liberals hold power, alternating with each other, while the New Democrats languish on the margins? Perhaps.
What is striking about the resiliency of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau is less their lead over the Conservatives, which may or may not hold up through the next election. It is their lead over the New Democrats, who have fallen from second to third place.
Looking at polls, you could think we have returned to the way things were in Canada before we elected a multi-party Parliament in 1993, when the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois erupted as regional powers. Now we have become essentially a three-party country again (the Greens and BQ notwithstanding.) While they may shift positions with each other, the story is about the Liberals and Conservatives.
What has not changed much in recent months is the growing marginalization of the New Democrats. It may be that this fall from grace is temporary, reflecting Trudeau's highly publicized arrival. But you have to think the New Democrats are worried with the emerging narrative.
Another assumption on the part of Ottawa journalists such as Lawrence Martin is that renewed Liberal strength in Quebec signals yet another return to the status quo ante.

I have averaged the seats estimates generated by my forecast model from polling released over the summer and found the following:

The NDP total, while down significantly from their 2011 total of 103, is nevertheless 21 seats higher than the party's previous record high in 1988. And the party, despite ground lost since 2011, is still getting significant support in Quebec, enough to win many seats. All is not quite as it was.

TC views the current situation this way:
  • First, if this is a high point for the Liberals as a consequence of the Trudeau honeymoon (perhaps it is a plateau from which we will see more gains) then we see a Liberal Party still gravely weakened from its setbacks of recent years.
  • The combined total of Liberals and the NDP is 176 seats, a comfortable majority - something that was not the case after the 2006 and 2008 elections. Coalition efforts by the two parties in 2008 required the acquiescence of the pro-Quebec independence Bloc Québecois, one factor in the successful efforts by Stephen Harper to stymie them.  
  • All projections from recent polls have an NDP-Liberal majority.  Discussion of two party cooperation has so far focused on pre-election cooperation. These numbers, if they resemble the 2015 election at all, suggest the parties will need to think about their post-election positioning. They had best start thinking carefully about it now. 
  • It is clear from these numbers that the Conservative Party has dropped a long way from 2011 for various reasons including the Senate scandal, and is highly unlikely to repeat its majority victory (although winning a plurality of the seats is quite possible).
Trudeau and Mulcair
Although the polls are not as favourable for the Liberals as the pundit class thinks, you can see that they are already seeing them as permanent and aiming salvos at Mulcair (some of which are justified) due to his declining poll standings. The problem is that too much of our journalism is windy, empty and poll-driven. If you are down in the polls you become a target and the criticism of Mulcair is an example. See, for example, this summary of a Toronto Word on the Street panel discussion by Liberal blogger Jeff Jedras. If Trudeau drops off in the polls it will happen to him too (whether he deserves it or not).

Trudeau and Marijuana
Partly because his polls have appeared to be strong, Justin Trudeau largely received a free pass on marijuana legalization. The issue has been lightly treated by the media in substance, and discussed largely on the basis of whether or not it has helped Justin Trudeau politically. In fact it raises some thorny issues.

For example, I doubt that many denizens of Ottawa have seen the excellent CBC Nature of Things documentary, The Downside of High, but it should be required viewing. Anyone can view it online at the Nature of Things web site. See a promo here. To summarize, it "tells the stories of three young people from British Columbia who believe - along with their doctors - that their mental illness was triggered by marijuana use. All three spent months in hospital psychiatric wards, and still wage a battle with their illness. Today's super-potent pot may be a big part of the problem."  (To be fair Trudeau has mentioned regulating the THC content of marijuana.) 

But there are also other health issues associated with marijuana consumption. TC's view is that all drugs should be dealt with as health issues, and not through the criminal justice system. The Liberal discussion of marijuana to date has been completely inadequate. Ironically, Trudeau's own mother appears to have suffered from mental illness as a consequence of smoking marijuana. So it seems amazing this has not figured into Liberal discussion of this issue.

TC's harsh appraisal of Trudeau as Liberal leader at the time of his selection remains unchanged. He does seem to be terminally shallow.

The By-Elections in Toronto Centre and Bourassa
The impending by-elections in the Liberal held seats are being touted as a "test" for Justin Trudeau. However, these were ridings held by the Liberals in 2011 at their lowest point ever. If the recent polls mean anything at all the Liberals should be in a position to easily retain them. I think this will be true of Toronto Centre, where the latest numbers would put the Liberals twenty-five percentage points ahead.

Bourrassa in Montreal needs to be assessed differently. The 2011 election completely upset previous voting patterns in Quebec and created a new party system. This means there is greater uncertainty about what the future holds. Nominally the Liberals would be forty points ahead but it may be that while Denis Coderre could hold the seat against the orange tide in 2011, a by-election could well be different.  Certainly that is the calculus of the NDP, which is targeting the riding. TC's hunch is that this may be the NDP's better bet despite the numbers, if they nominate a strong candidate. But we should be under no illusion about how large a shift from 2011 it will take for the NDP to win.

In Toronto Centre in 2015 there will be new electoral boundaries that will make the NDP much more competitive in the constituency if not favoured (you can look up one estimate of these impacts here). The more northerly affluent parts of the riding will be moved to another new district. What the NDP needs to do in this by-election to be successful is to win in the more southerly poorer reaches of the constituency rather than winning the by-election outright. Toronto Centre's class divisions do make a debate on income inequality highly appropriate here. Hopefully this will just be the start of a discussion that will carry on for some time to come.

Boundaries of the Existing Toronto Centre

Likely boundaries of Toronto Centre in 2015