Aftermath of the Unlikely Election

Now that the dust is starting to settle from last night’s results, and people (including myself) are starting to feel a little less shocked about the overall outcome, we can start to think about what is going to happen to the political landscape in the next four or five years.

First of all, the Conservatives deserve a congratulation for finally winning the coveted majority.  After seven years of minority governments, five of which were under the Conservatives, someone finally managed to end the Groundhog Day that was Canadian Federal politics.  But now comes the part where they convince the rest of us that giving them the majority was a good thing.  They no longer have any excuse of having to spend big dollars in order to appease the opposition.  If Harper doesn’t start governing in a competent, fiscally conservative manner, he will lose all credibility to call himself a conservative, and that will hurt him next time around.  Personally, I think that will be the hardest job for the new government, since they have grown so used to spending lots of money on anything they can think of.  I don’t think true fiscal conservatives will forgive them is they keeps spending money like they have been over the last 5 years.

The other thing they need to do is convince left and centre-left voters that they aren’t going to turn Canada into some American-style, so-con dictatorship, where abortion is illegal and gay marriage is banned, or whatever other insane arguments crop up every once in a while.  I think that will be the easiest thing for the Conservatives to do, since I always doubted they would ever do that in the first place.  There may be a few MPs that want that (and not just in the Conservative party) but clearly taking on that sort of agenda is political suicide, even in a majority government.

And as a fun bit of trivia, at the end of this majority mandate, Harper will have passed Brian Mulroney in length of time served as PM, putting him second of all time in terms of Conservative leaders.  That will also put him less than 2 years shy of Chretien’s record.

The second big winners of the election are obviously the NDP.  Jack layton led his party to a 175% increase in the number of seats to Official Opposition status.  He also decimated the Bloc Quebecois, which is making pretty much every non-spearatist in the country celebrate.  But the lasting legacy of this election is that the NDP has now been confirmed as a legitimate contender in the federal landscape.  After 40 years of also-ran status, the NDP has shown voters that they are not a wasted vote.  Soft support for the NDP will no longer automatically default to the Liberals in order to stop the Conservatives from winning an election.

With the Conservative majority, the chances of the NDP implementing any of its promises is essentially nil, but the NDP is now in it for the long game.  Nobody will underestimate them any more.  This may be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s possible that the increased scrutiny that comes from being mainstream will lead them to create platforms that isn’t based purely on wishful thinking.  It is theoretically possible to create a socialist platform grounded in actual economic reality, and the NDP has at least 4 years to build that platform.

The hardest part of the next 4 years for Layton will be keeping all of his support in Quebec.  Quebec voters have shown themselves to be very fickle (just ask the ADQ), so now is not the time to ignore the people who put you where you are today.

Lots of pundits are calling this election the end of Liberal Canada, and the end of the Liberal Party.  While this was a devastating blow, the Liberals will bounce back, but only after some serious introspection.  Their leader lost his seat, and this morning resigned as the leader.  Now is the perfect time to take stock of what they have and right their course.  If the Conservatives can come back from 2 seats in 1993 (yes, I realize that the Progressive Conservative are not exactly the same as the Conservatives) then the Liberals can come back from this.  It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s still unclear if the current leadership knows exactly what went wrong.  Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff have both blamed attack ads on the Liberals’ poor showing, which indicates that they may be missing message that the voters sent them.  In his resignation speech, Ingatieff even said, “I think the surest guarantee of the future for the Liberal Party of Canada is four years of Conservative government and four years of NDP opposition.”  Clearly, the Liberals will be better off without him if he believes that.

Voters want a party that stands for something, and currently the Liberals only stand for being not the Conservatives.  Until they fix their identity problem, they will experience similar results at the polls.

The Bloc received an even bigger kick in the pants than the Liberals this time around.  I think the Bloc suffers from the same sort of identity problems as the Liberals do, but with less chance of recovery.  Like voters in the rest of Canada, I think that Quebecers want a party that stands for something, and a one-issue party dedicated to breaking up the country just wasn’t cutting it any more.  Jack Layton treated Quebecers almost like voters anywhere else, and the generally left-leaning Quebec electorate responded.

I think that the Bloc will have a very difficult time of recovering from this.  Gilles Duceppe was a good politician, but his party stopped resonating with voters.  At least the Liberals have the potential to stake a claim to the middle ground between the Conservatives and the NDP.  The Bloc have no hope at all if the voters decide they don’t care about separating.

Finally, the Greens had their minor win, with Elizabeth May winning her seat.  Unfortunately, that was overshadowed by the overall support dropping from 6.78% last election to 3.9% this election.  Elizabeth May better have an ace or two up her sleeve if she wants to grow her party’s support countrywide, because one opposition MP can’t always do a whole lot in a majority government.  This sitting of the House of Commons will be her time to shine, so hopefully she makes good use of it.

And as everyone has been saying, the election that nobody wanted has turned into a game changer for Canadian politics.  I think this will be an interesting 4-5 years.

What the Hell?

If someone had said to me at the beginning of this campaign that the Conservatives would have won 167 seats, the NDP 102 and the Liberals 34, I would have asked if they were drunk.

What started at the election about nothing turned into the most interesting election night that I have seen.

I’ll do a better analysis sometime tomorrow, but for now I have to say that the absolute high point of this election is the Bloc getting decimated.  Winning only 4 seats, and losing your leader is almost a death blow.  They also lose official party status in the House.  That counts as a huge win for Canada and a huge win for Quebec, in my book.

If nothing else, that made this election worthwhile.

Decision Day

Well, the day is finally upon us.  For those of us who did not participate in advance polls, today is the day to cast our ballots in favour of our preferred candidates.

At the very least, this campaign has been more interesting than I was expecting.  I certainly didn’t predict the NDP to start polling ahead of the Bloc in Quebec and ahead of the Liberals nationwide.  I am still in a sort of shock at seeing those polls, but they are what they are.  We’ll see later tonight if the NDP supporters come out en masse and make Jack Layton the leader of the opposition or Prime Minister (although you already know my thoughts on that one).

Despite all the rhetoric, I think we can safely say that Canada will be fine whatever the result is tomorrow.  Harper will not turn Canada into a dictatorship (even if he wins a majority), Layton will not turn the economy into a death spiral (even though I think his promises are pretty wacky) and Ignatieff will not perform a palace coup at 24 Sussex as a last-ditch effort to govern the country.

And on the plus side, it looks like the one party whose actual goal is to destroy the country, is polling lower than it has pretty much since its inception.  With any luck, they will lose most of their seats, and thus have less leverage to blackmail the rest of the country into giving it ever more money.  I’ll take socialists over separatists any day of the week, because at least socialists try to make everyone equal.

So if you are still undecided, make a last ditch effort to get informed, and go to your nearest polling station.

If you asked me, I would say that I am predicting another Conservative minority, with an NDP official opposition.  But by how much, I am not willing to guess.  I’ll just have to wait and see once the polls close tonight.

What happened to the Green Party?

With the Liberal party imploding, and a general disdain for the incumbents in the House of Commons, one would think that the Greens would have a shot at finally making some headway this election.  But the opposite actually seems to be true: the Green party is polling worse than it did during the last campaign.

For the most part, the Green have been invisible this campaign.  There was that brief blip right before the debate where everyone was discussing whether or not Elizabeth May should be a participant.  She complained that is was unfair and undemocratic to not include the leader of a national party which received almost 7% of the popular vote last election.  But once it was declared final that she would not be in the debate, she seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth.

Well, maybe not completely off the face of the Earth.  According to some internal polling, she might just win her riding out in Saanich-Gulf Islands.  But does that really mean much overall for the Green Party?  Or is it just an indication that a party that in nominally running a national campaign can focus all of their efforts into one riding?  Any of the major parties could win just about any individual riding if they concentrate all of their efforts on that riding.  But the other parties all care about increasing support overall, not just winning one riding.

Since the debate, Elizabeth May has almost never been mentioned in the newspapers.  She gets no TV time.  All of their ‘ads’ are on the internet.  In short, May has done nothing to engage the electorate across the country.  The Greens are polling consistently in the mid-single digits, and that hasn’t changed since the beginning of the campaign.  Maybe I am missing out on a really good ground game in a number of targeted riding across the country, but I sincerely doubt it.  To me, it looks like the Greens have gone from a one-issue party to a one-candidate party.

If ever there was an election for the Greens to make a major breakthrough, this was it.  There was serious criticisms of the Conservatives, and the Liberals had a very weak leader.  Instead of the Greens using their (sort-of) centre platform to peel off voters from both the Liberals and the Conservatives, they let the NDP take control of the narrative and take all of the support from the disenfranchised.  They missed a golden opportunity to make a major breakthrough, and the will probably pay for it for years to come.  Even at the beginning of this election, there was some indication that any of the incumbents could be vulnerable, and after the final ballots are counted, I suspect the electorate will realize that if the Greens couldn’t gain more support in this election, there is probably no point in voting for them in the future, since they will probably never be relevant.

And I think that sentiment will be there even if Elizabeth May wins her seat.  It might even make it worse if she doesn’t do much once she gets there, and how much of the Green Party platform can she really promote as a single MP?  My guess, not much.

Prime Minister Jack Layton?

The last couple of days have shown some pretty wacky poll numbers, with the NDP now ahead of the Liberals, and within a few points of the Conservatives.  Most of the new polls even have the NDP winning somewhere between 80 and 108 seats.  If you would have asked me a week ago if this was even possible, I would have thought you were crazy for even asking.  The NDP’s best showing ever was in 1988, when they received 43 seats, and they have only ever gotten at least 30 seats in 4 more elections.  Now, over the course of a few days, their support has grown past the stage of splitting the vote with the Liberals to actually being a threat to many Conservative seats.

How did this happen?  I honestly have no idea.  It’s not as if Jack Layton has done anything different in the last week to draw in voters.  He has been the leader of the party since 2003, and he has been the same person running the same party since then.  This is his fourth election where he has promised voters the moon, and I was expecting this to be the fourth election where most voters acknowledge that his platform makes no sense.

This sudden surge probably has less to do with anything that the  NDP has done, and more to do with the complete and utter implosion of the Liberal Party.  But even that doesn’t fully account for the surge, since it seemed to have started in Quebec, and then spread elsewhere.  Maybe voters in other provinces saw the NDP beating on the Bloc, and figured it was a good time to beat on the Liberals as well.

Whatever the reasons, it looks like the NDP will do very well this election.  I still believe that the current polls are overstating the amount of support that they will get on election day, but it’s impossible to completely ignore these numbers.  There is still a very good chance that the NDP will gain more seats than the Liberals for the first time ever.  But as far as I am concerned, there is no way they will get more seats than the Conservatives, so Layton won’t become the Prime Minister by winning the election outright.

That still leaves the possibility of a coalition with the Liberals, which is theoretically even more plausible if the NDP strips enough seats from the Conservatives so that the NDP plus the Liberals have enough seats to form a majority.  The Conservatives certainly want you to think that a coalition with Jack Layton at the helm is the only thing worse than a coalition with Michael Ignatieff at the helm.

But I think that a coalition is less likely with the NDP forming the major party, even if a coalition without the Bloc produced a majority.  For better or worse, the Liberal Party has a lot of pride, and I believe that most members won’t stand for being second chair to a party that never even come close to being the official opposition, let alone forming the government.  This would be the first time since Confederation that the Liberal Party of Canada has not either formed the government or been the official opposition.  I think this would finally be the kick in the pants that the Liberals need to force them towards some serious introspection.

Ever since Paul Martin lost the 2006 election, the Liberal Party has been wandering aimlessly, hoping that Canadians will finally realize what a jerk Stephen Harper is, and vote the Liberals back to their rightful place as the governing party.  The Liberals have never even tried to rebrand themselves after the devastating effects of the sponsorship scandal, and they won’t be able to do that if they are the minority party in a coalition government.  Plus, it risks making them seem even more irrelevant when compared to the NDP.

As directionless and oblivious to reality that the current Liberal party has been, I don’t think that they will be able to ignore a loss to the NDP.  And that more than anything is what will keep Jack Layton from 24 Sussex.

Does our Democracy need fixing?

This week, the Globe is running a series this week looking for ‘One Big Idea to fix our democracy.’  Today’s installments are pros and cons of mandatory voting, as well as one suggesting we allow online voting.

The implicit assumption in this series is that our democracy is broken.  But is it really broken?  Sure, it could be improved, but I wouldn’t say that it’s broken.

The most-heard arguments that our political system is broken is that 4 in 10 voters can’t be bothered to vote, that less than 40% of voters cast their ballots for the winning party, and the number of seats won by each party in parliament is not representative of the percentage of people that voted for that party.

Personally, I don’t think that any of these means that our democratic system is broken.  I think they are legitimate areas that need improvement.  That may seem like splitting hairs on semantics, but calling something broken tends to imply that it’s beyond repair; that we should just scrap what we have and start over.  Even with the issues that our electoral system faces in Canada, nobody complains that our elections are not conducted in a fair an impartial manner.  There is no violence or intimidation during the campaign or voting periods.  We don’t have political leaders illegally clinging to power after they lose an election.  And we also have 4 viable choices of political parties (5 in Quebec), as well as the ability to cast out ballots for candidates who belong to no party.  If we don’t like our elected representatives, we can turf them after a maximum of 5 years.  To me, this doesn’t sound like democracy is broken in Canada.

Regardless, the items mentioned above are legitimate criticisms.  All three of the articles in the Globe today deal with the first problem.  The last election we had about 58.8% voter turnout, while most elections before 1990 had voter turnout somewhere between 65% and just under 80%.  But Canada has never had an election with a voter turnout of over 80%.  There has never been a point in Canadian history where everyone in the country has been fully involved in politics.  No matter what idea we may come up with, there will always be a certain portion of the population that just doesn’t care who runs the country.  Neither mandatory voting nor online voting will solve that problem.

Forcing people to go to the polls is not the same as engaging the electorate.  Just because someone is forced to walk to a polling station and check off a box, it doesn’t mean that they care about who they are voting for.  It’s just treating the symptom of the problem instead of the disease.  Showing a number after an election that 93.21% of eligible voters cast a ballot (as in Australia in 2010) only shows that 6.79% of voters don’t care about the threat of a fine.

Online voting has also been touted as a way to increase voter turnout by making it easier to cast a ballot.  But if you don’t care enough to spend 15 minutes out of your day to drop a piece of paper in a box, do you really care about the election?  Showing up to a polling station on election day is not really a high standard.  Plus, there is advanced polls, as well as special ballots, which mean you can vote pretty much whenever you like just by showing up at your local returning office.  Or, if you don’t like leaving your house, you can vote by mail.

Online voting also suffers from two major flaws: there is no way to verify the who the voter is, and there is no paper trail.  Since anyone can vote by mail, I guess we can gloss over the verification problem, but the lack of paper trail is a cause for serious concern.  What if someone asks for a recount?  There is no possible way to verify that all of the votes are legitimate, or that they haven’t been tampered with.  If a system is online, then it is possible to be hacked.  Unscrupulous individuals could use the online system to cause anyone they want to win, without any way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate ballots.  At least with paper ballots, all votes are counted in front of independent scrutineers, and then the boxes are sealed in case a recount is ordered.  With online voting, there is no scrutineers, no sealing of ballot boxes, and no recounts.  Besides all that, it still doesn’t solve the problem of voters not caring.

It seems that the most common solution to disengaged voters is some form of proportional representation, which theoretically allocates votes more ‘fairly’ between the parties.  While I think we could do with a frank and open discussion of the relative merits of other voting systems, it’s not going to be a panacea for all of our problems.  Besides, in the four referendums that various provinces have held on electoral reforms (two in BC, one in Ontario, one in PEI), none have passed, which indicates that there is not widespread desire for reform, despite what certain parties may say.  But that’s another topic for another day.

Overall, these ideas all seem a little gimmicky and unlikely to solve the problem of 40% of voters not caring at all, and that’s not going to happen until someone inspirational comes along.  The four elections that came closest to an 80% turnout saw the victories of Laurier, Deifenbaker and Pearson.  The elections with the mid-70s turnout saw leaders such as Borden, Mackenzie-King, Trudeau and Mulroney.  Love them or hate them, those leaders know how to rally support.  They had vision.  All of our current leaders can do is tell you why their opponents are bad.  If the goal is voter participation, inspirational leadership is the answer: that’s what has worked in the past, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in the future.

On Easter Sunday, families gather to…watch a Liberal infomercial

In what is apparently a last-ditch effort to gain support before the election, the Liberal have bought a half-hour time slot on Global and City TV for Sunday afternoon.  The show will be an “up-close-and-personal TV special about Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party’s plan to strengthen families and defend Canada’s health care system.”

I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend any time at all on Easter Sunday watching an advertisement for a political political party.  On a day where many Canadians are getting together with family, the Liberal party seems to think that they will put off anything else that they have planned, and watch a show explaining the greatness that is Michael Ignatieff.

Seriously, whose idea was that?  Do they expect anyone to watch it?  Do they think undecided voters are sitting around hoping one of the political parties will air an infomercial to tell them how to vote?

If this is the Liberal Party’s best shot for winning the election, then they clearly have no idea what they need to do to inspire Canadians.  Showing a big ad on a day where people will probably be spending time with family is not going to change the sad state of affairs for the Liberals in the polls.  This really just highlights how adrift the party as been since leaving power.  And without a big shakeup through the upper echelons of the party, it looks like the Liberals are going to be on the wrong side of the House of Commons for a very long time.