Electoral Reform: History tells us, be careful what you wish for

A coalition governed the province. Two parties shared power then devised a new voting system to suit their own interests. With it came unexpected consequences.

2018? Nope, it was 1952.

The Liberals and Conservatives had governed BC as a Coalition since the early years of World War II. By 1952, the Coalition was straining and ultimately fractured. Premier ‘Boss’ Johnson, a Liberal, fired his Finance Minister, Herbert Anscomb, the Leader of the Conservatives. Anscomb took his Conservative colleagues with him and departed the Coalition. Not long after, an election was called.

Prior to the election, the voting system was changed to single transferable ballot, also known as a preferential ballot. This is the same system that is used by political parties to choose local candidates and their leaders. It’s very simple – voters rank the candidates in order of preference. It assures that the winning candidate ultimately has at least 50% + 1 of eligible ballots in his or her riding.

The motive of the Coalition government was to block the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP, from power. The assumption was that Liberals and Conservatives would be each other’s second choice.

They did not account for W.A.C. Bennett, a Conservative MLA who left that party to sit as an independent. After considering his options, Bennett decided to join the Social Credit Party, then a rag-tag group in BC, but growing rapidly as discontentment with the Coalition grew. The Socreds did not have any MLAs in BC, but they had been governing Alberta for over 15 years.

WAC apples.jpg

“Love them apples” is what WAC probably said about the 1952 preferential ballot

Thus the two establishment parties – Liberals and Conservatives – were opposed by two populist parties – the CCF and Socreds, and it was the populist parties that would come out on top on Election Day: June 12, 1952.

On the first count, the CCF gained 30.78% of the vote, Socreds 27.2%, Liberals 23.46%, and Conservatives 16.84%. The CCF led on seat count with 21 seats, with the Socreds in second with 14 seats. The Legislature then had 48 seats.

Due to the new voting system, no MLA could be declared the victor unless he or she had a majority. The second count started three weeks after Election Day on July 3rd and the counting dragged on throughout the first half of July.

Had it been first-past-the-post, British Columbia would have most likely seen the first CCF government in its history in 1952 (Saskatchewan had a CCF government at the time). Clearly, with 21 of 48 seats, and a seven-seat gap over the Socreds, the CCF would have been asked to govern.

But the second and subsequent counts very much worked against the CCF. The CCF would drop from 21 seats to 18. The Socreds would rise from 14 seats on the first count to 19 seats by the end. The capper was that the Labour MLA from Fernie, Tom Uphill, expressed his preference for the Socreds, denying the CCF a de facto tie. The Coalition parties were probably aghast at these upstart parties contending for power.

The amazing thing about this situation is that the Social Credit did not even have a confirmed leader during the election. Their campaign was ‘led’ by an Albertan, Ernest Hansell, with Alberta Premier Ernest Manning having much influence over the BC wing. After the election was over, the leader was to be chosen by the new 19-member caucus.

Ernest G. Hansell MP, cf.1955.jpg

My name is Ernest Hansell and I am a footnote in BC history

On July 15th, when the final results were clear, the new Socred Caucus met at the Hotel Vancouver to choose the presumptive premier. Since there had been little by way of organization and no existing caucus, the new MLAs barely knew each other. Bennett, who was the best known and most strategic of the group, won with 14 of 19 votes.

It was no given that Bennett would be asked to form a government. After some deliberation, Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace did invite Bennett to form a government on August 1st, 1952. This happened after the Chief Justice changed his mind about whether Wallace should call upon Bennett. (It was the original Matter of Confidence).

Less than one year later, Bennett’s government was defeated in the House, in a move that was stage-managed by Bennett himself.   The L-G again had to decide the fate of the government. Instead of inviting CCF leader Harold Winch to form a government, an opportunity that Winch strongly advocated for, he let the voters decide.

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CCF leader Harold Winch: “I wuz robbed!” is probably what he said about the 1952-53 period

Again with the single transferable ballot system, Bennett went on to win a majority government this time. After the 1953 election, the Socreds scrapped the system and went back to First-Past-the-Post, which has been the system ever since, and has been the only system ever used in federal elections in Canada.

The moral of the story: electoral reform can have unexpected consequences. Voters in 1952 could clearly see the self-serving motives behind the Coalition’s move to change the system. They punished those parties, with both establishment party leaders losing their seats. While the Coalition succeeded in keeping the CCF out of office, they unintentionally created a political dynasty, the Socreds, which would govern for 36 of the next 39 years.

(As a newly minted supporter of the Social Credit Party, W.A.C. Bennett claimed in the Legislature prior to the 1952 election that the Socreds would win the next election, and that the Liberals and Conservatives “won’t be back for fifty years”. It turns out he was right on the first, and eerily prescient on the second. It would take 49 years for a party called Liberal or Conservative to win another BC election – Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals in 2001.)

It is a little bit ironic, considering the ProRep referendum, that it was electoral reform that denied the NDP, er, the CCF, it’s first taste of power in 1952. They would have to wait 20 years until Dave Barrett was elected in 1972. Perhaps that’s why this electoral system,  used twice before in BC, and in selecting party leaders and local candidates, was not one of the three options put forward in this referendum. There might be too many bad memories attached to it.

But one thing that can be said for sure in BC:  changing the electoral system to suit your own interests has proven deadly for a government once before.

(I leaned heavily on Paddy Sherman’s Bennett, for a history of this period).

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Floor crossings older than Canada itself

I had never heard of Leona Alleslev before she switched from red to blue. The Member of Parliament for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill becomes the latest in a long line of Canadian politicians who have crossed the floor to sit with a different political party than the one they were elected with.

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MP Leona Alleslev with her new leader, Andrew Scheer. (iPolitics)

Most of the time, the end is nigh for that politician. Some are pushed by desperation. Some are motivated by pique. Others for genuine policy and ideological reasons. I’m not sure which category Alleslev belongs to.  Unlike some examples, it was not expected, it was not a public journey, and she didn’t lay any track or provide signals.  Thus, it’s fair comment to point out that she seemed like a happy Liberal not that long ago.

Floor crossing is older than Canada itself. Wikipedia informs us that, in 1866, an anti-Confederate politician in New Brunswick switched sides when he did not receive a desired cabinet post.  We could go back to WWI when many Liberal MPs left Wilfred Laurier and joined with the Unionist government under Robert Borden. Or to 1935 when British Columbia’s H.H. Stevens bolted the Conservative barn to form the Reconstructionist Party.

At times, a floor crossing can signal a sea change in politics. In the past few weeks, we saw Maxime Bernier jump out of Air Scheer without a parachute. The impact of this Xtreme floor crossing is yet to be known.

Some floor crossings precipitate or reflect foundational change. Réne Lévesque leaving the Quebec Liberal Party in the 1960s to form the Parti Quebecois is one of the most momentous moves in Canadian political history. It led to the election of the first Péquiste government in 1976 and a referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980.  Watch the documentary Champions to see Lévesque’s impact and his enduring rivalry with Pierre Trudeau.

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Réne Lévesque: probably the most impactful floor-crossing in Canadian history (CBC)

In 1990, Lucien Bouchard spectacularly left the Mulroney government after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, forming the Bloc Quebecois, and taking other Quebec PC and Liberal MPs with him, including Liberal MP Jean Lapierre. Bouchard led the Oui forces to the brink of victory in 1995, and shortly thereafter became Premier of Quebec.

The 1993 election saw the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives to two seats with Preston Manning’s Reform Party dominating Western Canada.  After Jean Chretien continually swept up in Quebec, PC Senator Gerry St. Germain was one of the first to attempt to unify the Conservative parties and changed his allegiance in the Senate from PC to become the first Canadian Alliance senator in 2000.  Later, eleven Canadian Alliance MPs left caucus to sit as the “DRC” – Democratic Representative Caucus when they couldn’t get along with Alliance leader Stockwell Day, and included some political heavyweights like the first Reform MP ever elected, Deb Grey.  The DRCs would morph into a coalition with Joe Clark’s (second-coming) PC caucus: the PC-DRC.  Ultimately, most everyone got back together under the leadership of Stephen Harper after new PC leader Peter Mackay agreed to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper’s Alliance.  Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party and held Paul Martin to a minority in 2004 before winning his own minority in 2006.  (Joe didn’t cross, he stayed PC until the end). The key point is that floor crossing influenced the course of events between 2000 and 2004.

Some floor crossings reflect the ebb and flow of political tides.  Scott Brison was elected as a Progressive Conservative, but left when that party merged with the Alliance to form the modern-day Conservative Party. Brison is a senior Liberal cabinet minister today. One can argue that he represented a shift in Canadian politics where some Progressive Conservatives migrated to the Liberals.  Many politicians, like Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, sat for one party, then came back to run for another party later, reflecting how they had migrated through the political spectrum.

Provincially, MLAs in both the Saskatchewan PCs and Liberals crossed the floor to the new Saskatchewan Party in 1997, which has governed the province since 2007. The PCs were extinguished and the Liberals are in the wilderness.

In 2002, Yukon NDP MLA Dennis Fentie left his party to join the Yukon Party. A month later he was leader and later that year he became Premier, serving until 2011.

BC has had three significant floor-crossings that led to a restructuring of political support bases.  Leading up to the 1952 election, Conservative MLA WAC Bennett left that party and migrated toward to the Social Credit Party. The leaderless party won the plurality of seats in 1952 and Bennett became its leader (and, ultimately, Premier) after the election. Bennett governed for 20 years.

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Seismic shift in BC politics when three senior Liberal MLAs join Bill Bennett and the Socreds in 1974 (Vancouver Sun)

Then following his defeat in 1972, his son Bill Bennett, the new leader, recruited former Liberal leader and MLA Dr. Pat McGeer, Allan Williams, and Garde Gardom to join the Socreds, along with PC MLA Hugh Curtis. All four floor crossers would play major roles in Bennett’s government, which lasted 11 years. He also attracted former Liberal leadership candidate Bill VanderZalm to run as a Socred in 1975 too. Then in the 1990s, there was a two-step process. First, four Social Credit MLAs left the former dynasty in ruins when they turned away from the fledgling BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell, to join the BC Reform Party in 1994. Their defection ultimately benefited the ruling NDP – Glen Clark would win a majority in 1996 while losing the popular vote. Campbell corralled the Reformers after 1996 and remaining Reform MLA Richard Neufeld crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, marking the formalization of a de facto coalition.   Neufeld served as BC Liberal minister for seven years (now a senator) and the BC Liberals governed continuously for 16 years.

(A footnote to the 1975 example above is that Frank Calder, British Columbia’s first indigenous parliamentarian, lost his NDP nomination in the riding in Atlin.  Having been first elected in 1949, Calder brought his winning ways to the Socreds and was elected yet again. Four years later, he lost by one vote to the NDP’s ‘Landslide’ Al Passarell.  Passarell would later cross the floor from the NDP to the Socreds as well.)

Some floor crossings backfire spectacularly. Arguably, the WildRose defections to the ruling PC’s under Jim Prentice destroyed the political careers of those MLAs, like former leader Danielle Smith, and boomeranged on the Prentice government. It looked too cute, too orchestrated – the overdog overdoing it. Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing to the Liberals in 2005 helped save the minority Martin government for a time, but arguably galvanized Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the forthcoming election in 2006.

Some leave and come home again. The most famous example is Winston Churchill going Conservative-Liberal-Conservative. The aforementioned Jean Lapierre left the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois upon the election of Jean Chretien as Liberal leader. He returned to the Liberals under Paul Martin and was a senior cabinet minister in his government. Then there’s Joe Peschisolido who was a Young Liberal that was elected as an Alliance MP then crossed the floor to the Liberals. After a stint out of politics, he’s back again as a Liberal MP. There to stay, presumably.  Gordon Wilson was Liberal leader in BC from 1987 to 1993.  He left, with fellow MLA and wife Judi Tyabji, to form his own party, the PDA, and won his seat again in 1996 under that banner.  He was recruited by NDP Premier Glen Clark to join the NDP cabinet in the late 1990s and then ran for the leadership of the NDP, unsuccessfully.  Since 2001, he has been out of elected politics, but he did go ‘home’ again in 2013 when he made an intervention in that year’s election campaign in favour of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark (who once worked for him) and against NDP Leader Adrian Dix (who once recruited him).  Never dull in BC.

Some floor crossings weren’t mean to be. BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen left the BC Liberals over unresolvable disagreements. He joined the fledgling BC Conservatives, but within months, left them over unresolvable disagreements. Conservative MP Eve Adams defection to the Liberals on the eve of the 2015 election reeked of desperation.  Her career was soon over, at least for now.  A husband and wife both crossed the floor from the New Brunswick PCs to the Liberals in 2007, but by 2010 they were both out of politics.  One-term West Vancouver Liberal MP Blair Wilson got into some hot water and would eventually leave the Liberal Caucus to sit as an independent.  Just before the 2008 election, he migrated to the Greens to become their first ever MP in Canada.  He failed in his bid for re-election, as a Green.

Some cross and never look back, like Scott Brison. Dr. Keith Martin was elected as a Reformer in 1993 and ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2004 and served as a Liberal until 2011. David Kilgour was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP. Even though John Turner was his brother-in-law, he stayed as a PC, but after Turner left, Kilgour crossed to the Liberals and continued from there.

Some floor-crossers are peripatetic.  Paul Hellyer was elected as a Liberal MP in 1949 and went on to be Minister of National Defence under Lester Pearson and a major contender for the leadership of the Liberals in 1968, placing second on the first ballot.    He fell out with Pierre Trudeau the following year and tried to form his own party.  He then crossed the floor to the PCs and in 1976, he ran for the leadership of that party.  He would return to the Liberals in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for a nomination in his old seat in 1988.  He then formed another party, the Canada Action Party, and would try to merge it with the NDP.  At the age of 95, he may have another run in him, but for which party?

Countless others have gone to sit as independents only to return later.  Some are sent because they were naughty, others leave because they’re mad but come back once they’re happy. BC MLA Blair Lekstrom left caucus over the handling of the HST but came back after a leadership change.  MLAs and MPs who never leave, and feel that they are team players, can often be annoyed and upset when those that leave are welcomed back.  If handled properly, it can be seen as beneficial to the greater good that they return.  Alternatively, it can be seen as rewarding bad behaviour.

Surrey MP Chuck Cadman was elected as a Reform MP and carried on as an Alliance MP, but prior to the 2004 election, he lost his nomination.  He ran as an independent and won.  In 2005, battling cancer, he was pivotal in keeping Paul Martin’s minority government in power during critical votes, against the wishes of his former colleagues.

In the ‘timing is important’ category, David Emerson’s defection to the Conservatives days after the 2006 federal election effectively marked the end of his career in electoral politics.  The ink was barely dry on the ballots when he reversed course, causing much consternation among his former Liberal supporters. But it provided Stephen Harper with experience and depth in cabinet for two years and demoralized the Liberals, who sat out of power for nine years.  Alberta PC MP Jack Horner crossed over to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977, joining the Trudeau cabinet.  There has rarely been a good time to be a federal Liberal in Alberta and this wasn’t one of them.  His constituents did not reward him for his efforts in the subsequent election.

Many, many, many more floor crossings happen in the imaginations of political back roomers.  There is always the threat of a disgruntled MLA or MP taking off.  Most of the time, that representative is governed by some restraint.  The voters elected him or her largely on the basis of their party label.  Imagine you worked hard in support of your party only to find that the recipient of your hard work crossed no-man’s land to sit in enemy trenches?  Many would-be floor-crossers have surely taken a step back when realizing they would have to explain their actions to the volunteers who backed them.

To be accepted by the voters, the conflict usually has to be real and substantive and/or that representative must have a lot of personal credibility.  If it’s opportunistic, and imposed from the top, it’s not likely to go down well with the voters or the supporters of the sending and receiving party.  Not many like a turncoat, especially when they weren’t part of the process.

What floor crossings can demonstrate is the dynamic state of our political system.  In the ‘first past the post system’, parties are always in a state of constant movement.  Parties continually search for a plurality of votes and seats, and attracting someone who represents a set of ideas or representative of a community of interest is a way to grow a party’s base.  A floor crossing can give a tiny party a foothold in Parliament. Parties that fail to unify their members behind a common purpose can disintegrate, with floor crossings one such manifestation.  Unlike the United States, Canadian parties can rise and fall (and rise again).  There is much more fluidity.  Real policy differences – such as Quebec independence – can lead to dramatic changes and fracture coalitions.  Strong leadership glues coalitions together, unifying disparate elements.  When it comes down to it, elected representatives are just people, unbound to their party label.  They have the ability to exercise their free will.

Many floor-crosses vaporize without causing any major effect.  Will the departure of Leona Alleslev amount to much? Will Maxime Bernier accomplish anything? History tells us that we will have to wait to find out.  There are many possibilities.

Update: (Feedback from Rosedeer.com contributor @Jay_Denney)

1) James Armstrong Richardson: Winnipeg Cabinet Minister from the Pierre Trudeau era, who he clashed with over patriating the Constitution. Notable in that one day, he just up and crossed the floor, telling the desk clerk “I’m sitting over there from now on”

2) John Nunziata: though technically he was kicked out, he essentially crossed the floor to be an independent by voting against a Budget. Notable in that he is a rare example of winning reelection, like Chuck Cadman, as an incumbent independent (as opposed to the numerous losers, most recently former Conservative MPs Brent Rathgerber and Inky Mark, John Van Dongen, and former BC NDP MLAs Bob Simpson and Chris Darcy)

3) Thank you for not mentioning the man who crossed from blue to red federally and was subsequently drubbed by Lisa Raitt in 2008. (I will mention him because it’s a good example – Jay would be referring to Garth Turner – the one-time PC leadership candidate and former Conservative MP who, after harshly criticizing David Emerson’s defection to his own party, crossed the floor himself to sit as a Liberal.  He lost in the subsequent election.)

There are many more colourful examples.  As University of Manitoba Political Science professor Royce Koop puts it, “When an MP crosses the floor, it’s a beautiful reminder that in Canada we cast our votes for candidates, not parties”.

Tonight’s by-elections will be indicator of Trudeau government’s resilience

There have been seven by-elections in Canada in 2017 so far, with four more to come today (December 11th), including a hotly contested race in South Surrey-White Rock.

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Will Justin Trudeau and Gordie Hogg be cheering tonight?

Are there any trends?  Any signs that may predict outcomes tonight?

First, you have to look at Alberta separately.  Three Conservative titans resigned their seats – Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Hon. Jason Kenney, and Hon. Rona Ambrose.  One might think the loss of those candidates would depress results in a subsequent election.  Wrong. The Conservatives scored over 70% in each seat, surpassing already strong 2015 numbers.

Conservative vote in Alberta byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
Calgary-Midnapore 66.7% 77.2% 1.16
Calgary-Heritage 63.8% 71.5% 1.12
Sturgeon River-Parkland 70.2% 77.4% 1.10

Moving on to Quebec where there have been two by-elections, it’s a very different story.  The Liberal Party held most of its vote in St. Laurent (Stephane Dion’s seat), and in October, doubled its vote in Lac St. Jean to take a Conservative seat held by Denis Lebel.  Unlike Alberta where support for the Blues was amped up, les bleus went the other way in Lac St. Jean, dropping from 33.3% to 25.0%.  Les oranges dropped in Lac St. Jean from 28.5% and second place to 11.7% and fourth.

Liberal vote in Quebec byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
St. Laurent 61.6% 59.1% 0.96
Lac St. Jean 18.4% 38.6% 2.10

Finally, there were two by-elections in Ontario in 2017.  In both cases, the Liberals only retained about 90% of their 2015 vote, but nevertheless held a majority.

Liberal vote in Ontario byelections
 2015  2017  DIFF
Ottawa Vanier 57.6% 51.3% 0.89
Markham-Thornhill 55.7% 51.4% 0.92

Overall, it’s a pretty good result for the governing Liberals thus far.  Holding on to their own seats while taking one in Quebec from the Conservatives.  Running up the scoreboard in Alberta does little for the Conservatives.  Their numbers in the 2015 election were already through the roof – the Harper Conservatives had 375,000 more votes than the provincial PCs and Wildrose combined.  The Conservatives are in danger of becoming ‘Alberta Island’ if its numbers drop in the rest of Canada but increase in Alberta.

Here are the 2015 election results for the four by-elections:

2015 results LIB CPC NDP
Bonavista-Burin-Trinity 81.8% 10.1% 7.3%
Scarborough-Agincourt 51.9% 38.0% 7.9%
Battlefords-Lloydminster 16.5% 61.0% 17.6%
South Surrey-White Rock 41.5% 44.0% 10.4%

Bonavista and Battlefords both appear very comfortable for the Liberals and Conservatives respectively.  It will be interesting to see if Battlefords-Lloydminster follows a similar pattern as the Alberta by-elections.

Scarborough-Agincourt is tighter and will be the first real test of Jagmeet Singh and whether he has any game in the Toronto outskirts.  You would think the NDP could do better than 7.9%.  That could help Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, and a win there would be huge, but they are certainly downplaying expectations.

I looked at South Surrey-White Rock in detail a few weeks ago.  A strong candidate for the Liberals and lesser-known candidate for the Conservatives is the reverse scenario compared to the 2015 election.  With a thin margin, the Liberals could prevail this time on the candidate match-up alone – everything being equal.  Two years into a mandate, you would think this would be a vulnerable time for any government.  Given the prolonged controversy over small business taxation in the summer and early fall, one might also think that that issue would hurt the Liberals in the upper-income, professional enclave of South Surrey-White Rock.  We won’t know until the polls close if it did – and if Hogg does win, one can ask, “What was that all about?” – a big national issue that had no teeth.

I was surprised that the Conservatives reached back to 1993 to attack Hogg on an issue that had been dealt with conclusively in his provincial by-election win in 1997, when his main opponent was a BC Reform candidate.  That appeared to be the move of a campaign running out of steam.

A Liberal win tonight in BC – and in Scarborough – will be an impressive show of strength by a mid-term government.  Not a guarantee of future success, but a sign of resilience, and an indicator of the magnitude of the challenge facing Andrew Scheer.  His pathway to winning the next election will be made more difficult not by the actual reality of a by-election loss, but by the perception of that loss among his own supporters (I’ve been there).  He’s going to have to demonstrate how he can build his party’s market share beyond Alberta and its diminishing strongholds across the country.  But hey, low expectations can be very beneficial (I’ve been there too).

Jagmeet Singh will also take away some lessons tonight.  He hasn’t been on the job long, but he did enjoy considerable positive publicity in the lead up to his election.  Can he translate that into votes?  You would think the NDP should get a little bump with Singh in place.

Tonight’s results will be another marker on the road to 2019 and, so far, the electoral road has looked fairly smooth for the Trudeau Liberals.

Interpretations of the Calgary-Greenway By-election

Yesterday’s provincial by-election in Calgary-Greenway has contradictory interpretations.

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Interpretation of Calgary-Greenway is not straight-forward

It was a four-way race ranging from 27.7% for the winning PC candidate to 20.2% for the fourth-place NDP.  It’s rare to see four candidates place above 20%.  I could not find one such example in the 2015 federal election, unless you count Nanaimo-Ladysmith where the four-way race had the 4th place Greens at 19.7%.

In Calgary-Greenway, when only 7.5% separates 1st and 4th, it’s hard to see it as Earth-shaking.  Nevertheless, the PCs won and a win is a win.  Therefore, interpretation #1 is that the PCs are alive, that they must still be reckoned with, and the NDP’s relegation to fourth is a sign of their demise.

Interpretation #2 is that the Centre-Left (NDP/Liberal) has made major gains in this riding since 2012 and further reduced the PC-Wildrose combined vote from 2015.  In 2012, the NDP-Liberal vote in this riding was a combined 15.5%; in yesterday’s by-election it was 42.8%.  It rose from 36.2% in 2015 and given that that was solely the NDP vote, one can see how the NDP benefit from no Liberal in the race.

Table 1: Popular vote of parties in 2012 General Election (GE), 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.06 AM.png

As Table 1 shows, the NDP was actually five times higher than its 2012 vote and the Liberals have doubled from 2012.  There is a lot of talk about PC-Wildrose cooperation, but the centre-left should probably be viewed in the same way.  Not that there is an imminent merger, but there is a competition for like-minded voters.  The Liberals bothered to show up to the by-election after missing the 2015 GE and their impact was significant.  That may be in part a result of local candidate influence, but I’m not sure how many saw the Liberals competing to win the seat.

Table 2: Raw vote of parties in 2012 GE, 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.15 AM.png

The 2012 GE and 2016 by-election are interesting comparisons because the overall number of voters is very similar.  It shows the overall reduction in votes for the PCs and Wildrose (centre-right) and the significant increase for the NDP and Liberals (centre-left).  Let me nail this point a little harder in Chart 1 below:

Chart 1: Combined popular vote of PC-WRP (blue) and NDP-Lib (red)Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.02.12 AM.png

Unlike the recent BC by-elections in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant, turnout in Calgary-Greenway as a percentage of the previous election was relatively high, and as noted, about the same as the 2012 GE.  The by-election turnout was about two-thirds of the 2015 GE turnout while the BC by-elections were about 40% of the previous GE.  That indicates a higher interest and engagement in the outcome and its possible impact on the next election.

If I was a PC or Wildrose strategist, I would interpret this result with some nervousness.  The pool of centre-left voters in this by-election was almost evenly split.  The voter pool that existed in 2015 massively went toward Rachel Notley’s NDP.  This is basically the Justin Trudeau/federal NDP vote bloc.  The Stephen Harper vote bloc was much larger provincially, but is also split.  A consolidated centre-left offering (whereas those voters group behind one strong alternative) appears still able to defeat a split PC/Wildrose offering.

In reality, it is more complicated than described above.  Voters move around between parties with more fluidity – a Liberal may never consider NDP and a PC may never consider voting Wildrose, and vice versa.  But the by-election does show that the situation has become more, not less murkier as a result of Tuesday’s outcome.  It’s too early, much too early, to write off the Alberta NDP.

Finally, it must be noted that – probably for the first time in Canada – there was a competitive four-way race between four South Asian candidates.  This may well have created a dynamic that disrupted prevailing provincial political currents.  I’m not close to the ground so I defer to others and invite comments.  Regardless, the fact remains that the market share for the Centre-Left in this riding has increased sharply since 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Alberta, the Oranges are crying the Blues

Wildrose + PC = Federal Conservative voters in Alberta, right?

Actually, it’s Wildrose+PC plus plus plus

Will the big bloc of federal blue voters drive over the Alberta NDP next election?

A few surprising things about the federal election in Alberta:

  • Almost a half-million more people voted in the federal election, compared to the May 2015 provincial election
  • Despite their huge win in May, the NDP lost votes compared to their previous federal effort in 2011, including a significant drop in ‘market share’
  • And the most surprising to me – the federal Conservatives had 375,000 more votes than the two ‘conservative’ provincial parties (PC and Wildrose) combined.

Chart: Comparing the 2015 Alberta provincial results to 2015 Alberta federal results in TOTAL VOTES.  Note: Wildrose and PCs combined and compared to federal CPC.

Alberta 2015P 2015F

For those who prefer the raw numbers:

Provincial Party 2015 AB PROV Federal Party 2015 AB FEDERAL Difference
NDP 603,459 NDP 224,198 -379,261
PC + Wildrose 773,082 CPC 1,148,649 375,567
Liberal 62,171 Liberal 473,661 411,490
Total Voters 1,486,901 Total Voters 1,929,197 442,296

So, 442, 296 more Albertans voted in the federal than the provincial, despite the fact that the Alberta provincial election was a once-in-a-generation change.  These ‘new’ voters didn’t necessarily march to the polls to trounce Harper – there was a bit of that – but many may have been small ‘c’ conservatives sitting out the provincial election.  While the provincial turnout was higher than normal at 58%, the federal turnout this month was 69%.

Comparing Alberta federal results: 2011 to 2015

Leaving the May 2015 provincial election aside for a moment, both the Conservatives and Liberals made gains in total votes, while the NDP was flat.  Because turnout was much higher, the NDP and Conservatives lost market share while the Liberals went way up.

Chart: Comparison 2011 to 2015 federal results in Alberta by VOTES

ab 2011 2015

Chart: Comparison 2011 to 2015 federal results in Alberta by market share

ab 2011 2015 %

The Liberals go way up in votes and market share; the Conservatives go up in votes and down in market share; and the NDP are flat in votes and go down in market share.

What does it all mean?

Well, you gotta be dispirited if you’re an NDPer.  On the surface, it makes the May 2015 results look very fleeting and surely there were hopes last May of a “Quebec-Alberta bridge” that could have delivered a federal NDP win, a’ la Mulroney 1988 and many PMs in the past.

Don’t despair, orange friends.  When you look at it a little deeper, a combination of federal NDP and federal Liberal voters makes for a significant voting bloc, one that is larger than the NDP vote from last May.

It’s a salivating prospect for non-NDPers in Alberta to consider how to harness the power of the federal Conservative voting bloc.  It remains the most dominant political base in the province, but has been divided provincially in recent years.  Also, just because some Notley voters would have voted CPC doesn’t mean they won’t return to Notley next election.

Governing well is the key to success for Premier Notley.  She will need to try to not awake the Beast – those million-plus federal Conservative voters.  She cannot do much to keep the conservative base from unifying – that’s on them, and it won’t be easy given the cultural differences at the provincial level between PCs and Wildrose.

On her end, she will be very keen to unite ‘progressive’ voters and appeal to those 473,661 federal Liberal voters that were energized by Justin Trudeau,  most of whom residing in Calgary and Edmonton who largely voted for her last May.  Putting all her eggs in the NDP-brand basket is a non-starter in Alberta.

The Premier of Alberta making nice with a Prime Minister named Trudeau… now that would be something.

Related:

 A panel discussion of the Alberta election hosted by the Broadbent Institute

Alberta election – before the votes were counted

In April, I wrote a mid-campaign view of the The Alberta Election from my vantage point west of the Rockies and sent it around to friends and foes.  It appeared something historic was happening and I attempted to place it in the context of other elections – notably, Ontario 1990.

This led to my appearance on a panel convened by the Broadbent Institute along with NDP campaign manager Gerry Scott, former Wildrose/PC MLA Kerry Towle, and NDP 2015 national campaign manager Anne McGrath.  It was a lively discussion and it was an honour to share the stage with Gerry Scott who is a BC campaign legend – even if he was occasionally horrified.

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