30 years later: the election that shaped Canada in 1988

November 21st marks 30 years since the most consequential election in a generation – the 1988 federal election.   This rematch of 1984 was remarkable for its substance, its strategies, and its aftermath.

It demonstrated that campaigns matter, with huge momentum shifts and gutsy, dramatic performances by John Turner and Brian Mulroney. It was an election that pivoted on Canada’s image of itself in relation to the United States and drew 76% of voters to the polls. Not only did the election decide Canada’s course on free trade, it represented the climax of the Mulroney era. No Conservative government had won back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald in 1891. Despite this moment of triumph, five years later the Progressive Conservative Party would be a smoldering ruin, its grand coalition (Quebec-Alberta Bridge) ravaged by regional alienation and Quebec nationalism.

It was the first general election where I was able to take a peek in the campaign cockpit. It was an election I will never forget.

The Substance

Like no other campaign in the past 30 years, it revolved around one major issue- Free Trade. Canada had signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At that time, there was a much stronger sense of Canadian economic nationalism than there is today.   Already a prominent issue, Free Trade dominated the agenda when Liberal leader John Turner instructed Liberal senators to block Free Trade legislation. The Liberals had a majority in the Senate. The Mulroney government was powerless to pass Free Trade without Senate approval. Turner had forced Free Trade as the defining issue of the election.

The other centerpiece of Mulroney’s agenda was the Meech Lake Accord. In 1987, Mulroney secured the approval of all ten premiers for a package of constitutional reforms that would bring Québec ‘into the Constitution’. The most contentious aspect was recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Many critiques complained about its decentralizing power. It became a very controversial issue among elites (particularly liberal elites) and discontentment grew, especially in Western Canada.

The Strategies

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 10.56.10 AMJohn Duffy’s excellent book, Fights of Our Lives, outlines the political strategies used in the 1988 campaign – he named 1988 as one of the five top campaigns in Canadian history.

The Mulroney campaign started off in a bubble – a frontrunner campaign. After three years of scandal in his first term, Mulroney had righted the ship, in part because Free Trade provided him with a proof point of his leadership traits and economic agenda. The Liberals were internally divided and Ed Broadbent’s NDP were threatening to vault into second place. It seemed that Mulroney just had to play it safe, but that was hard to do in what was a seven-week campaign.

John Turner had his back to the wall. He had embraced the Free Trade issue and took some control of the agenda through the Senate gambit. He had public backing for his position: “Let the people decide”. However, by the time the election was called on October 1st, the Liberals were sagging in the polls. The Meech Lake Accord had badly divided them, while Free Trade also exposed a major rift. As Duffy writes, Turner supported Meech Lake for Quebec, and opposed Free Trade for English Canada. That was the bargain. In the first two weeks of the campaign, Peter Mansbridge breathlessly reported that there was a push within the Liberals to replace Turner mid-campaign with Jean Chrétien, his leadership rival. Turner stared them down and held on for the national TV debates taking place October 24 and 25.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent did not want a referendum on Free Trade. He wanted to talk about social issues and trust. He had successfully likened Mulroney and Turner as “Bay Street boys” in 1984, hurting Turner, and by 1988, there was also an aroma around Mulroney on trust. A Free Trade election would relegate Broadbent to the sidelines while Mulroney and Turner went mano a mano.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, Preston Manning was recruiting candidates and running a slate of candidates in Western Canada. He was gaining notice in church basements and in rural areas, but not seen as a major threat.

Mulroney, Turner, and Broadbent all supported Meech Lake. It did not become a vote-driving issue in the campaign.   This all-party consensus would have far-reaching implications after the election.

In 1988, campaigns could not advertise on TV until the time of the TV debates toward the end of October. The first few weeks were the ‘phony war’. It was the debates that changed everything, until they changed again.

John Turner limped into the debates looking like a political dead man – metaphorically and physically. He was fighting immense back pain. In the French debate, he exceeded expectations and brought some fight. Ed Broadbent, with limited French skills, was peripheral.

In the English debate, the fireworks came near the end. In 1984, Mulroney had destroyed Turner with a devastating attack on political patronage. In 1988, Turner assailed Mulroney on Free Trade, demonstrating considerable passion and conviction. As Duffy points out, Turner had been coached specifically on body language. While Mulroney returned Turner’s salvos, Turner was simply more convincing and authentic.

As has been the case with highly-charged leaders’ debates, the full impact is not known until days or even a week later. The same-night judging is conducted in a vacuum. It’s not until news clips have been repeated endlessly, and water cooler discussions take place, that momentum truly forms. Within a week, the Liberals were on a big-time roll, galloping into the lead. The PCs were on their heels. At this point, there were three weeks to go.

The Liberals also released one of the best TV ads ever produced in Canadian elections. It showed the Canada-US border being erased as part of Free Trade negotiations.

As a Young Liberal working in the trenches in BC, the sense of momentum was palpable. Excitement flowed through the campaign. For the first time since John Turner was elected leader in 1984, there were real grounds for optimism. Turner had been a major star as a cabinet minister, but after his retreat to law, he had not thus far returned to form as leader. The debate was a major turning point for him.

As Duffy chronicles, Mulroney held things together using his instincts while his strategists, like polling wizard Allan Gregg, crafted a new approach to deal with the Liberal insurgency. Ultimately, the PC campaign, which had lots of money, sent in the B52 bombers to pound the Liberal campaign, “bombing the bridge” of Turner’s credibility. The PCs had wisely agreed to TV debates well in advance of Election Day. This allowed them crucial time for a course correction. In provincial campaigns in BC in 1991 and 2013, and in Manitoba in 1988, TV debates that led to huge momentum changes occurred relatively close to voting and had big impacts. Mulroney’s forces turned back the Liberal tide.

The campaign saw a gutsy charge by Turner, taking his opponents by surprise with his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. It also saw a skillful counterattack by Mulroney in the final weeks, restoring the PC’s advantage. Both campaigns showed initiative and resolve. The Liberals, weakened by years of infighting and the disastrous 1984 campaign, simply did not have the wherewithal to win.

The Aftermath

Mulroney held Québec for which he had a clear proposition – pro-Meech Lake and pro-Free Trade. He held the West, which also embraced Free Trade. The Quebec-Alberta Bridge of 1984 was kept in tact, but would soon crumble.

Turner’s Liberals reclaimed some of their lost ground in English Canada, especially in Ontario. The Party, reduced to rubble in 1984, now had a much stronger caucus and a lot of new blood.  Turner left the Liberals in better shape then he found them in 1984.

The NDP had its best showing, in part because it did very well in British Columbia. Strategic voting against Free Trade in BC meant voting NDP instead of the Liberals. Overall, the results were a disappointment for Ed Broadbent in his fourth campaign as leader.

With a majority in hand, the Senate relented, and Free Trade was passed. In the 1990s, it would morph into NAFTA. As a national policy, it has stood the test of time.

The re-election of the Mulroney PCs also led to the introduction of the GST. The GST had as much or more to do with its ultimate demise than anything. But again, it’s a policy that has stood the test of time. No government will get rid of the GST.

Has there been an election since Confederation that led to two foundational blocks of our national economy like 1988?

Despite the all-party consensus over Meech Lake, the consensus would break down as new premiers were elected. Liberal Frank McKenna expressed his doubts. A minority government in Manitoba in 1988 forced PC Premier Gary Filmon to take hard line, in step with his opposition leader Liberal Sharon Carstairs. Then Clyde Wells was elected as Premier of Newfoundland, the staunchest critic among the premiers. Preston Manning and the Reform Party were a gathering storm in Western Canada. With Free Trade settled, westerners turned their attention to a constitutional deal that went against their grain.

In 1990, the Meech Lake Accord fell apart in a final desperate week to salvage it. Regional forces were unleashed that blew up the PC’s Quebec-Alberta Bridge. Brian Mulroney’s star recruit in Quebec in 1988, Lucien Bouchard, spectacularly resigned and formed the Bloc Quebecois, later leading the Oui forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Mulroney would try again in 1992 with the Charlottetown Accord which was put to national referendum. Everyone was in favour of it, except the people. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois and Preston Manning’s Reform Party would be the 2nd and 3rd parties in the House of Commons after 1993.

Kim Campbell became the first female prime minister, and first home-grown British Columbian to be PM, and went down to a historically brutal defeat. A mere five years after its climactic victory, the PCs had virtually been wiped out, reduced to two seats. They would limp along until merging with the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance. In effect, the Canadian Alliance conducted a reverse takeover of this venerable national party.

Jean Chrétien won the first of three successive majority governments, based largely on an Ontario vote split caused by Meech Lake and the GST.

The aftermath of 1988 also had a huge impact on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Meech Lake reached its final moment, Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper blocked approval in the Manitoba legislature.  Harper’s act of defiance put aboriginal issues front and centre on the constitutional agenda.

What If?

What would have happened if John Turner had won in 1988? He would have had a huge challenge holding his government together on Meech Lake.   Is it possible that Turner could have resolved the impasse with Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Unlikely, but it’s possible. Mulroney was unsuccessful, but Turner would have had a shot.

Turner would have had a very difficult road ahead in re-negotiating or walking away from the Free Trade deal. He would have faced blistering opposition from the Canadian business community.

It’s unlikely the Liberals, given these challenges, would have had the courage to bring forward a value added tax, like the GST on the same timetable as the Mulroney government.

The PCs would not have been decimated in 1993. Had they lost in 1988, they would have had a strong opposition. Perhaps a new leader would have taken over, or Mulroney would have stayed to fight another day.

Would we have seen Jean Chrétien as prime minister?  Probably not.  He would have been on the outside looking in while Turner governed.

Campaigns matter. They change the course of our country, provinces, and communities. And no campaign in recent times changed the course of Canada like 1988.

For further reading:

Fights of Our Lives is an outstanding (and fun) analysis of election campaigns in Canada since Confederation. John Duffy pulled off an epic volume. My only complaint is that he hasn’t updated it!

Letting the People Decide. A scholarly analysis of the 1988 election by UBC Professor Richard Johnston and other academics. It takes a deep dive into (credible) polling data.

Elusive Destiny. Paul Litt’s book on John Turner’s political career. Strong recommendation.

And finally, my Poli Sci guru Prof. Ken Carty weighs in on the reading list:

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I was a Teenage Vote Splitter: Why I’m voting No to Proportional Representation

Once upon a time, I was a teenage vote-splitter.

I was that kid who nerded out on politics. I joined the Liberal Party at its nadir, when it had zero seats provincially in British Columbia. I could have joined one of the big parties, but I felt at home with the smaller, and not yet even fledgling Liberals.

I went to my first party convention in 1985. The leader of the BC Liberal Party was Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader in BC history. The BC Liberals were coming off an election where they received 3% of the vote and had no seats.

I worked hard for Art Lee. He came out to my high school, he appeared in the local parade. In fact, at that tender age of 16, I became the president of the Liberal association for the riding of Dewdney. I used to have great chats with the Social Credit MLA Austin Pelton. He would tell me, “I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party left me.”

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Art Lee brought the BC Liberals to 7%

This was a refrain from many Liberals turned Socred who understood that a ‘coalition’ was the best way to win against the NDP. Notwithstanding Austy’s tutelage, I continued with the Liberals and we received 7% in the 1986 election and zero seats.

Art Lee moved on and we needed a new leader. Gordon Wilson volunteered and was acclaimed on Halloween day 1987. No seats, no money, and not much more than that. We encountered setback after setback. Yet, Wilson, and a core group, never stopped fighting and kept the party afloat. The Social Credit Party under Bill Vander Zalm was self-destructing and the NDP were, well, the NDP. Through my university years, I continued to hope for a Liberal breakthrough.

Gordon Wilson brought the Party to Official Opposition and 33% of the vote

In 1991, we ran (close to) a full slate of candidates and protested our way on to the Leaders’ Television debate. In one brief moment in that debate, Gordon Wilson crystallized the mood of the voters when, pointing at rival Social Credit and NDP leaders, he said, “Here’s a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia.” Wilson and the Liberals went from zero seats to form the Official Opposition and take 33% of the vote.

The BC Liberals would ultimately reshape itself into an electoral coalition that would win four majority governments from 2001 to 2013 and win a plurality of seats in 2017. We didn’t need proportional representation to succeed. We started with nothing. We did it by growing, inviting, including, and responding to the voters.

As you may have guessed, I’m voting to keep First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and reject the cooked-up Proportional Representation (PR) scheme being pushed by the GreenDP.

Never once, when I was a teenage vote-splitter, did I feel the need to question the validity of first-past-the-post. It was frustrating, as a third party, to fight against the vote-splitting argument. However, we saw a pathway because we wanted to be a big-tent party. We worked hard. We earned it. We didn’t ask for political charity.

This is good for our electoral system. Unlike the United States, we have a dynamic party system. We are not bolted to a two-party dynamic that will never change. We have a tradition of protest parties that evolve into mainstream parties. We have also seen fit to relegate some parties to the dustbin of history.

This is good for change and renewal. Under FPTP, the BC Social Credit dropped from 36 years in power to a third-place finish in 1991 to virtual extinction. Had we had PR, the Socreds would likely still exist.

Gordon Campbell won the popular vote four times and had three successive majority governments

Maybe some would say, “Great!” But I would say that that party had its day, and it was time to start afresh with something modern. ‘Firing’ a political party introduces a different set of leaders and provides opportunity for young people and new voices.

Across Canada, what’s become of the Union Nationale, the United Farmers of Alberta, the Alberta Social Credit, and the Saskatchewan PCs? These once-dominant parties also went into a period of decay then disappearance. PR would have kept them on life support, delaying change and renewal.

Under FPTP in Canada, there is a natural evolution of protest parties too. When mainstream parties falter, upstart parties emerge. The Progressive Party fused with the Conservatives to form the Progressive Conservatives, a venerable national party for over half a century. When the Reform Party emerged due to western alienation and a post-GST populist uprising, it begat the Canadian Alliance, which joined forces with the PCs into today’s Conservative Party, which governed from 2006 to 2015. Again, this is dynamic activity that is responsive to voters’ desire for change. Our system allows for this fluidity and change.

FPTP is less forgiving to parties that won’t change, but rewards parties that do. Basically, in our system, to paraphrase Shawshank Redemption, “Parties get busy living, or get busy dying.”

With PR, we would see a stagnating stasis, with tired parties blocking real change, and fringe parties emboldened to chip away at the margins. In FPTP, political parties are always changing. Some die, some return and renew, others start small and go big. Look at Prince Edward Island – the Greens may form the next government. That’s happening under FPTP.

FPTP incents parties to stretch, grow, appeal to a wider audience, and build a bigger coalition. Isn’t this what we want – parties that are as reflective and as representative of as many voters as possible? To gain upwards of 40% of the vote is a major accomplishment that shows the breadth of a party’s support. We should want parties to be big. Why would we want small parties to be rewarded for taking a small sliver of the population? That does nothing to encourage common ground.

Governing means implementing change. Through our history, there have been many minority governments, especially at the federal level – in the past 60 years, Stephen Harper, Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and John Diefenbaker all led minority governments.  That takes place within FPTP and, usually, for a term or two, they govern. It’s good for the system that we have occasional minority governments. It’s part of the dynamism of our system. Ultimately, voters return to majority governments.

Majority governments, in a country as vast as ours (and a province as diverse as ours), allow governments to be decisive. Parties campaign on a platform, then are accountable for delivering results. They have a strong hand, but they are tempered by many factors such as public opinion, media scrutiny, internal pressures such as the government caucus – and the fact that some governments actually do listen.

In Canada, as in the UK and other Westminster systems, our government is accountable to parliament in the Legislature and in Question Period. Scrutiny at the provincial level in BC is much more intense than local government and more intense than corporate scrutiny. You are always being watched and held accountable. In the United States, there is no daily legislative scrutiny of the executive branch. Our system works better.

When majority governments are elected, a strong hand allows for transformative change. Look at Dave Barrett’s NDP government from 1972 to 1975. Would a minority government or PR government implemented the ALR or ICBC? Probably not.

Would a minority government or PR government have made the tough fiscal choices that Bill Bennett made in the early 1980s or Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark made?

Definitely not.

Too much horse-trading would result. The proof of the value of majority governments is when subsequent governments of a different stripe don’t change policies that they would not have otherwise brought in themselves.

Instead of constant deal-making, I would rather have strong governments, regardless of ideology, give it their best shot and be held accountable. The best policies will survive. The bad policies will be changed. Under PR, we will see half-measures and we will see a lack of firmness.

FPTP is not perfect. There are many flaws. I have seen them up close and personal.

We could make many changes that would improve our system in terms of how legislatures work, how caucuses operate, and how voices are heard that do not require PR.

The way to make these changes is through a public discussion and party reform, not through this sham process that will lack a legitimate outcome.

Compared to the Citizens’ Assembly process, the NDP-Green government should truly be ashamed of themselves with the PR referendum. Isn’t it interesting that the largest majority government in BC history – the Gordon Campbell government – delivered a much-lauded electoral reform process, while the current minority government delivered this?

As a teenage vote-splitter, I was told I would never make a difference. I worked on an impossible dream and, through commitment, hard work and a bit of luck, we succeeded. It was possible because our system enables both change and decisiveness.

Get rid of the old, bring in the new. Renew yourself or get retired. Let’s let the dreamers dream and continue to try – some will make it.

Christy Clark put her own stamp on the BC Liberals, earning her own mandate.  Established parties can renew. And renew again.

In my old age, I have fought off the vote-splitters. Push the mainstream parties to do better or perish. And let the little parties stay little until they get beyond their bubble and earn real power by appealing to a wider audience.

It would have been a real drag as a teenage vote-splitter, and a lot less exciting, if instead of sparking real change, all we had sparked was a minor tweak that led to the continuation of the status quo.

We don’t need an entrenched system as inflexible as the US system.

Instead of asking what works in theory, let’s appreciate what is working in practice. After all, we live in a pretty great country, and a pretty great province.

Don’t we?

(Published in the The Orca, November 3/ 2018)

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”.

Federal Leaders in By-elections and the Burnaby battleground

Updated (August 17th)

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh announced his bid for a federal seat today in the riding of Burnaby South, vacated by Vancouver mayoralty aspirant and NDP incumbent Kennedy Stewart.

Burnaby South is over 4,000 km from Singh’s former riding in the Brampton area, but he’s certainly not the first federal leader to leave his home province to seek entry into the House via a by-election.

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Will Jagmeet Singh ride on to victory in Burnaby-South? [Cycling Magazine]

Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney was elected in 1983 as MP from the riding of Central Nova in Nova Scotia.  He gave the seat back to Elmer MacKay when he led the 1984 election from his hometown riding of Manicouagan in Quebec.  Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper found a seat close to home in 2002 when he re-entered the House from Preston Manning’s seat of Calgary Southwest. Rebel founder Ezra Levant had secured the nomination but was evidently persuaded to step aside for the new leader of the Canadian Alliance (this was before the Alliance and PC’s merged).  Of note, both the Liberals and the PC candidate, Jim Prentice, stepped aside to make way for Harper.  The NDP fielded a candidate.

Rt. Hon. Joe Clark made a political comeback to return as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1998 and sought election to the House of Commons in early 2000 when then-PC MP Scott Brison stepped aside in Kings-Hant to make way.

As for Liberals, the longest-serving Prime Minister of all-time, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925 and sought a new seat in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, winning a by-election there in February 1926.  An interesting side note is that Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker encouraged an independent to run against King in the by-election, then Diefenbaker himself ran unsuccessfully against King in the subsequent 1926 general election. King would continue to represent Prince Albert until the 1945 election when he lost to a CCFer.  He sought re-entry into the House via Glengarry in Ontario and retired while representing that seat.

Rt. Hon. John Turner was the newly appointed prime minister, without a seat, when he announced he would contest the 1984 election from Vancouver-Quadra.  While he had attended UBC and had a longstanding family connection to BC, he had lived in Eastern Canada for decades and did not pretend too hard that he would actually move to Vancouver.  Despite the disastrous national campaign, Turner held on to claim Quadra from the PC’s and the Liberals have held it for the past 34 years.

Jean Chrétien’s return to the House of Commons in 1990 came via the New Brunswick riding of Beausejour. He returned to his home riding of Saint-Maurice

The NDP can look back at the experience of Tommy Douglas.  Douglas was defeated in his first attempt to win election to the House of Commons from the riding of Regina-Centre in 1962.  The former Saskatchewan premier, and first elected leader of the NDP, had to find a seat out-of-province in… Burnaby.  He was elected in Burnaby-Coquitlam in 1963 and 1965.  In 1968, he contested Burnaby-Seymour (similar to MP Terry Beech’s current riding) and lost to Hon. Ray Perrault.  Perrault was a former leader of the BC Liberal Party and a gritty, grassroots politician.  While he would only serve one-term, he went on to a distinguished career in the Senate.  As for Douglas, his opportunity to regain a seat was borne from tragedy when Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands MP Colin Cameron (grandfather of NDP strategist Robin Sears) passed away not longer after the 1968 election.  Douglas won a 1969 by-election there and represented the seat until 1979.

Topical in the news these days is Rt. Hon. John A. Macdonald who was elected in Victoria in 1878.  I assumed it was a by-election victory, but he actually contested three separate ridings in the general election that year, and, having lost in Kingston, he chose to represent Victoria where he had defeated Liberal Amor de Cosmos (!).  Sir Wilfred Laurier also contested multiple districts and won in both Quebec-East and Saskatchewan provisional district in 1896, choosing to represent Quebec-East.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May announced on August 16th that due to  “longstanding parliamentary tradition” she would extend ‘leader’s courtesy’ to Jagmeet Singh by not fielding a Green candidate.

Longstanding tradition?  That’s a selective interpretation of history.  Here are the by-elections contested by leaders:

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Every leader noted above has been contested in a by-election, and since 1962, every leader has been contested by at least one other main political party.  The NDP have never extended Leader’s courtesy in a by-election.  Even the Greens contested Harper’s by-election.   And certainly on a provincial level, neither the Greens nor the NDP honoured the “longstanding parliamentary tradition” of leader’s courtesy to Hon. Christy Clark in her two by elections (Point Grey in 2011, West Kelowna in 2013).

Courtesy aside, leaders need a seat in the House and sometimes have to go far afield to find one.  When they are ‘adopted’, sometimes they stay put.  Singh says he will move to Burnaby.

But can Jagmeet Singh win Burnaby-South?  Presumably, the NDP have polled the riding and believe they can win it.  It would be a huge risk, otherwise.  It does not appear to be a slam-dunk seat for the NDP though.

In 2015, Liberal Adam Pankratz won election day.  It was Kennedy Stewart’s margin-of-victory in the advance polls that saved his bacon.  This was a result of two factors – Liberal momentum was still building during the advance polls and the NDP had a superior GOTV machine.

Table 1: Burnaby-South in 2011 and 2015

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Liberal Adam Pankratz (left) with PM Trudeau and MP Terry Beech [Burnaby Now]

Liberal gains in 2015 came at the expense of both the NDP and the Conservatives.  Pankratz himself, a young, educated multilingual candidate whose father was a well-known BC Lion football player, presented well for the Liberals.

There are other variables to consider.

The federal NDP typically does not do well in British Columbia when there is an NDP government in Victoria.  The 1974 election was a disaster for the federal NDP, in the height of the Dave Barrett government.  The federal NDP were decimated in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections in BC while a parade of NDP premiers governed (though Svend Robinson held his Burnaby riding).  Will it be a factor this time?  At this point, I don’t think the provincial NDP have angered voters in the manner of previous NDP governments.  It’s early days.  However, being in power can demotivate activists who are accustomed to fighting the establishment rather than being a part of it.

Singh’s connection to BC is not apparently strong.  He will have recruited support during his NDP leadership run in BC, especially from the South Asian community.  But he lacks the personal ‘story’ that Mulroney had in Nova Scotia (he attended university) or Turner had in BC.  Maybe there is one that I haven’t heard yet, and it may not matter that much anyway.

Another factor is Kinder Morgan.  On the surface of it, the NDP have this field to themselves.  The NDP Mayor of Burnaby, a formidable force, strongly opposes the pipeline.  The Liberals and the Conservatives are on the other side of the debate.  Assuming the Greens can be kept at bay (a big assumption), the NDP may have room on that issue.  But is the worm turning on this issue? The protest camp has been drawing negative attention.  Are people ‘worn out’ on all of the Kinder politics? We’ll see.

Municipally in Burnaby, Mayor Derek Corrigan has ruled since 2002.  He has built a strong political machine.  For the first time in a long time, he faces a credible challenge this October.  Will that divert energies away from Singh’s campaign? Will the winds of change blow away from NDP candidates?  Opponents hope, but I know from experience that the NDP machine in Burnaby is real.  It will take a lot to defeat them.  Singh has to get the most out of the local organization.

About 46,000 residents voted in 2015.  In a by-election, the turnout is almost always lower.  GOTV will be a huge factor.  Not just the ‘machine’ but the motivation of voters to vote.  Will they turn out for Jagmeet Singh? He will have to build a connection with them.

Kennedy Stewart’s departure may be another factor.  Vancouver mayoralty candidates will be taking shots at Stewart for leaving his post as a Burnaby MP to run in another jurisdiction.  It turns out Stewart was living in Vancouver – how is that going over in Burnaby? Issues like “demovictions” are being raised in Burnaby which could make life uncomfortable for NDPers.  It may all amount to nothing and the status quo may well prevail.  We’ll see how the opposition approaches it.

Singh obviously has the most to win and lose.  A win gets him into the House while getting a weight off his back.  A loss could be curtains for him.

Some Liberals may want Singh to win, preferring his leadership to an unknown alternative that could present itself in the aftermath of a Singh by-election loss.  Liberals ought to be concerned about the Conservatives winning though.  As the 2011 results show, the Conservatives were not far off.  The Liberals could consider not running a candidate, as was the case with the Stephen Harper by-election in 2002.  This would be a bit surprising given their narrow margin of defeat in 2015.  They might also yield the seat to the Conservatives if they fail to contest it.  We will most likely see all parties in it.

It will be an interesting test of the three parties.  We have seen the Liberals steal a Conservative seat in White Rock and the Conservatives steal a Liberal seat in Chicoutimi in recent by-elections.  Local factors played a big role, but this by-election will take on more of a national dimension.

The upshot is that Singh is the favourite but there are a lot of reasons why this may not be an easy ride.  It’s not a slam dunk.  He does not have the advantages of being a sitting prime minister and not especially well-known in British Columbia. The riding was a close call in 2015.  It’s a risk, but politics often rewards the risk-takers.  Or buries them.

 

Taking a look at Chicoutimi

This week’s by-election made me a bit curious about Chicoutimi.  It’s a long way from my perch on the west coast and probably even further in cultural terms. Turns out to be a pretty interesting riding in terms of its political history and volatility.

The riding boundaries have changed over time but I have gone with the main Chicoutimi riding to see the overall trends (purists alert – this is not precise, just directional).  Since Diefenbaker, Chicoutimi has gone Creditiste, Liberal, PC, Bloc, PC, Liberal, NDP, Liberal, and, now, CPC.

Chart 1: Chicoutimi federal election results since 1962

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Here’s a closer look at elections since 2000…

Chart 2: Chicoutimi federal election results since 2000 only

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As the charts show, there has been huge volatility over time.  Parties swing from domination to destruction.  For the NDP, they managed to go from 8% to winning with 38% and back to 9% over four elections.

The Liberal percentage held fairly steady compared to 2015.  Before 2015, the prior Liberal win was with Andre Harvey who had been first elected as a federal PC MP in 1984.  Harvey won in ’84, ’88, and ’97 as PC, but crossed over, and won as a Liberal in 2000. Harvey’s nemesis was the Bloc Quebecois which won in ’93 and again in 2004, 2006, and 2008 before giving way to the one-and-done NDP MP.

The Conservatives were lower than a snake’s belly in 2000 and 2004, and only at 17% last election, but clearly their candidate in the by-election did an excellent job drawing support.  The question is: are we also seeing a consolidation in Quebec between the Liberals on one side and the Conservatives on the other, feasting from the remnants of NDP and Bloc support?

I will leave that to others to judge. Quebec politics is definitely above my pay scale.

On a national basis, if the NDP collapses in Quebec, it will have an impact on their national effort.  The NDP had one-quarter of the vote in Quebec in 2015, with Quebec representing about one-quarter of the national population.  That’s good for about 6% nationally in the popular vote.  Chicoutimi-Le Fjord dropped from 29.7% (above Quebec average for NDP in 2015) to 8.7% in the by-election.  Not to read too much into by-elections, but if the NDP slip to 10% province-wide in the next election, that drops their national share of the vote by about 4%.  That means they are going to look more like a third party that can’t keep up with the Liberals and Conservatives, whereas in 2011 and 2015, they were at the main table.  The Layton legacy is in real jeopardy and that will have consequences across the country unless they can find new voters elsewhere. The Tom Mulcair days are looking pretty good right now.

Electoral Wipe-Outs and the Aftermath

Ontario Liberals are looking into the abyss.  This isn’t news.  Premier Kathleen Wynne said as much already when she conceded defeat, a rare admission by a campaigning incumbent Premier.

But how bad will it be?  And then what?

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It’s just politics.  Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell on Election Night, 1993.

We’ll know Thursday night where the Liberals will stand, but they stand to face drastic losses.  Reaching 10 seats at this point will be a triumph.  Our numbers at Pollara Strategic Insights, applied to a seat model, indicate there is a greater likelihood that they will be reduced to five or less seats.

Canadian politics provides us with several examples of tsunami elections where incumbent governments were literally washed away:

  • 1987 New Brunswick (58 Liberal, 0 PC).  Premier Richard Hatfield had governed uninterrupted since 1971, but by the mid 1980s, his government had lost its way, not to mention Hatfield’s own personal scandals.  Upstart Liberal leader Frank McKenna mobilized the electorate behind his active, youthful leadership.
  • 1993 Canada (PC’s reduced from 169 seats to 2 seats).  After two successive majority PC governments, the fallout of the Charlottetown Accord defeat, rise of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, and imposition of GST had dealt fatal blows to the Mulroney government.  Despite leadership change and the first and only female prime minister in Canadian history, the PCs were obliterated.  The Liberals had been dealt a hobbling blow themselves in 1984 -their worst outcome since Confederation.  Not only did they return with a majority under Jean Chretien in 1993, a key part of three successive wins was their utter domination of Ontario.
  • 2001 BC (77 BC Liberals, 2 NDP).  The BC NDP pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 1996 when incumbent NDP Premier Mike Harcourt gave way to one of his ministers, Glen Clark.  Clark won a majority by a thin margin.  However, Clark’s government was quickly under siege early and never recovered.  Clark resigned and Ujjal Dosanjh led the NDP into an electoral clearcut.  Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won the largest majority in the province’s history.

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There are examples where governing parties have been rendered extinct – the BC Social Credit, United Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Social Credit, Saskatchewan PCs, and Union Nationale come to mind.

The Ontario Liberals look to finish well below Richard Hatfield’s PCs and Ujjal Dosanjh’s NDP in terms of popular vote.  They have fallen below the “pitchfork line” – my newly coined phrase that I am marketing to Canada’s political science professors. It’s that line where – once crossed – a government will never recover because a critical mass of voters is so angry that the incumbent government cannot overcome that passion and intensity.

It’s hard to believe that the Ontario Liberals will become a political DoDo bird.  It’s more likely they will rise again, in due course.  Among the stages of recovery:

  • Mourning
  • Walk of humility
  • The professional class gives way to the true believers and new believers
  • New governments eventually screw up, therefore, opportunity
  • Momentum builds for a comeback
  • Time passes, change is inevitable

1987 New Brunswick – the PCs came back and won the first election after the retirement of McKenna.  It took a while to rebuild and the flash-in-the-pan Confederation of Regions Party supplanted the PCs briefly during that period.  But eventually, voters stopped punishing the PCs and Bernard Lord’s PCs returned to power in 1999. (12 year recovery)

1993 Canada – From two seats, the PCs climbed to official party status, then the merger with the Canadian Alliance, which had evolved itself from the Reform Party.  After forcing a minority in 2004, Stephen Harper won the 2006 election and governed for nine years. (13 year recovery)

2001 BC – the NDP were reduced to two of 79 seats.  They roared back in 2005 almost upsetting the Campbell government, and for the next three elections, there was a 4-point standoff between the governing BC Liberals and NDP.  After 16 years, in 2017, the NDP returned to power, with support from the Green Party.  While missing their chance at the 12 year mark, they are there now. (16 year recovery)

Whatever happens on June 7th, the Liberals will not be dead, they will just be resting.  In all likelihood, they will be back some day.  The three-party system is well-established in Ontario. Maybe it will be the 12 to 16 year range like the examples above.  Or maybe the volatility of today’s politics will expedite that process.

I will draw from my own personal experience.  My first campaign was in 1984 when as a Liberal in the Mission-Port Moody riding, I saw the pitchforks first-hand.  Voters were very angry with the Pierre Trudeau government and weren’t buying the change that John Turner offered as his replacement.  While burma-shaving on the Lougheed Highway in that summer campaign, the rage emanating from the commuters was hotter than the pavement we were standing on.  We were clobbered, going from government to 40 seats – the most humiliating defeat for the Liberal Party since Confederation.  Yet, the Party rebuilt, made a hard charge during the 1988 election, and then won a decisive majority in 1993.  A nine year recovery.

In 1988, I was on hand for Liberal Sharon Carstairs’ amazing breakthrough from one to 20 seats in Manitoba, only a few seats from governing.  Then again in 1991, for BC Liberal Gordon Wilson’s rise to Official Opposition from zero seats.  Turnarounds can be faster than people expect, especially in the social media age.  I mean, six months ago, did anyone – anyone – expect Doug Ford would be the next Premier of Ontario?  Anything can happen.

Ontario Liberals can learn from the 2011 federal election and events thereafter.  It was a humiliating loss for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals and many touted a Liberal-NDP merger, with the NDP having the strong hand.  Until halfway through the 2015 election campaign, it looked like Tom Mulcair’s NDP were the primary opposition to Harper.  Justin Trudeau turned the tables and governs today, taking his party from third to first in probably the most dramatic comeback in Canadian political history.

A huge loss can be a good loss.  It allows for new growth and regeneration.  The Liberals will shake off “government-itis” in the face of the obvious. Voters will want to see that the Party has learned its lesson, has changed, and is offering new leadership.  Internally, the party will need to heal and unify.

Electoral wipe outs – and subsequent recoveries – speak well for our system.   There is elasticity.  Voters are in charge, punishing when they are mad, generous to parties that change and renew.  Parties that can take a punishing hit, rebuild, and contend for power are examples of parties that strive to be inclusive, rather than staying in a narrow box that only appeals to a narrow slice of voters (like the Greens, for example).  For Ontario Liberals, this phase may be over, but it will also be the beginning of something new.

Voter Turnout lessons and what it means for Ontario

Update: My editorial in the Globe & Mail (June 6, 2018)

Ontario voters will render their verdict on June 7th.

It’s a very significant election.  The Liberals have governed since 2003.  A change in Ontario – either to Doug Ford’s PCs or Andrea Horwath’s NDP – will be a major tone-setter for national politics and influence the make up of the issues heading into the 2019 federal election, not to mention the impact it would have on one of the largest sub-national economies in the world.

But of course, only those who actually vote get to decide.  Millions of Ontario residents will avoid the polls altogether.

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Who will end up voting to elect the next Premier of Ontario? (Photo: CBC)

The recent BC election and 2015 federal election provide insight into who will show up to the polls in Ontario, and what it means for parties when the overall voter pool grows, and by how much.

You can’t stand still while the voter pool grows

Like the Ontario Liberals, the BC Liberals won four consecutive elections in BC – and like the Ontario Liberals – a female leader replaced a three-term Premier and won an improbable fourth term for her party.

In the case of BC, Christy Clark succeeded in holding her Party’s overall raw vote and its market share, especially in relation to the BC NDP, and won a majority in 2013.  In 2017, Clark’s BC Liberals still held their raw vote (almost identically), but the voter pool grew resulting in a loss of market share.  The Greens surged and the NDP bridged the gap.  Result: a minority government and we all know how that turned out.

Chart 1:  Raw vote for BC parties (1996-2017)

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In fact, when looking at BC’s historic forces of “Free Enterprise” versus “The Left”, the change over time is quite dramatic.  Free Enterprise has been sitting at around 800,000 voters for 20 years while the NDP/Greens have nearly doubled.  It finally caught up to “Free Enterprise” in 2017.

Chart 2:   Raw vote for Free Enterprise (BC Libs/Right wing parties) vs. NDP/Greens (1996-2017)

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The number of voters in BC provincial elections has climbed steadily since 2009 after a dip, with the total now reaching close to two million. Federal turnout was not that much different than provincial turnout from 2000 to 2011, but exploded in 2015.  Close to 2.4 million British Columbians voted, 20% more than the 2017 BC election.

Chart 3: Total number of voters in British Columbia in recent provincial and federal elections (BC only)

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The federal Conservatives – like the BC Liberals in 2017 – held their raw vote in 2015, but lost market share because almost three million more Canadians cast ballots in 2015 compared to the previous election. The Conservatives were happy with their slice of the pie in 2011, but Justin Trudeau helped bake a bigger pie leaving the Conservatives with their same old slice.  The Liberals were clearly the beneficiary of the increased turnout.

Chart 4: Federal parties’ raw vote totals (2006-2015)

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It also matters where you hold your vote.  Both the Clark BC Liberals and Harper Conservatives actually increased their raw vote in their heartland.  The BC Liberals cleaned up in the Interior while the Conservatives thumped the other parties in Alberta (and gained votes in Quebec).  But they both lost ground in the vote-rich urban regions.

A study of federal voter turnout among registered voters between 2011 and 2015 showed that there was increased turnout in all age groups, but the largest increase was among younger voters.

Chart 5: Turnout rate of registered voters by age group (2011 and 2015 federal elections)

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So, increased voter turnout, means more young people voting, meaning bad news for centre-right parties.  Got it?

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Federal turnout in 2015 was quite exceptional.  It blew the lid off of previous federal elections and, as shown above, the 2017 BC election did not replicate that level of turnout.  Turnout increased, but it wasn’t “Justin-sized”.

In BC, the Golden Agers still rule the roost.  Those aged 55 to 74 punch above their weight.  Compared to their share of the population, those age groups make up a much bigger share of the voter pool.  The 55-64 age group makes up about 17% of the adult population but accounts for about 21% of the voters; the 65-74 age group makes up about 13% of the population but 18% of the voters. Combined, about 30% of the population have close to 40% of the voting strength.  Add the over 75s, who also have a disproportionately large share of voting strength, and you have half of the voting population over the age of 55.

The reverse is true, obviously, for younger voters, particularly those under 35.  Those voters make up about 28% of the population but only about 18% of the voters in BC.

Chart 6: BC age groups as a percentage of the population and as a percentage of voters

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When looking at how age groups compared between the 2013 and 2017 provincial elections, there are interesting findings.  The largest increase by age group was the 65-74s with over 60,000 more voters in that category in 2017.  The next largest increase was 25-34s at close to 40,000.  What explains this?  Demographics partly, but there may be a mini-Justin effect with the Greens inducing turnout (a theory, not proven) and it may have been a result of third-party turnout activism (again, not proven).  These numbers are also the result of Elections BC estimate so we also have to assume they got it right, but it rings true to me. (Not sure what’s going on with that 45-54 category – did I remember to vote?)

Chart 7: Increase in votes by age category between 2013 and 2017 BC elections

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Was the increase in 25-34s concentrated in the Lower Mainland where the BC Liberals suffered heavy losses? I don’t know.  It would be an interesting study to see where in BC the largest increases took place.

The increase in 65-74s – and indeed increases across the board among 55+ age groups, should have been a good thing for the BC Liberals.  The fact is – they didn’t do as well as 2013 with their base.  It wasn’t just young people showing up that made a difference; it was a lack of performance among previous BC Liberal voters.

What does this mean for Ontario?

Let’s take a look at how Ontario provincial elections compare to federal elections when it comes to turnout.

Federal turnout has been consistently higher.   In 2015, 6.5 million Ontario voters galloped to the polls to vote in the federal election, yet no Ontario provincial election has ever seen more than five million voters.

Chart 8: Comparison of number of Ontario voters voting in recent federal and Ontario elections

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Historical election data in Ontario shows us that – only once – has a political party received over two million votes (Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals in 2003)

Chart 9: Ontario elections since 1990 – total votes and top party votes

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Taking turnout into account relative to federal elections, how many voters can we expect in the June 2018 election in Ontario?  And how many votes will the top party need?

The 2014 election saw provincial turnout at 88% of the level of the dull 2011 federal election.  If the 2018 Ontario election is 88% of the sizzling 2015 federal election, then that would equate to 5.7 million voters in June. That would be a huge increase. I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I think, like BC, there will be an increase in the voter pool – over 5 million for the first time – but probably not as high as 5.7 million.  Even with an increase north of five million, the winning party will likely need a record-setting vote total (+two million) or hope for a good vote split.

Then, who votes?

It is more likely that Ontario’s age composition will resemble BC’s 2017 profile than Canada’s 2015 profile – older people having a disproportionate share.

I looked at the share of each age group in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, and the BC 2017 election, and applied those ratios to Ontario’s population.  Based on these three scenarios, 55+ age group would account for 42% to 48% of the voters in the coming election, compared to 38% share of the population.

Chart 10: Ontario population by age group compared to age models from 2011 and 2015 federal elections, and 2017 BC election

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Does it matter in Ontario?  Typically, the 55+ age group leans right relative to younger voters.  This was certainly the case federally in 2015 and in BC in 2017.

However, in Pollara Strategic Insight’s mid-election survey of Ontario voters, we found that the NDP had gained 7 points among voters aged 50 and over during the first half of the campaign, taking the lead in this category of high-turnout voters.

Chart 11: Pollara Strategic Insights survey results of Ontario election, May 4 & 22, 2018 (50+ voters)

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The striking difference in Ontario is the gender split, with men more likely to vote PC, and women more likely to vote NDP at this stage of the campaign.  From what I have seen over the years, there is not a major turnout difference between men and women, like there is with age.

If the poll results stand, the NDP will have blunted a major advantage for the PCs – support among older voters.  Geographically, there is likely still a PC advantage.  The NDP may be gaining in key demographics, but at the end of the day, it matters where the votes are located – in the ridings.  (More on seat models another day).

Pollara’s research also finds an “enthusiasm” advantage for Doug Ford’s PCs.  Ford Nation is already lining up at the polling stations to vote, they’re so excited, though slightly less so than earlier in the campaign.  The NDP voters are the least excited.  Is that just their nature or is their rise in support a bit thin? In terms of impact on votes, if Ford over performs the polls on Election Day, it may well be because he was throwing red meat to his base, regardless of their age.

Chart 12: Pollara Strategic Insights survey results of Ontario election, May 4 & 22, 2018 (Enthusiasm Gap)

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What does it all mean?

  • When the voter pool grows, parties must grow with it or perish.
  • Older voters (55+) still rule the roost and constitute a majority (or close to it).  They punch above their demographic weight at the polls.  The party with an advantage in this age group will have a turnout advantage.
  • Youth turnout continues to lag behind, but it is growing and becoming a bigger factor.
  • While it will likely be a record turnout for an Ontario election, it is very unlikely that the June election will keep pace with 2015 federal turnout. The unknown is to what extent 55+ age group exerts control over the outcome, or whether Millennials offset their influence by voting in increased numbers.