Hot Take on ProRep Referendum Results

Last week, I wrote that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) would prevail by “a whisker, a few grey whiskers”.  It turned out that it was a full-on Santa’s beard of whiskers as it prevailed with 61% of the vote, far exceeding projections by public pollsters.

The Regional Story

What’s striking about the win for FPTP is its dominance in the Lower Mainland.  It took 63% of the vote in BC’s most populated area.  The Interior delivered a resounding 67% verdict, but it represented just over a quarter of the votes for FPTP.  The Lower Mainland did the heavy lifting.  The Island was a 50-50 split, a disappointment to ProRep supporters, especially the Greens.  However, as I wrote last week, there are a lot of ‘experienced’ voters (hint: old) on the Island and experienced voters don’t care much for ProRep.

Feast your eyes on this table then I will break it down for you…

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  1. The South Island (south of the Malahat) was the best area of the province for ProRep, delivering a 55% win across seven ridings in the Capital region.  Those efforts were cancelled out by the seven ridings north of the Malahat.  As was the case up north, rural, resource-producing areas are very skeptical of ProRep, which partially explains the difference on the Island between north and south.
  2. In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver-North Shore’s 15 ridings were close with FPTP edging ProRep 53% to 47%.  This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Lower Mainland and should serve as a wake-up call to the NDP.  Richmond-Delta-Surrey voted 72% for FPTP and Burnaby to Mission went 70% FPTP.  This is exactly where Christy Clark’s government met its demise in 2017.  In these areas alone, eight BC Liberal seats flipped to the NDP.  In this referendum, they were clearly not buying what the GreenDP were selling.  The Fraser Valley went strongly for FPTP, as expected, even then, 75% is emphatic.
  3. In the Interior, the northernmost ridings, including the Cariboo, strongly backed the current system with 74% support.  I return to the previous point – it is surprising to me that the suburbs of the Lower Mainland matched the North.  Frankly, it’s shocking, to a guy like me, who obsesses over numbers and ridings.  The Okanagan and Kamloops region were in lockstep at 68-69%.  The Kootenays demonstrate, yet again, that they march to the beat of a different drummer – at least those in the West Kootenay.  Both NDP-held seats there voted ProRep, the only two of the 24 Interior seats to support the proposal.  The region overall was 55% for FPTP due to the East Kootenay BCL-held seats.

Results by Party 

The BC Liberals elected 43 seats on Election Day 2017 and those 43 seats voted 70% for FPTP, nine points above the 61% average province-wide.  The NDP’s 41 seats leaned toward FPTP with 54% compared to 46% for ProRep.  The Green held-seats slightly favoured FPTP, by a margin of 51% to 49%.

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Let’s look at the NDP seats.  ProRep was blown out in Surrey seats with Panorama leading the way at 74.5% for FPTP.  Newton 73%.  Green Timbers 73%.  Fleetwood 72%.  Delta North 70%.  Hop over to Maple Ridge where it was 68-69% for FPTP.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this referendum to the next election but it’s not great when your initiative, which sucked up a lot of political oxygen, is thumped.

In the Interior, the four NDP held seats did OK, relative to the overall result.  Stikine was 60% for FPTP which is better than Surrey, I guess.  North Coast was close (53% FPTP) while, as mentioned above, the NDP seats in the West Kootenay backed ProRep.  Is there anywhere to grow for the NDP?  When you see 25% for ProRep in the Cariboo, where the NDP had seats not long ago, and 26% in Fraser-Nicola which was held up until 2013, it’s hard to see this referendum as an Interior growth strategy for the NDP.

Here are the 16 of 87 seats that voted ProRep:

  • Vancouver Mt. Pleasant (NDP)
  • Victoria-Beacon Hill (NDP)
  • Victoria-Swan Lake (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Hastings (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Fairview (NDP)
  • Vancouver-West End (NDP)
  • Nelson-Creston (NDP)
  • Powell River-Sunshine Coast (NDP)
  • Oak Bay-Gordon Head (GREEN)
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (NDP)
  • Esquimalt-Metchosin (NDP)
  • Saanich North & the Islands (GREEN)
  • Vancouver-False Creek (BCL)
  • Kootenay West (NDP)
  • New Westminster (NDP)
  • Langford Juan de Fuca (NDP)

The top four on the list are probably the top four safest NDP seats in the province.  For the BC Liberals, it stands out that ProRep won in False Creek.  Sam Sullivan hung on by his fingernails last election and this riding is evolving.  The BC Liberals held Pt. Grey, Fairview, Saanich North, and Oak Bay up until 2013.  The BC Liberals, strong proponents of FPTP, continue to go against the grain of these type of ridings.

Another riding, which was very close between FPTP and ProRep was West Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky.  This is a riding that should be on the BC Liberals’ “watch list”.  It’s changing, as is North Vancouver-Seymour.  Ridings that used to be safe, aren’t as safe anymore.    The key is the suburbs. There are a lot of seats out there and, like Quebec in federal elections, they can go one way or the other, en masse.

In this referendum, ProRep did not have a broad enough coalition.  It did poorly in the suburbs and the regions, and in ridings with higher proportions of people who do not have English as a first language.  This pretty well sums up the Green Party actually.  While it won in Andrew Weaver’s riding (which hosts UVic) and in Saanich-North & the Islands, where it has two elected Green representatives (Adam Olsen and Elizabeth May),  it lost in Cowichan Valley.  It’s more rural, and it’s less typical of the Green base.  The Greens like PR because they haven’t been able to break through in FPTP because of their limited appeal.  The referendum reinforces the Greens’ weaknesses.

ProRep also lacked meaningful support from BC Liberals.  NDPer Bill Tieleman was extremely important to the FPTP campaign, along with other traditional FPTP supporters in the NDP.  Glen Clark’s support for FPTP was an important signal to an element of the NDP base.  Former Premier Ujjal Dosanjh also made interventions into the campaign in favour of FPTP. There was no signalling from iconic BC Liberal / Socreds-of-old to the free enterprise base that ProRep was ok.

The process

At the end of the day, this was a process that was nakedly designed to support the partisan interests of the Green Party, and to a lesser extent, the NDP (who were more interested in keeping the Greens happy).  There was no secret about it.  The consultation had all the appearances of a sham, especially when compared to the much-admired Citizens’ Assembly process prior to 2005.  Here was a Premier, Gordon Campbell, who had 77 of 79 seats.  He put the power of recommending a new system in the hands of two citizens per riding.  They spent months learning and deliberating.  I didn’t like their recommendation but I admired their efforts and their example.  It was democratic jury duty.  That process also had a much better result for electoral reform than what just transpired.  Is this a lesson learned for David Eby? Too clever by half?

Another sign of a flawed process is that 40% of the voters did not even vote on Question 2. There were 1.391 million voters overall, but only 832,000 chose one of the three PR options, while 559,000 skipped the question. Of the options, MMP had the most with 343,000. That would not have been a resounding mandate and such a gap in responses between Q1 and Q2 would have undermined a positive ProRep outcome.

The players

FPTP supporters, like Bob Plecas, Suzanne Anton, and Bill Tieleman, got started early.  They branched out to bring in other voices in multicultural communities. They had the experience to focus their resources and messaging effectively.  They worked on persuading likely voters and punched through with clear arguments.  The ProRep campaign appeared to focus a lot of effort on getting non-voters to vote.  That is harder to do.  As with many campaigns, followers can get fooled by their echo chamber.  If your social media galaxy is made up of people just like you, then you can be led to believe there is more support than really exists.  Clearly, the ProRep campaign was spanked once it left the cozy confines of Victoria and Vancouver.  It did not have a ground game or a regional game.  This was a similar challenge in the Transit Referendum.  The suburbs rose up and defeated the initiative (though there wasn’t a great deal of support in Vancouver either).  What’s the answer?  Show up, listen, engage.  Get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow your cause.

This is why the system works

As the results indicate, there is dynamism in the system.  I can see in these results how the electoral landscape continues to shift.  It’s not a given how the province will vote next time.  Big-tent parties have to get their arms around the largest swath of voters possible in order to govern.  That requires overarching vision, compromise, and brokering, but all within a unified structure that brings forward a coherent program that that party is accountable for if they win.  Moreover, it is highly competitive.  Elections between two or more big-tent parties bring clarity and a clear choice for the electorate.  Smaller parties play an important role too.  They push issues on to the agenda that big-tent parties must respond to.  If they don’t, big tent parties can disappear and smaller parties can emerge to take their place.  As a Teenage Vote Splitter, that was my story – that of the BC Liberals supplanting the Socreds after 1991 and the Reform Party overtaking the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.  It happens all the time.  We have a highly competitive, dynamic electoral system.  It’s not perfect, but it’s not static either.

The best argument I heard during this debate was that FPTP is the most effective system for throwing out a bad government.  It’s decisive.    In most cases, these parties are the better for it.  Out goes the old and in comes a new generation of leaders that rebuild. ProRep would allow power structures to linger like last year’s salad dressing.  So, I’m obviously happy with the outcome.  Our system largely works.  There are a few changes that could be made that would help, not requiring a referendum, but that is a post for another day.

Now that this is over, next stop for BC politics: Nanaimo.

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FPTP vs. PR – and the winner is?

If this was a conventional election, it would appear First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) will prevail over Proportional Representation (PR).  Is it a conventional election? Let’s take a look.

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It’s all over but the counting. (photo: Times Colonist)

It appears, according to public polls, that it’s a competitive race between the two options. Various polls have it in the 50-50 range.  There is also a consensus among public polls that PR is strongly favoured among young people and FPTP is strongly favoured among older people.

There are regional variations.  Areas where PR appears strong are Vancouver Island (where the Greens are strongest) and the City of Vancouver. FPTP appears strongest in BC’s Interior.

Ethnicity and language also appear to play a role.  Public polls do not show breakdowns by ethnicity (and I wonder if they are properly represented in sampling), but we can see that turnout has been lower in ridings that have lower English-first language populations, such as Richmond and Surrey.

There has been some interesting analysis conducted by Star Metro reporter David Ball and Langara College professor Bryan Breguet (an unabashed PR supporter) who has a blog called “Too Close to Call”.

Ball tracked the rate-of-return of the mail-in-ballots and compared it to the HST and Translink referendums.  The seemingly slow rate of response at the outset of the process was typical of these processes.

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Brequet ran regressions and other analysis to determine who might be voting.  He’s also conducted Google polls, that show the race very tight.  I’m a bit more primitive in my approach so take the following as you will.

Here’s what we know:

1,361,000 ballots were received, and Elections BC has published the riding-by-riding totals for over 92% of those ballots, providing a fairly clear picture of the regional breakdowns.

Turnout

On the spectrum of turnout for province-wide votes over the past seven years, the PR referendum was low.  Take into account population growth and the PR turnout was even weaker when compared to the HST referendum.

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Regional Differences

One of the wrinkles with looking at these results by region is to look at raw votes rather than ridings.  There are 24 seats in the Interior and only 15 on the Island/Sunshine Coast.  Yet the average riding population on the Coast is higher.  In the final analysis, there are about as many votes from the Island/Sunshine Coast as there are from the Interior.

The Interior received ballots earlier, and returned them earlier.  Over the course of the balloting period, the Interior’s share of the overall pile of votes diminished to about its share of registered voters.  The FPTP advocates may have hoped that the Interior would punch above its weight in terms of turnout.  The region that did over-perform its share of the electoral pie was Vancouver Island / Sunshine Coast.  By the time the final 8% of ballots are allocated to ridings, the Island will likely surpass the Interior in terms of overall votes, and will have over 20% more influence on the process than compared to its share of registered voters.  The Lower Mainland will have about 8% less influence on the process that its share of registered votes.

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Partisan Differences

We can also track where the votes came by held-seat.  In the HST referendum, every NDP seat voted against the HST, while half of the BC Liberal seats voted for the HST.  Who represents a seat can be an indicator of support – not because of the MLA, but because of the underlying attitudes that got that party and MLA elected in the first place.  One could reasonably assume that BC Liberal seats will lean FPTP and NDP/Green seats will lean PR.  That will probably be the case writ-large, though there will be exceptions.  (For the purposes of this analysis, I am basing it on held seats as of election night, 2017).

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What does this tell us?  The three Green seats over-performed on turnout, while the NDP under-performed.  NDP held-seats in Surrey, for example, had very low voter turnout.  Apparently, voters in Cowichan, Oak Bay, and, Saanich North & the Islands were more eager to receive their ballots than to have a visit from Santa.  But there may be other reasons for that, stay tuned (see below).  The BC Liberal seats held their own, but no advantage in turnout.  Again, those 20 of 24 seats in the Interior held by the BC Liberals did not generate as much in terms of turnout percentage as I would have thought.

In the Lower Mainland, it was very close in terms of raw vote turnout between the NDP-held seats and the BC Liberal-held seats.  The NDP’s 26 Lower Mainland seats account for about 50.5% of all votes in the Lower Mainland processed already versus 49.5% for the 22 BC Liberal-held seats.  There are no Green seats in the Lower Mainland.  So, in the Lower Mainland, the BC Liberal seats did better relative to the NDP.

In the Lower Mainland, the turnout was highest in Vancouver-North Shore and the Fraser Valley, relative to Burnaby to Mission corridor and Richmond to Surrey corridor.

Older people vote

It is a consistent truth in Canadian elections that turnout is higher among older people than younger people.  In the 2015 federal election, there was a bigger turnout among all age groups, but the old geezers still outpaced the Millennials.

Let’s look at turnout-by-age in the 2017 provincial general election.  Work with me here.

The 18-24s represent 11.1% of the eligible voters (the red bar).  However, they represented only 6.3% of those who actually voted (the blue bar).  Meanwhile, the 65-74s are busy voting on the first day of the advance polls following their coffee and muffin at Tim Horton’s.  This group represents 12.7% of eligible voters (red), but 17.6% of those who voted (blue).  There are only about 10% more 65-74s than 18-24s in terms of eligible voters, but almost a 3X difference between them in terms of who voted.

Chart 1: Turnout by Age, 2017 BC provincial election (source: Elections BC)

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So, the question is, given that public polls indicate a strong preference among seniors for FPTP, did old voters rule the roost in the PR referendum too?

Bryan Brequet from Too Close to Call has undertaken some analysis and he sees a trend toward more younger voters.  I think what he means is that the gap between younger and older voters in the PR referendum may not be as pronounced as the 2017 general election.

I’m not so sure.  When you have a lower turnout, the age discrepancy is usually bigger.  When you have a higher turnout, more younger people (and other less-likely voters) are showing up to the polls.

So here’s what I did…

I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of turnout in the PR referendum.  Parksville-Qualicum is #1, at 46% turnout. Surrey Whalley is #87, at 18%.  (This is, as of, 92% of ballots being screened.  Turnout by riding will increase but the ranking of ridings 1-87 will probably not change that much).

Then I took BC Stats data and looked at the 18-44 population per riding.  I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of their proportion of 18-44s relative to the overall adult population of the riding.

The green shading indicates the ridings that are in the lowest quartile of 18-44s (the oldest) ,and the red shading indicates ridings that are in the top quartile of 18-44s (the youngest).

What did I find?  The top 8 ridings in terms of voter turnout in this referendum are also in the oldest quartile when it comes to age by population.  Six of the 8 lowest turnout ridings are in the youngest quartile.  In fact, as you go down the list from highest turnout to lowest turnout, you will see 19 oldest-quartile ridings before you hit the first youngest-quartile riding.

The Rosedeer Decision Desk calls it:  Older people vote more.

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Older People vote more … but what does that mean?

If I’m right, and a similar pattern exists in this referendum as it does in most general elections, then it’s good news for FPTP.  But there are definitely some mixed messages.

One of the oldest ridings is Saanich North & the Islands represented by the Greens.  Will older people deliver this riding for FPTP or will the Greens deliver it for PR?  I think it’s both.  I’m sure the Greens will have worked hard to deliver votes there (they get elected there for a reason), but age will be a bit of a mitigating factor.  This could be the story of the Island – an inexorable pull to PR by the Greens (and to a lesser extent, the NDP), restrained by a sizeable population of old geezers.

In older, BC Liberal-held Lower Mainland ridings like Delta South, West Vancouver-Capilano and White Rock, you might see some of the largest margins for FPTP.

Even if there are more older people voting than younger people voting, the question is, where is support at for FPTP and PR?

If it is 50-50 in the polls, and if public polls are correct in so much as older people favour FPTP and younger people favour PR, and IF an age turnout factor is present is as above, then 50-50 becomes 47-53 or even 45-55 in favour of FPTP.

However, if PR has burst through, and if it has weakened opposition among older people down the home stretch, and made a breakthrough with 35-54s, then overall support of 55% among eligible voters may translate to just enough (50% +1) among those who actually voted.

Language

As mentioned, some of the Lower Mainland ridings have the lowest turnout of any seats in the province. The Lower Mainland also has the highest share of non-English (first-language) households in the province as well.

Similar to age, there is a correlation between turnout and English-language skills.  This table, like the previous, is ranked by turnout. The green shading indicates ridings in the lowest quartile when it comes to non-English households.  The red shading indicates ridings in the highest quartile of non-English households.

What does this tell us? We can hypothesize that election materials were not accessible to some voters, or was not debated as extensively in their language (via media) compared to English-speaking media.  Unlike turnout-by-age data supplied by Elections BC, we do not have comparable data for ethnicity or language.  I can merely point out the correlation.  Anecdotally, the HST referendum appeared to have had a high level of engagement in the Chinese community, owing in part to mobilization of Chinese restaurateurs who opposed the tax.  It’s fair to say, I think, that the PR referendum did not hold the attention of the Chinese media (or Punjabi media) like the HST issue.

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While Chinese voters tend to favour the BC Liberals, historically, and voters from Punjabi-speaking households have leaned more to the NDP over time, the Greens are clearly weaker in these communities relative to support they have elsewhere.  Therefore, one could argue that lower turnout in parts of Surrey, Richmond, and other Lower Mainland areas might be good news for PR, if you think you are more likely to find PR voters where the Green Party finds more fertile territory, generally.

The Upshot?

The voting is done.  I made my case for FPTP (“I was a Teenage Vote Splitter“) and have also pointed out how PR advocates should be careful what they are wishing for.

I think the final result will be close.  I think there was momentum toward PR in the final weeks which helped close a (perceived) gap.  For PR to win, it will have had to have done quite well with 35-54s (assuming young and old cancel each other), and have won the Lower Mainland (assuming Island and Interior cancel each other).

If PR does win, then it will have likely done so with less than 22 to 23% of registered voters.  We can debate the legitimacy of that if it happens.  Gordon Campbell had set a 60% threshold which seemed to be a reasonable threshold for a fundamental change to the electoral system.  The current government obviously thinks otherwise!

I do not think 42% turnout is enough for PR to win with a majority.  I think they needed more voters to flood the polls.  I expect FPTP to win by a few whiskers, a few grey whiskers.  We will know soon enough.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to PR and FPTP supporters alike !

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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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.

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“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.

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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).

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)

Six-pack of BC local elections columns

Global News has kept me busy over the past six weeks thinking about BC local elections on October 20th.  Here are six columns covering Vancouver, Surrey, the wave of changes in Metro Vancouver, voter turnout, and how candidates are seeking votes this time around.

The tepid race to be Vancouver’s next mayor, Global News/CKNW (October 15, 2018)

Surrey election may be BC’s most consequential, Global News/CKNW (October 12, 2018)

Crowded races and changing times – the many ways candidates can seek your vote, Global News/CKNW (October 3, 2018)

Voter turnout in local elections trails federal and provincial elections – why?, Global News/CKNW (September 28, 2018)

A surprise exit opens up Vancouver’s mayoral race, Global News/CKNW (September 21, 2018)

Wave of changes coming in Metro Vancouver politics, Global News/CKNW (September 15, 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”.