Doing The Electoral Math

Silver Donald Cameron | featured debater

Fri, 08/30/2013


“I'm really happy Justin Trudeau's leading the Liberals,” said my friend. “God, I can't stand Harper! I can't wait for Justin to get rid of him!”


“Justin Trudeau isn't going to get rid of Harper,” I said. “He's going to keep Harper in power. He's Harper's dream Liberal leader. Harper is probably rubbing his hands with glee.”


My friend looked horrified. I had simply done the math, but apparently people can't add.


Harper has a false majority – a majority of seats, but not a majority of votes. His popularity – and his share of the popular vote – hovers around 35-40%, which means that roughly two-thirds of the electors voted against him. Thanks to the perversity of our political system, however, a false majority confers just as much power as a real one. Ours is a democratic system in which the minority rules.


In the last election, Harper had just under 40% of the vote; the Liberals and the NDP between them had about 50%, and the Greens and the Bloc Quebecois divided the remaining 10% between them. There is a substantial policy overlap among all four opposition parties, and the supporters of all four are almost equally appalled at the actions of the Harper government.


The solution to the immediate problem – ridding ourselves of Harper – therefore seems simple: ensure that the opposition parties compete only with the Conservatives, and not with one another, especially in closely-contested ridings. If the true allegiance of the opposition parties is to the country and to its people – which it should be  – they should agree to run a single opposition candidate in ridings where the Conservative incumbent is vulnerable.


The result would probably be a minority government, which is never a bad thing; minority governments have to do real politics constantly, bargaining and trading just to stay in power. That means that other opinions and values are necessarily incorporated into the government's legislative agenda – which is as it should be. Even the smallest parties represent some segment of the will of the Canadian people.


A minority Parliament can be incredibly productive. Consider Lester Pearson's  two minority governments in the 1960s.  Aided and pressed by the NDP's Tommy Douglas, Pearson brought in medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, the Canada-US Auto Pact, the 40-hour work week, two weeks of mandatory paid vacation, a new minimum wage, and the Maple Leaf Flag. Pearson kept us out of the Vietnam war, unified the armed forces and established the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and also the Royal Commission on Bilingualism, which led to the establishment of French as an official language. He oversaw the implementation of the world's first race-free immigration system and presided over the centennial celebrations and Expo 67.


When people tell you that minority governments guarantee gridlock and stasis, remind them of Pearson.


So let's get the opposition to co-operate in electing a minority Parliament with a Liberal or NDP administration. And then let's use that opportunity to institute proportional representation, assuring that parties are represented in Parliament roughly in accordance with the proportion of the electorate that supported them.  Most democracies already employ proportional representation – and recent polls show that 70% of Canadians now support it.


In the last election, the Conservatives won 54% of the seats – 166 – with only 40% of the vote. If the seats had been awarded roughly in accord with the popular vote, they would only have won about 122. The NDP would have won 94 seats (instead of 103), the Liberals 58 (not 34), the Bloc 18 (not 4) and the Greens 12 (not just one). As one pundit notes, that distribution would be “a far more accurate representation of the way Canadians actually voted.” And if their votes actually counted, more people might think it worthwhile to vote.


So the first thing we have to do is get the opposition parties to co-operate briefly on two one-time projects: first, defeat Harper and second, bring in proportional representation. And those projects generate real enthusiasm among the rank-and-file members of the main opposition parties. Nathan Cullen came up from nowhere to become a serious contender for the NDP leadership because he called for co-operation to bounce Harper; Joyce Murray did the same thing in the Liberal leadership race. Clearly, opposition party members have an appetite for realism and co-operative action. But not the leadership.


Which brings us back to Justin Trudeau – and Tom Mulcair. Both of them roundly reject all talk of co-operation, each lusting for a majority government of his own. That means that the next election will be a rousing battle for second place, while the Conservatives romp to another majority.  If the Liberals had chosen another Ignatieff, their vote might have collapsed, and Mulcair might have a shot at Sussex Drive.  But even a vigorous NDP is unlikely to stifle a reinvigorated Liberal Party, and a stronger Liberal Party will not, in itself, be strong enough to trounce both Mulcair and Harper.


We'll have to wait for 2019 to see if the opposition parties can learn to add. By then Stephen Harper will have had 13 years to dismantle the country. The man clearly despises democracy. Perhaps by then he'll be able to dispense with it altogether – and the sectarian opposition will have a great deal to answer for.





Silver Donald Cameron is currently the host and executive producer of the ambitious environmental web site, where he does in-depth interviews with the world's leading environmentalists. He is the author of 17 books, numerous plays, films, radio and TV scripts, an extensive body of corporate and governmental writing and innumerable magazine articles. A former columnist with the Globe and Mail, he wrote a weekly column for the Halifax Sunday Herald for 13 years. He is also a popular speaker whose topics include community development, the non-profit sector and the environment. He lives in Halifax.