Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Green breakthrough in New Brunswick

Today, the Canadian province of New Brunswick held an election for their parliament. The incumbent Progressive Conservative party (right-of-centre) was defeated, and the Liberal party (left-of-centre) was elected to a majority government, with 27 seats in a house of 49.

For a long time, New Brunswick (along with the rest of the Maritime provinces) was a strong two-party system, with the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives alternating in power. However, recent breakthroughs by New Democrats (left-of-centre, social democratic) have significantly altered this dynamic. The strongest example of this trend was in Nova Scotia, where a New Democrat government was elected in 2009 (but heavily defeated in 2013).

The New Brunswick New Democrats (awkward to say) won no seats at the last election, despite winning 10% of the vote. New leader Dominic Cardy decided that in order to get the party to be successful, they needed to become more moderate. To some extent, it worked. The party polled as high as 27%, and some polls put them above the governing Progressive Conservatives. However, a series of embarrassing mistakes in the campaign, including a spat with Liberal leader Brian Gallant over a Downfall Nazi parody video.

It now appears that the New Democrats will win no seats, despite winning 13% of the vote. Cardy has resigned after he failed to be elected in his electorate, winning 30% of the vote to Progressive Conservative Brian Macdonald's 35%. The New Democrat vote was spread too thinly across the province.

One problem for the New Democrats was the late drop in the polls for the Liberals. This may have scared New Democrat voters into voting Liberal in order to prevent a re-election of the Progressive Conservatives. Another issue was a vote split with the Greens. Cardy's centrist message may have attracted voters from the Liberals, but the late drop scared them back. Left-wing New Democrats, who might have been expected to support the party solidly, were isolated by Cardy's move away from their traditional positions, and voted Green as a protest. Former New Democrat leader Alison Brewer joined the Greens in protest against the changes.

In fact, the Greens were the big success story of the night. The party won 6.61% of the vote, an increase of 2% from the last election. A good result, but normally under the single-member plurality system, not enough for a seat. However, the Greens did win a seat. Leader David Coon was elected in the urban riding of Fredericton South in a close four-way race, becoming the third elected Green member of parliament in Canada.

Now, I don't know much about Green parties in New Brunswick. However, the New Brunswick Greens are rather new. They were only formed in 2010, and Coon is the party's second leader. The much older and more popular British Columbia Green Party took five elections to win their first Member of the Legislative Assembly, and the Ontario Greens have failed to win a seat, despite polling 8% at one election.

The result is all the more surprising when you consider that the Greens only won 6.6% of the vote, while the New Democrats won double that, but no seats.

Coon joins the rather small group of Greens who have won single-member plurality elections in single-member plurality only parliaments. There is Caroline Lucas, in the UK, the other two Greens in Canada, John Eder in the Maine House of Representatives and then... (if anyone knows any others, please comment).

In short, the New Brunswick Greens have pulled off a stunning coup. Winning a representative off 6% of the vote is a stunning result, given that in 1987 in New Brunswick the Progressive Conservatives won no seats off 28% of the vote (the Liberals won every seat). I don't know if it will be repeated, but it will certainly go down in Canadian political history


  1. "The New Democrat vote was spread too thinly across the country" er... Province.

    Not plurality, but certainly single-member district: Adam Bandt's 2011 victory in Melbourne (repeated in 2014). Arguably, an even harder job under AV, as there's no possibility of winning with a relatively low vote share while the opposition's split. - JD

    1. AV, and especially AV with compulsory full preferences, can sometimes make winning easier. Bandt's win was off the back of Liberal preferences, which he would not have received under FPTP. In a strict two-party system, some voters may give preferences to a minor candidate that they dislike above one from the other major candidate to stop the other party winning (Katter, Palmer, etc.) Neither of these people would win under FPTP.
      In a multi-party system such as New Brunswick, as you say, the dynamic is a little different, and it might have been closer for Coon under AV, especially with opinional preferences.


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