Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Canada 2015-the election and political reform

The northern American nation of Canada will be holding an election on October the 19th. The election will be for all the 338 seats in the House of Commons, the lower house of the Canadian Parliament. Canada has a parliamentary system, and is a constitutional monarchy under the Queen of the United Kingdom.

The political system

Ever since it was created as an autonomous Dominion of the United Kingdom in 1867, Canada has stuck faithfully to the Westminster political system. It has a bicameral parliament, with 338 members of the House of Commons, the lower house, and 105 members of the Senate, the upper house. Legislation has to pass both houses of Parliament, and then has to be approved by the Governor-General, the representative of the Queen appointed on advice of the Prime Minister (who basically rubber-stamps legislation passed by the Parliament). The main difference between Canada and the UK is that Canada is a federal nation, so it is not as centralised as the United Kingdom.

Unlike some other post-British Empire states, Canada has kept the tradition of an appointed upper house. Senators are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, who is required to appoint a certain number of Senators for each province. Since 1965, Senators serve until the age of 75; up until this point, they could serve for life. The Senate is the least important house; it is very rare for cabinet members to sit in the Senate, except as a temporary measure before entering the House.

This part of Canada's constitution has been controversial, as it means that Senators are unaccountable to the electorate. A number of scandals involving Senators misusing their expenses have led to public support for the scandal, with only 14% supporting the status quo. Some Senators are actually elected; the province of Alberta holds elections for 'senators-in-waiting' using the multiple non-transferable vote system, and the current Conservative government has agreed to appoint these people to fill Albertan vacancies: no great hardship, given that all the Senators elected in positions that have led them to be appointed up to now have been members of the Conservatives.

Like the United Kingdom, Canada uses the single-member plurality system (voters vote for one candidate, the candidate with the most votes wins, abbreviated as SMP). Up to 1967, some districts elected more than one member, using the multiple-non-transferable vote system (voters vote for M candidates, where M is the number of members to be elected, the M highest polling candidates are elected). The system is fairly majoritarian, and in most countries where it is used, it leads to majority governments off plurality votes and two-party systems.

However, Canada has not had an especially strict two-party system. In the early days of the dominion, there were two parties, the Liberals, who were in favour of economic and social liberalism, and the Conservatives, who were in favour of economic and social conservatism.

 In 1921, the first major new party, the Progressives, won 58 seats in the House of Commons to 118 for the Liberals and 49 for the Conservatives. The Progressives were an agrarian party, supportive of socialism, and gained most of their support from the farming provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The party did not last, however, with pressure from the similar United Farmers of Alberta party pushing them down to just 11 seats in 1926. These two parties did not suffer so much from the majoritarian effects of SMP, as their support was heavily concentrated in certain regional areas.

1935 saw the Great Depression wreaking economic havoc in Canada, with unemployment high. Two new parties won seats at the federal level; the Social Credit Party, a socially conservative but economically left-wing party, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a socialist party. They won 17 and 7 seats respectively, although the vote share for the CCF, at 9.3% was higher than the 4.1% for Social Credit. This was because Social Credit were completely dominant in the province of Alberta, where they won all but two of their seats, while the CCF lacked this dominance anywhere. The election also resulted in the complete destruction of the Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties.

The Liberals and Conservatives remained dominant, however, through the next years. The Conservatives renamed themselves the Progressive Conservatives. The CCF changed their name in 1961 to the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Social Credit split into an English-speaking and a Quebec party; the English party quickly disappeared, while the Quebec party stuck around for a while, although with few seats.

Significant changes took place in 1993. The Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had become unpopular after introducing a Goods and Services Tax, increasing the budget deficit, and spending a lot of time on constitutional affairs. Mulroney had resigned, and was replaced by Kim Campbell, who became the first female Prime Minister of Canada.

Despite this, the Progressive Conservatives won just two seats at the election, down from 169 seats at the last election. The NDP won 9 seats, down from 44. They lost seats to the Liberals, who won government at this election, but also to two new entrants; the Bloc Quebecois, a party favouring independence for the province of Quebec, which won 54 seats and formed the Opposition, and the Reform Party, a right-wing party with strong support in the western provinces, which won 52 seats.

Interestingly, the Bloc Quebecois won a smaller share of the vote than the Progressive Conservatives (13.5% for the Bloc, 16% for the Progressive Conservatives), but due to their regionally concentrated support, the Bloc (and Reform, which won 18.7%) won more seats than the Progressive Conservatives.

This, of course, was all brilliant for the Liberal Party. They were able to govern for the next decade with weak and splintered opposition. The Progressive Conservatives and NDP formed the opposition to the Liberals in the East, the Bloc formed the opposition in Quebec, and Reform opposed the government in the west. Seeing as neither party was especially interested in forming a coalition with another, the Liberals could count on split opposition votes, which meant that they could stay in government.

This situation was recognised by leaders of both right-wing parties as being unsustainable, and in 2003, the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party (by this point named the Canadian Alliance) merged into the Conservative Party. This party would be led by Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper, a MP from Alberta.

The Conservatives won a minority government (Not sure what this is? See below) in the 2006 election, with the Liberal Party forming the opposition, the Bloc being the third party, and the NDP being the third (in the case of the last two, the vote shares were the reverse of the seat shares). This was repeated in the 2008 election, only with the Liberals weakened and the Conservatives and NDP strengthened.

The next election, which took place in 2011, was rather different. The Liberals were led by Michael Ignatieff, a well-known academic. However, he was criticised by both the Conservatives and the NDP for not being resident in Canada. The NDP leader, Jack Layton, experienced an upswing of popularity in Quebec, traditionally a NDP-free zone. This was mostly at the expense of the Bloc.

In the end, the results were 166 seats for the Conservatives (a majority government, the first since 2004), 103 seats for the NDP, 34 seats for the Liberals, 4 seats for the Bloc, and one seat for the Greens. The result was the strongest result ever for the NDP, and weakest ever for the Bloc.

What are minority governments?

Despite Canada's usage of the single-member plurality system, there is a multi-party system, as this graph shows.

The effective number of parties is a measure used to gauge how many parties of the same size would be in the Parliament after an election. As you can see, Canada's score is consistently above two. The existence of a multi-party system owes a lot to regional differences, with different parties getting support in different areas.

Of course, multi-party systems tend to lead to parliaments in which no party has a majority. Canada is no exception to this. Since 1972, 5 out of 16 elections have resulted in parliaments where no party has a majority.

So, how do governments get formed out of minority parliaments? In most countries, parties would form a coalition in order to control a majority. However, in Canada, the largest party in terms of seats forms the government. It then has to avoid a no-confidence motion. It usually avoids this by making informal arrangements with other parties (policies in exchange for votes), or, if one of the major opposition parties is unpopular, relying on that party to not vote no-confidence in the government.

Formal coalition governments are very rare in Canada. Following the 2008 election, there were plans for the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition government, with outside support from the Bloc and Greens; however, these fell through after Prime Minister Harper prorogued (temporarily suspended) Parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote, and Michael Ignatieff rose to the Liberal leadership.

There has been talk of a coalition government following this election between the Liberals and NDP. However, such a coalition would prove controversial, especially if the Conservatives won the most seats but not a majority. The Conservatives would claim that they would have the right to govern; while a successful no-confidence motion would probably stop this, it might be looked upon unfavourably by the electorate. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said that he will not take part in a formal coalition, but has not ruled out supporting a NDP government from the outside.

The parties

The Conservative Party is the major right-wing party in Canada. It is led by Stephen Harper, an Albertan MP who has led the party since it was formed. The party is a coalition of more radical right-wingers from the West, and more moderate conservatives from Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. Much of Harper's popularity has come from a fairly strong economy despite the international recession, caused by increasing oil exports. However, with the recent reduction in the global price of oil, Canada's economic growth has paused. Despite contrary expectations, he did not reverse the decision of the Canadian parliament to legalise gay marriage in 2005.

Prime Minister Harper has also introduced a number of changes to Canada's political system. He is an opponent of the status quo in the Senate, but due to the convuluted nature of Canada's constitution, this has not happened; a plan to introduce elections was struck down for want of approval from seven provinces and 50% of the population. He has also passed changes to the electoral law, which introduced (fairly liberal) identification requirements, restrictions on political advertising, and repealing the ban on publishing electoral returns before the close of the polls nationwide.

Polls since the last election have been somewhat negative for the Conservative Party. They led until March 2012, where they entered into a tight two-way race with the NDP. The NDP surge had abated by November, and they led (but only with 30-35%, short of the 39% from the general election) until April, when the Liberals took the lead. By the start of 2015, their polling had strengthened, but this year they have been pushed out of the way by the Liberal surge.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) are a left-wing social democratic party. As explained above, they traditionally have been a minor group, but they gained support dramatically in 2011 in Quebec. At that election, they were led by Ontario's Jack Layton, but he died of cancer shortly after the election. He was replaced by Thomas Mulcair after a tight leadership race. Mulcair is a Quebec MP, who was elected in 2007 in a by-election; he was only the second NDP MP from Quebec. The party is in government at the provincial level in Manitoba and Alberta, and is traditionally strongest in the western provinces. However, it has gained support in the East in recent times, although there is still no provincial NDP.

The NDP has some fairly radical proposals for political reform. They propose the abolition of the Senate, and the introduction of proportional representation. The former proposal has the serious issue that it would require unanimous consent from the provinces; certainly, this would be quite a task. While the two provinces governed by the NDP would likely give their consent, it seems likely that provinces that are overrepresented in the Senate (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick) and are governed by the Liberals would almost certainly exercise their veto.

The proportional representation proposal is more contentious. The system proposed is mixed-member proportional representation, which has been a long standing NDP proposal. However, worryingly, the NDP have said that they will not support a referendum on the proposal. This would mean that a NDP government with the support of the minority of the electorate could pass this dramatic change. It is unlikely that it will pass, however; the NDP are unlikely to win a majority, and even if they do, the Senate (where the NDP have no representation) would probably reject it.

The Liberal Party have had a rough time over the past decade. A liberal centre-left party, they were considered to be the natural party of government. However, in 2004, the party was hit by a number of scandals and the formation of the Conservative Party. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was defeated in the 2006 election. He was replaced by Stephane Dion, a minister in the Liberal government. However, he lost ground in the 2008 election, and was replaced by Michael Ignatieff, a well-known academic.

While Ignatieff was perceived to be popular due to his high profile, the Conservatives ran a campaign attacking his American origins. The party lost many seats, falling to just 34 MPs and third place, and Ignatieff lost his own Toronto seat; for obvious reasons he resigned. To replace him, the party turned to Justin Trudeau, a member for Quebec. Trudeau has Liberal pedigree; he is the son of Justin Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister who served from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984.

The Liberals are normally the traditionalists when it comes to the Senate. Their proposals call for Senate appointments to be handed to a non-partisan board, and for Senators to not be members of political parties. Trudeau followed through with this, by removing all Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus. This stunned Liberal senators, who took a full day to think of a solution; still calling themselves Liberals. The Liberal policy also calls for electoral reform, but there is not a specific proposal; instead, they just say that they will 'fully and fairly consider' all proposals, before introducing a bill. Like the NDP, there will be no referendum.

One of the other big losers from the 2011 election was the Bloc Quebecois. They are a Quebec-only party, and their main policy is independence for Quebec. They were formed in 1991, by former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard. The party won 54 out of 75 seats in Quebec, and formed the opposition. The single-member plurality system worked in their favour, as they were a regionally based party. In 1996, Bouchard resigned as leader to become Premier of Quebec (as leader of the Parti Quebecois, a party with a similar policy). He was replaced by Giles Duceppe, who served as leader of the party until 2011, when the party collapsed following the NDP surge in Quebec, winning just 4 seats.

The party went through years of leadership turmoil, with the leadership being held by first the anonymous Daniel Paille, and then Mario Beaulieu, an old hardline supporter of Quebec independence. The party lost three of its four MPs to defections, and hold two today only because one NDP MP defected to the party. Following Beaulieu's resignation, Giles Duceppe returned to the leadership.

The party does not have much in terms of political reform, as their key policy (independence for Quebec) would involve the province being cut loose from Canada, and thus Canada's politics not mattering. However, it is considered that they are vaguely supportive of proportional representation and supportive of the abolition of the Senate.

Like in many countries, the Canadian Green Party have increased their support over the past decade. Their high point in terms of vote share came in 2008, when they won 6.8% of the vote. However, they did not win a seat; their only member, former Liberal Blair Wilson, was defeated. At the 2011 election, the party fell to 3.9%, but their leader Elizabeth May was elected in the British Colombia district of Saanich-Gulf Islands. Over recent years, the Greens won provincial seats in British Colombia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and they gained one member through the defection of Bruce Hyer from the NDP. The Greens seem unlikely to win many more seats; Hyer will probably not be re-elected, and no other districts look like they have much potential.

The Greens are supportive of proportional representation, although they do not offer a specific proposal; they say that they will 'consult the public' before introducing laws (although once again, without a referendum). The Greens support Senate elections, through proportional representation.

Last, and almost certainly least, there is Strength in Democracy. This is a small political party formed by two Quebec MPs; one from the Bloc and one from the NDP. The party supports Quebec regionalism, and decentralisation; unlike the Bloc, they will be running candidates throughout Canada. They support proportional representation, but their position on the Senate is unclear. They will almost certainly lose all their seats.

An auspicious outlook for political reform?

Proportional representation looks unlikely to happen in the next Canadian parliament. If the NDP wins a majority, they will introduce legislation for proportional representation, but it will get knocked back by the Senate. It is plausible that the Senate will approve a bill for a referendum, but a referendum would be another story. If the NDP win a minority and need to rely on Liberal support, a lesser reform like preferential voting might be introduced, and might (although it's not entirely clear what the NDP would do about the Senate, seeing as they have refused to appoint any members).

As for the Senate, the Conservatives seem unlikely to be able to pass reform; Harper's disinterest in any change is evident from the fact that it is rarely mentioned on the party website. The NDP certainly have a grand proposal, but unanimous provincial consent seems about as likely as a Strength in Democracy landslide, and the Liberals won't really do much. 

In effect, Canada's election does not look like it will lead to political reform. The institutions already in place make it unlikely that reform will happen, but the campaign is still young, and the stakes could change.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.