Thursday, October 22, 2015

Canada 2015-What does it mean for political reform?

At this point, it should now be clear that the Liberal Party of Canada has won the 2015 Canadian election, with 184 seats to 99 for the Conservative Party, 44 for the New Democrats, 10 for the Bloc Quebecois, and a single seat for the Green Party. The Liberals will have a majority of 14 in the new parliament.

This is a fairly unexpected result. The campaign period saw the Liberals pull out a narrow lead over the Conservatives, with the NDP relegated to third place. However, in the end, it appears pollsters overstated the NDP vote at the expense of the Liberals. This may have been because NDP voters tactically switched to the Liberals to prevent a Conservative government. At this point, it's a bit unclear. Canada's polling industry has had some significant errors recently; for example, all polls for the 2013 British Columbian election had the NDP in the lead, but the Liberals actually won. This is a less egregious error, and it has to be seen in the context of a long and complicated election campaign.

Despite Trudeau's small majority, it's certain that he will be able to pass his agenda through the House of Commons. Canada has strongly disciplined parties, and in the last parliament, even the most rebellious of MPs voted with their parties more than 95% of the time. The NDP will also offer support on some issues.

One interesting thing about this election is its similarity to the last one. The below image shows the results of both elections, side by side.
Click on the image for a larger size
While the colours change, the ratio is the same. There is a government party, with a small majority. The opposition has about 30% of the seats, and the third party has 10-12%. The fourth party is very minor, although the identity of this one has not changed. 

The above chart shows that the 2015 and 2011 results are perhaps a return to pre-1993, when Canada had a complete three-party system. The emergence of the Bloc and the splitting of the right between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party changed this, but both of these trends have now seemingly reversed.

Whether this will last is, again, unclear. However, I think it is very likely that the current state of affairs will persist. The Bloc polled badly despite Giles Duceppe's return as leader, and the Greens are shrinking. Of course, freak events like the NDP surge in 2011 might happen, and no one can really tell what the future holds. Trudeau may perform badly, and disappoint NDP or Conservative switchers. Or the Conservatives might split, or the Bloc might make a comeback. Who knows?

The election and political reform

Trudeau faces one issue when he gets into office. The Senate of Canada, a wholly appointed body, currently has a Conservative majority. There are 47 Conservative Senators, to 29 Liberal (affilated) Senators and seven independents. Now, this looks bad, but it is important to note that this is not the entire Senate. There are 22 seats that have fallen vacant, but have not had appointed members. Former Prime Minister Harper did not appoint people to these seats, as part of his sporadic enthusiasm for Senate reform.

Normally, Trudeau would appoint Liberals to all 22 seats, and that would be that. However, there are two factors in play here that will make this harder. First of all, the Liberals do not actually have a Senate caucus. Trudeau expelled all Liberal Senators from the party caucus in 2014, although the Senators quickly decided to call themselves Independent Liberals (a genius plan! How could Trudeau have seen it coming?).

Of course, this is fine for the current Senators. But Trudeau now has to make appointments. He is faced with the dilemma of having made promises not to appoint any Liberals, and having to appoint enough Senators who will toe the Liberal line in order to pass his agenda. One of those things may have to go, and I am willing to reckon it will be not appointing Liberals.

The other issue is that Trudeau will apparently not be in control of Senate appointments. The Liberal platform calls for the creation of a "new, non-partisan, merit-based process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments". What this will exactly look like is really, really unclear. However, such a vague commitment gives the Liberals no shortage of room to wriggle out of this commitment. While this may seem cynical, I think that the 22 new Senators will most likely be fairly supportive of the Liberal Party.

Electoral reform is another matter. The Liberals made a more specific promise in this area, saying that they are "committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the post voting system". They say that they will convene a committee to discuss ideas, and then within 18 months they will pass legislation to introduce a new electoral system.

Of course, it's kind of hard to tell what system the Liberals will introduce. However, one can guess that they might go with some form of preferential voting, most likely single-transferable vote in single member districts/preferential voting/alternative vote. As the centrist party, they will receive preferences from the Conservatives against the New Democrats (although, if it is optional preferential, this flow will be fairly weak) and New Democrat and Green preferences against the Conservatives. It may be a way to solve the vote-splitting issue on the Canadian left without a merger of the two major parties, which would be acrimonious. Single-member districts will likely be maintained; only the much reduced NDP and the unimportant Greens have consistently been in favour of proportional representation with multi-member districts.

I would expect such a change to be heavily resisted by the Conservatives, who will try to block it in the Senate. They will argue that the proposal will not have democratic legitimacy, as it has not been presented to voters. If the Liberals have trouble passing it through the Senate (not likely), they might resort to a referendum on the issue.

The Canadian Senate has seemingly survived this election, although some more scandals may put Trudeau under pressure to make more changes. However, from a tactical perspective, electoral reform would be one Liberal promise worth keeping.

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