We just had a surprising election; I previewed it on April 10, and am slightly smug over having pretty well called the outcome on April 25th.

The overview that rings truest, to me, is Colby Cosh’s Four parties enter, two parties leave. Canadian politics is usually boring; but not this week.

Anyhow, I wrote this because I wanted space for an observation and a prediction. First: Canadian politics suddenly looks a lot like Britain or Germany: Big, broadly-based parties of the left and right, with a smaller party of the center. Seems to be reasonably stable and functional in those countries.

Second: It’s going to be awfully hard to bring back the Liberal party. They’ve never, in my lifetime, really stood for much aside from occupying the squishy center, knowing how to handle the levers of power, and being a good way to have a career in politics.

There was actually nothing terrible about this, because the broad center of Canadian politics seems, judging by the results, a substrate for a fairly sensible policy mix. But I think that when you’re trying to come out of the wilderness, and you no longer represent a safe career choice, you probably need to stand for something. I can imagine a scenario where you get a really charismatic Liberal leader combined with a particularly stinky episode of scandal or disillusionment with either the Tories or NDP. But all the pieces would have to fall into place just right.

A lot of people I know are pretty shattered by the Tory majority, assuming that Mr. Harper will yank the steering wheel hard to the right and try to steer in the same sort of direction the 2nd President Bush was aiming. I’m not sure why, but I’m less worried. To start with, he can’t count on this kind of vote-splitting in future elections.

And he may well be smart enough to see that Canadians really are conservative; in the sense that they’re reasonably satisfied with the way things work here, and unwelcoming toward anything that smells radical.


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From: James McCullough (May 03 2011, at 23:15)

I was fairly close with my predictions, as well, but I didn't see an utter collapse of the Liberals. I thought they would hang around with at least 60 seats.

I think Harper is far smarter than Bush and not nearly as motivated as Bush was with the oil and big business. I am sure his eyes lit up when the NDP surpassed 100 seats (probably lit up seeing them surpass 50 seats), and he will respect that parties wishes a bit to gain favour for the next election.

So many of my Liberal friends are pessimistic about the election, but as an NDP'er, I think we got the best result we could hope for right now.

And Go Green Party for getting into the House.


From: Matt (May 03 2011, at 23:18)

How about the idea of electoral reform so we don't have these swings and successive dictatorships? My fear is it may polarize like in the US, where you're either one party or the other, and there's no land in between (or at least no electable land). That's definitely not good for democracy.

And yes I realize some kind of PR system means we'd likely never have a majority government again. Is that such a bad thing? Most European countries get by quite nicely (and in the case of Germany, prosperously, unlike other European countries with majorities that are stuttering or near collapsing).

I know, a dictatorship may be more "convenient" but that bickering as Harper put it is debate, and it's pretty darn important for democracy. It's call cooperation and consensus, I would hope we all learned those lessons from our parents as children.


From: DAVID BLAKE (May 04 2011, at 00:22)

Back in the early 1980's I was a journalist on a British newspaper and I came over to cover the summit in Ottawa. It was at the time of the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, so politicians in Canada actually cared what British newspapers thought. I have to admit this was not reciprocated, so I was hesitant about agreeing to go to a lunch with various Canadian ministers. But duty called, so along I went and found myself next to the Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Short of conversation, I asked him to explain the difference between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. He looked at me as if I was simple-minded and then said: "We've got more seats than they have." Even then I wondered if this was a big enough idea to make a party last.


From: Pierre Phaneuf (May 04 2011, at 00:32)

Like Britain, maybe, but like Germany? They have proportional representation, which changes the dynamic quite significantly, no?

I could see the Liberals making a comeback, but the Bloc? Wow, they were truly decimated...

I hear a lot of noise about proportional representation, and while I'd like that, and/or better electoral district boundaries, but everything else being equal, I think switching to alternative voting would let us get over this ridiculous vote splitting. If a majority vote for a leftish party (within a riding), that seat should go to some kind of leftish party, not to the right wing one!

Oh well.


From: Michael Davis (May 04 2011, at 03:05)

Thanks for that, Tim. I wish I could agree, but I fear that Harper can't help himself. He has always been secretive. He never lets his cabinet members issue a murmer without his consent. He has always had the attitude of "Screw you, I don't care what you think, I'll do what I want", except when he saw it would cost him seats.

I'm sure we'll see Harper show his true colours now that he has the control he craved, and I hope to see Layton embarass him over and over again.

I think things would have been different if Bob Rae had led the Liberals. He's as genuine and altruistic as Layton.

(BTW, I'm a fan of Android, Sun, Java and, strangely, XML, which is why I'm here).


From: David Magda (May 04 2011, at 04:20)

I think that Mr. Harper will also be prudent to the lesson of Brian Mulroney (and Kim Campbell) in thinking you can do anything you want just because you got a majority (or two).

The Progressive Conservatives learned the hard way (and so now have the Liberals) that being too complacent isn't safe, and climbing out of the wilderness can take a long time (~15 years in the case of the Tories).


From: Eileen (May 04 2011, at 05:53)

"reasonably satisfied with the way things work here, and unwelcoming toward anything that smells radical."

But what if something radical needs to be done?

I don't think our petro-economy is sustainable, and we need to get moving on a low-carbon version.


From: Dave Neary (May 04 2011, at 06:09)


I saw an interesting analysis once of the end result if you consider that an electorate is a normal curve of opinions from far right to far left, and politicians choose their place on the spectrum tactically to maximise their votes.

If there are only 2 candidates, then the best positions are obviously at 0.499 and 0.5001. The electoratre splits nicely down the middle & you have a 2 party system.

However, this leaves a 3rd candidate the opportunity to sneak in on the right or left & take some of those votes away - a candidate at 0.48 will take almost half the votes, and leave our "center left" candidate with almost nothing. The result of the entry of such a candidate into the fray is the center left candidate moves left, to swueeze out the candidate to his left, without leaving enough space to his *right* for him to get squeezed in turn. The 3rd candidate gets squeezed out, runs out of money & goes out of business, and the left wing candidate can come back to the center (albeit having lost an election in the meantime).

In brief, if politicials are completely amoral about where they position themselves on the left/right spectrum, then plurality voting tends towards a 2 party system with broad centrist governments.

Where it gets interesting is when you introduce primary elections. Now, to be the candidate, you have to position yourself in the center with respect to your party, and appeal to your base to get on the ballot in the first place. This will result in a centrist candidate losing out to a candidate to his right/left in a primary, and will result in candidates post-primary who are much more polarising/less centrist than otherwise. In short, the population is not, in general, well represented by a plurality 2 party system which uses party primaries to choose its candidates.

Not directly relevant to this Canadian election, but interesting & relevant nonetheless, I thought.



From: David Magda (May 04 2011, at 06:19)

Regarding voting systems: I agree with Pierre Pha­neuf in that ranked ballots (while keeping the rest (for now?)) would be a good, "simple" way to improve things:


While no system is perfect (cf. Arrow's impossibility theorem), both the Right (in the 1990s) and the Left (now) have experienced vote splitting, and it has been to the disadvantage of everyone for it to continue.

This change is also a lot "easier" to implement that a full PR system. Ranked ballots can probably be implemented with a "simple" amendment to the Elections Act, while switching to a PR system may require opening the can of worms that is the Canadian constitution.


From: Michel S. (May 04 2011, at 09:57)

It's not quite similar to Germany. As Pierre said, Germany uses a PR system (MMP, combining FPTP seats with a compensatory top-up layer elected by PR) for its lower house (the upper house consists of state delegations, so the party / coalition that has a majority in a state controls all that state's votes (the number of votes depends on a state's population -- though biased slightly in favor of smaller states, it's nowhere as biased as the US senate. I've always thought the US could learn from the constitutions of its defeated former foes that it inspired!)

The old configuration is indeed CDU/CSU on the right, SPD on the left and the Free Democrats (FDP) in the middle; after peaking at the last federal election, however, the FDP has imploded, to the point that in recent regional elections they hover around barely making the threshold for being represented at all. The constellation is now of 5 parties (perhaps soon to be four, if FDP continues imploding) -- the two additions being the Greens (who recently secured their first premiership, in Baden-Wuerttemburg) and Die Linke (The Left).

German politics is thus closer to, say, Scottish politics, in terms of party representation (the electoral system is also quite similar), though the Scottish Socialists have actually imploded and their Lib Dems are probably in (slightly) better shape than the German Free Democrats.


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