Canadian politics

Two Observations About the Local Results of Yesterday’s Municipal Elections

Municipal elections were held across Quebec yesterday, and with the votes more or less counted, I have a couple of thoughts about the results, at least here in the Pontiac MRC.

First, voter turnout was crazy high in some places. I’m used to turnout for municipal elections hovering somewhere between 30 and 40 percent—and in Quebec’s larger cities that seems to have been the case: 36.6 percent in Montréal, 35.1 percent in Gatineau. But around here the turnout has been a lot higher in some communities—thanks, I suspect, to some closely fought races.

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Two Maclean’s Pieces

On the eve of another federal election, where we’ll be asked to choose between the feckless, the disingenuous and the mendacious, here are two thoughtful pieces from Maclean’s that offer more light than heat.

Paul Wells looks at Justin Trudeau’s mixed record on the world stage, which was dominated by COVID-19, quarrels with China, and dealing with Trump and NAFTA. “It’s been a brutal half-decade, and the Trudeau government handled much of it with a grim focus that produced good results.”

Jen Gerson questions why Canadian political parties are so quick to ditch their leaders after just one election. “Parties are treating their leaders like pump-and-dump penny stocks. Dear Leader is expected to perform, and to deliver results, with their success measured by whatever metric their membership values; power, influence, material resources, electoral advances, or simple moral chattel. Assessing a leader’s performance by these metrics, on these timelines, is as bloodless and shortsighted as reciting an earnings-before-taxes balance on a quarterly dividend statement.”

The 2019 Election by (Some of) the Numbers

Seat Distributions

Regional distribution of seats, 2019 Canadian election

The Liberals elected as many MPs west of Ontario as the NDP did: 15. (That number doesn’t include the North.) Not entirely sure why the CBC commentators made a fuss about the Liberals having no cabinet representation in the West: “the West” is more than just Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Even so, the Liberals elected more seats west of Ontario than the Conservatives did east of Ontario: 15 vs. 14. The NDP elected only two seats east of Ontario.

The Liberals elected more Quebec MPs than the Bloc Québécois—35 vs. 32—and edged them out in the popular vote in Quebec.

Half of the Liberal caucus will be from Ontario (79 out of 157). Nearly half of the Conservative caucus will be from the Prairie provinces (54 out of 121). Nearly half of the NDP caucus will be from British Columbia (11 out of 24).

Regionalism is a thing, in other words.

The Conservatives got fewer seats than the Liberals despite having more votes. Having the largest popular vote while coming up short in the seat count is what happens when you win your own seats by gargantuan margins (see Alberta) but lose by narrower margins. Happens to the Quebec Liberals provincially all the time: they win anglo Montréal seats by margins that would make Jason Kenney blush, and end up losing elections while winning the popular vote.

(If your response to this is “we need proportional representation,” please see my earlier post from 2015: The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation.)

Local Results

Pontiac went Liberal, to no one’s surprise (see Pontiac in the 2019 Federal Election: A Preview).

Pontiac results, 2011-2019

Incumbent Liberal Will Amos was easily reelected with 48.9 percent of the vote. That’s down 5.6 points (and some 4,400 votes) from his 2015 result: still a comfortable win by a comfortable margin. There was a lot of movement further down the ballot. The Conservative vote recovered somewhat, the Bloc Québécois vote more than doubled, and the NDP vote was less than half of what it was in 2015. Looking at these numbers, which are much more in line with what I saw in the Chrétien and Martin years, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the NDP took this seat in 2011. They got just over a quarter of their 2011 vote this time around.

Voter turnout was nearly 61,000: down only 1,700 from 2015, and some 10,000 above the (redistributed) 2011 turnout.1 Quite strong, in other words. The Liberal vote didn’t stay home as much as I thought it might.

Foreign Affairs

Axiom: For a politician, interfering in the politics of another country, especially a friendly country, is a super-bad idea because it will have diplomatic repercussions down the road: the side you come out against may win, and hold your support for the other side against you.

Therefore:

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When Federal Politicians Talk About Provincial Matters, and Vice Versa

In law there is the concept of ultra vires: “beyond the powers.” It refers to something beyond the power of a person, entity or government. An organization cannot do something beyond what is set out in its by-laws, or the laws that regulate organizations like it; and a government cannot do something beyond its legal authority.

A town council, for example, cannot raise an army or issue its own currency, because (at least in Canada) its powers are strictly delimited by provincial municipal legislation, legislation that says a municipality may only enact by-laws in these specific areas.

Canada’s constitution assigns different powers and responsibilities to the federal and provincial governments. It’s all set out in Part VI of the Constitution Act, 1867. But that doesn’t stop Canadian politicians from trying to legislate in areas that aren’t theirs.

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Status Quo Ante

The Liberals’ key attack line against the Conservatives in this election is that their leader, Andrew Scheer, is simply the second coming of Stephen Harper. It’s a standard line from the political playbook: tie the new guy to the unpopular old guy. But the Conservatives seem to be doing their best to make their point for them: a good chunk of their platform seems to be the restoration of a lot of policies, credits and benefits that were brought in during the Harper years and subsequently scrapped by the Trudeau government. As Andrew MacDougall writes in the Citizen this morning, “by picking up many of the Harper planks discarded by Trudeau in office—transit, sport and arts tax credits, small business tax changes—Scheer is literally promising to be Harper 2.0.” One wonders whether they’ll shut up the scientists and cancel the long-form census again, too.

If status quo ante as election platform—we’re going to put things back exactly where they were—strikes you as a bit strange, it shouldn’t: “returning things to normal” is what you campaign on when you think the other guys have broken things irredeemably. It wouldn’t be out of place in the U.S., for example. But in this case it seems a bit more brazen and a bit less self-aware: as though the Conservatives haven’t quite encompassed the fact that they lost the last election for real; that Trudeau shouldn’t have won, or didn’t deserve to win, or his win was a result of some random cosmic accident. (The NDP indulged in this sort of thinking after the last election as well.)

What this is, I think, is an example of a phenomenon I’ve observed in Canadian political parties before. When a governing party is defeated at the polls, it seems to take two electoral defeats to beat the entitlement out of them. One can be dismissed as an exception, an aberration—the electorate taking temporary leave of their senses. It takes a second drubbing at the polls to make a party reflect and take stock. Not for nothing did the Liberals lose in 2006, 2008 and 2011: not only did they deserve the time out, they needed it. Only when a party accepts its defeat can it regroup and sort itself out so that it can be electorally viable again. In fact, this process is almost essential to a party’s long-term health.

It’s one reason why most governments are re-elected to a second term: the opposition hasn’t accepted the fact that it lost the first time.

Pontiac in the 2019 Federal Election: A Preview

I live in the federal electoral district of Pontiac, which includes the rural counties and reserves of the Outaouais north and west of Gatineau, plus some suburban neighbourhoods in Gatineau. It’s about one-third anglophone, with a large concentration of rural anglophones, especially here in the namesake Pontiac MRC (an MRC is basically a county) that have much in common culturally with people on the Ontario side of the Ottawa Valley. The presence of those voters, who tend to vote Conservative, has made for some interesting electoral dynamics in the past.

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Quebec Election 2018: Pontiac Candidates

Every election, I try to take a look at what’s happening in my own constituency. For the 2018 Quebec provincial election now underway, that constituency is Pontiac, which takes up the Pontiac MRC, the Municipality of Pontiac, and most of the Aylmer sector of Gatineau.

While on the provincial level this election promises to be one of the most interesting we’ve had in decades, the outcome in my constituency is almost certainly a foregone conclusion. Pontiac concentrates most of the Outaouais’s anglophone population and as a result is one of the safest Liberal seats off the island of Montréal.

Pontiac constituency results by percentage, 1981-2014

The only time the Liberals got less than 50 percent of the vote in the last 40 years was in 1989, when Mark Alexander of the Unity Party1 took 30.6 percent of the vote. A Liberal candidate losing here would signal a province-wide electoral wipeout.

That being said, here are the candidates I’ve been able to find out about. A new twist this time: candidates for the provincial NDP and the provincial Conservative Party, both newly established (or re-established, if you like).

  • Roger Fleury (Green), an activist;
  • André Fortin (Liberal), the incumbent MNA and minister of transport;
  • Samuel Gendron (NDP), about whom no information as yet;
  • Olive Kamanyana (Coalition Avenir Québec), a federal civil servant with a fairly impressive résumé, and the only candidate likely to provide Fortin with any real competition;
  • Louis Lang (Marxist-Leninist), perennial candidate;2
  • Marie-Claude Nivolon (Parti Québécois), a longtime party activist from Châteauguay who looks to be a poteau or paper candidate;3
  • Kenny Roy (Conservative), a construction worker; and
  • Julia Wilkie (Québec Solidaire), a student.

The election takes place on Monday, October 1.

Strategic Voting Is Bullshit

My first encounter with strategic voting, and with using it to Stop someone, came during the 1997 provincial election in Alberta. I got a call from the NDP campaign in my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona. When I suggested that I might be voting Liberal, the caller insisted that the Liberals were way back in third place and it was a two-way race between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives; if I wanted to Stop Ralph Klein and prevent the Tory candidate from being elected, I had to vote NDP.

In the end, the NDP’s Raj Pannu won the seat, with a narrow, 58-vote margin … over the Liberal candidate. The PCs were in third place—a close third place, only another 118 votes further back, but in third place nonetheless.1 I don’t remember how I voted in that election, but I took two lessons away from the experience:

  1. The NDP are a bunch of sanctimonious pricks who are just as willing to lie and engage in dirty tricks as any other party.2
  2. Strategic voting is a con—a way to trick you into voting for their candidate instead of yours.

I’ve been wary of strategic voting ever since. It has never, ever been a politically disinterested tactic. You always have to ask yourself who benefits from it, and you always have to question the underlying data being brought out to justify it.

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Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.