What if they gave an election and nobody won?

We now know one thing: this electoral system is broken

ANDREW COYNE October 27 2008

What if they gave an election and nobody won?

We now know one thing: this electoral system is broken

ANDREW COYNE October 27 2008

What if they gave an election and nobody won?

We now know one thing: this electoral system is broken


On Friday, Aug. 29, as the Conservatives were putting the finishing touches on election planning, the S&P/ TSX composite index closed at 13,771—down from its record earlier in the sum-

mer; but still at historically high levels, and rising. A week later, just before the election call, it was down 955 points. Four days later, another 670.

Still, for all the turmoil on the markets, the gathering crisis in global finance remained for many Canadians a distant thunder—troubling, but not yet occasion for a cold-sweat panic. For all the stock market’s gyrations over the first weeks of the campaign, the trend was unclear, and Conservative support held relatively firm. Through the end of the campaign’s third week, the Tories maintained a healthy 10-point lead over the second-place Liberals.

And then everything went to hell.

The economy was not just the most important issue of this election. It was the only issue. It wasn’t even an issue, as such: nobody really had much to offer in the way of significant policy differences. It was more like a natural disaster. It was like holding an election in the middle of a hurricane. Nobody much wants to know what your policy is on force nine gales. They just want to know how well you’ll stand up in it. They just want to know if you can get them in to port.

All elections are about leadership, to a greater or lesser extent. This one became, as few elections are, a test of leadership under

fire, played out in real time. Surprisingly, that did not automatically redound to Stephen Harper’s benefit.

In the early part of the campaign, the Conservatives had some reason to hope that a diffuse unease over the economy would work to their advantage: that steady-as-she-goes would be an appealing message, that Harper’s image as a “strong leader” would attract undecided voters to his side. But when the storm clouds turned into a deluge, it became clear that the “strong leader” image was built on sand. Harper had had great sport beating up on Stéphane Dion, he’d shown a tactical mastery of the House of Commons, he’d bul-

lied and bruised virtually anyone he’d come into contact with. Politics engages the primitive part of our brain, and Harper’s appeal was that of the lead wolf, “red in tooth and claw.” But what did it amount to in the end? All those broken promises, all those abandoned convictions, all those jaw-dropping about-faces—they’d won him the element of tactical surprise over his opponents, but at the cost of any relationship of trust with the broader public.

It turns out that matters. Way back at the start of the campaign, it was commonly framed as a contest between strength (Harper’s preferred “ballot question”) and trust


(Dion’s presumed comparative advantage). Apparently strength depends on trust. When the crisis broke, Harper was at first unable to call upon those reservoirs of trust a leader needs if he is to, well, lead. A leader whose appeal was based on always being in control was peculiarly vulnerable when it became clear he wasn’t in control—not of the markets, not of the televised debates, timed with cruel precision for the very week of maximum turmoil, where a blinking Harper was subjected to a non-stop, four-party barrage of abuse: you don’t care (not true), you’re not aware (surely not), you have no platform (you got that right).

It must have been bewildering to Harper. In policy terms, he was absolutely right: the Canadian economy was hardly in as bad repair as the American, nor were the sorts of remedies being contemplated there in order here. We were bound to be affected by the crisis in American finance and there were sure to be hard times ahead, but in the short term there was little that any Canadian government could do about it, and even less that any party leader was actually proposing. Yet for a week or 10 days after the markets collapsed, no one was listening. Or not enough people were listening. Or not the right people: the undecided, the swing voters, the voters in parts of the country Harper needed to reach if he was to achieve the majority he sought.

What happened, in that first flush of public panic, was that everybody returned to their corners. Polling data from Harris/Decima tells the story. Of those who said the economy was the issue that would decide their vote—and there were many more of those midway through the campaign than at the start—a disproportionate share broke Tory, from Manitoba west, while from Ontario east, they tended disproportionately to vote Liberal. The regional and partisan split correlated closely with people’s views of the nature of the threat to the economy. Those who saw the threat in more general terms were inclined to look for a steady hand at the tiller, Harperstyle—and more of them were to be found in the prosperous West. Those who saw a threat in more personal terms—my job, my futurelooked for someone who cared about them. And so was born the brief Dion boomlet, in those parts of the country where people are more inclined to see the government as their protector. He may have been slow to recognize how completely the economy had come to dominate public concerns—at the expense, say, of climate change—but he was quicker than the others.

It didn’t last. In the end, Harper was able to pull out a surprisingly strong win—at least compared to where he had been with a week to go—maintaining his party’s numbers in

Atlantic Canada and Quebec while gaining seats in Ontario and the West. Across the country, the Conservative vote was about four percentage points higher than the polls had predicted. It may have been superior Conservative organization, a more motivated base, a late blast of good news from the markets. But it seemed also that Harper found his feet in the last week.

Oddly, things had to get worse in the financial crisis before they could get better for Harper. Measures that he would have been justified in rejecting earlier in the crisis, such as the $25-billion government airlift of bad mortgages off the bank’s books, by the last week of the campaign had become entirely justified, given the alternatives, even to the most doctrinaire free marketeer. Just as the prospect of a global financial implosion gal-

vanized world leaders to action, so it freed Harper to break out of a passivity that, whatever its merits as policy, was political poison. By the last weekend of the campaign, Harper was promising to “protect” the economy with something approaching passion, and something very near conviction.

BUT LET US NOT lose sight of big picture. The Conservatives entered this campaign with a real shot at a majority—perhaps their best shot, perhaps their last shot. This is not a victory for the Tories, except in the most literal sense. It may not have turned out the catastrophe it looked to be at one point. But the Conservatives can hardly be congratulating themselves. In particular, the utter failure of their Quebec campaign—they finished third, behind the Liberals—must be dismaying to a

If we must have five-party politics, let us at least have parties with national appeal, and real differences

party that had convinced itself, and a good share of the commentariat, that it was the natural inheritor of the federalist vote in Quebec, that it might even knock off the Bloc.

This is an indictment, not just of the particular tactics of this campaign, but of the whole strategic vision of the party’s “pragmatists.” They have led the polls since they were elected, yet they have been chasing all the way—chasing the middle, chasing Quebeconly to see their quarries recede ever further from their grasp. All that tacking about, all

their attempts to denude themselves of anything resembling an ideology, has not produced a more conservative public: it has never been more liberal. The effect of Tory efforts to woo Quebec nationalists has not been to bring Quebec into the Conservative fold, still less to make them more Canadian: it has only persuaded them to withdraw still further from national life, to consider Canada as little more than a ready source of cash and favours. Think of all that the Conservatives have thrown at Quebec. Billions of dollars in the name of the

fictional “fiscal imbalance.” The status of nation. A growing role in foreign affairs. And it all falls to pieces over a few paltry cuts in arts funding?

But then, it’s hard to see the result as a victory for anyone. The Liberals, at less than 27 per cent, have limped home with the worst popular-vote showing in their history, giving up one-quarter of their seats. If Liberals think this is merely a problem of leadership, a simple matter of giving Dion the old heave-ho and running off with that dreamy Michael Ignatieff—or is it Bob Rae?—they should think again. This is the third election in a row that the Liberals have seen their popular vote drop. Indeed, they have been operating with a narrower and narrower electoral base, not just of late, but for the past five decades. While pundits fretted about friendly dictatorships and “gritlock,” the Big Red Machine has been dropping one wheel after another. They lost the West in the Diefenbaker sweep, and have never recovered. (Across the West, the Liberals won just seven seats this election. Seven seats.) They lost Quebec in the Mulroney sweep, and have never recovered. And now they have lost Ontario. They have become, for all intents and purposes, the Montreal-Toronto party, with pockets in Atlantic Canada.

But why pick on the Liberals? The NDP, for all the impression of momentum it gave off during the campaign, finished it no higher in the popular vote than it was last time, and no closer to its professed goal of knocking off the Liberals as the government-in-waiting. The Bloc held on to most of its seats, but only with a large assist from Conservative mistakes—and its popular-vote share declined. Even the Greens, the one party to significandy increase its vote, fell far short of expectations—and elected no one. Is it possible for everyone to lose an election?

And the biggest losers? Try the public. Five weeks of campaigning and $300 million in public funds later, the parties finished within a percentage point or two of where they were at the start. It’s almost as if the election never happened—and might as well not have, for all the public cared. All those polls, all those ads, all that breathless coverage, and the turnout in this election, it appears, will be the lowest ever: just 59 per cent of registered voters. At some point it will occur to someone: we have a democratic crisis on our hands—a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of efficacy. We are stuck, spinning our wheels, unable to find a sense of direction. The prospect is for more hung Parliaments, more bootless elections, more stall and drift, and less and less public interest.

If this election proves anything, it is that the process by which we elect our governments is broken. We are trying to run five-

party politics through a system that was designed for two parties. The Conservatives look at their steady, incremental progress, slowly spreading eastward, election after election, from their Alberta-British Columbia base, through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and now Ontario, and see a majority in the making. But the other way to look at it is that this is as close as they’re likely to get.

It has become almost structurally impossible to form a majority government in this country. If you start each election, as it appears we are condemned to do, with 50 seats off the table—the Bloc’s gift to Canadian democracy-then it is not 50 per cent of the seats you need to win a majority, it is 60 per cent: 155 of 258. Add to that the growing, institutionalized fragmentation on the left, and the mathematics become almost insurmountable. Eight years ago, the NDP and the Greens took less than 10 per cent of the vote between them. Today, it is 25 per cent. Throw in the Bloc, and the two parties with any chance of forming a government, the Liberals and Conservatives, are working with just two-thirds of the vote between them.

A leadership roblem? t’s the third election in a row Liberal numbers have dropped.

In a two-party system, majorities can be won with very little margin between first and second: in the theoretical limit, just one vote. A generation ago, when the two main parties were more dominant than today, you could win a majority with a margin of as little as nine points, say 44 to 35. But the more parties there are, and the more the vote is dissipated among them, the more the leading party must rely on the accidents of split votes to engineer a majority—meaning the larger the gap it must open up between itself and the second-place party. This explains some

IT’S HARD TO SEE the result of this election as a victory for anyone, not the Tories, not the Liberals, certainly not the public

of the Tories’ heavy reliance on negative ads. It wasn’t enough for them to raise their own vote. They had to suppress the Liberals’ vote, to somewhere close to the NDP’s, to have any chance of a majority. As it was, they wound up with an ll-point gap, and still fell short.

THERE IS NOTHING wrong with minority governments, per se. It depends what kind of minority. Do we want the kinds of minority Parliaments we have had in recent years, a clutch of hobbled regional or quasi-regional parties, fingers perpetually on the button, endlessly threatening to pitch us all into another pointless election in the vain hope that, if the swing voters can be distracted in their direction, if the splits go their way, if they can demean and belittle their opponents enough, if they can depress turnout even further than before, they might just fluke their way into a majority? Or will we accept that, whatever the ancient glories of the twoparty system, it no longer exists?

If we must have five-party politics, let them at least be parties with real differences, and national appeal. Away with the system that guarantees the Bloc two-thirds of the seats in Quebec on the strength of little more than one-third of the vote. Away with the ghettos of Conservative Alberta, or Liberal Toronto, where it is scarcely worth campaigning, so predictable are the results. Away with “strategic voting,” and other attempts to tell people they may not vote for the party they support, but must vote against the party they fear. Away with the disgraceful situation of a party winning almost a million votes, as the Greens did this time out, and getting zero seats.

Indeed, when you think about it, many of the problems identified in this piece have their origins in the perverse incentives of our highly leveraged, winner-take-all electoral system. Why have the Tories degenerated into mush? Because they face no competition on the right, Reform-style uprisings being more or less outlawed for fear of “splitting the vote.” Why did the Liberals ignore their growing weakness all these years? Because they could still count on the bizarre distortions of first-past-the-post to reap a bushel of seats from one region or another. Why has the Bloc become an immovable blot on the national scene, long after its original purpose was exhausted? Ditto. Why have majority governments become next to impossible? Why has politics degenerated into such vicious, empty partisanship? Why do so many people no longer bother to vote? Because the system is broken, and if this election won’t persuade us to change it, nothing will. M