Monday, December 17, 2012

Are majority governments the likely future in Canada?

Thomas Crerar lead the Progressives in 1921 to break the two party system in Canada
In 1921 Canadian politics, with the election of  58 Progressives, went from a two party system to one in which there were at least three major parties in every election.  This has meant we have seen a lot more Federal minority parliaments than the UK, Australia or any of the provinces in Canada.    Long term minorities are a fact of life in Canada but is this what we can expect over the next decade?

Since 1921 there have been 11 elections that ended with minority governments and 16 that ended with majority governments.   This means about 2/5s of our federal elections have lead to minority parliaments but people still do not seem to accept that minorities have been a reasonable expectation in federal politics. The 1926 election was officially a minority though because of the formal support of the Liberals by eight Liberal-Progressives the was a defacto majority.

In the 28 elections since 1921 we have had at least three parties win eight or more seats in every election.   The norm has been for us to have four parties elected with eight or more seats.
Number of parties with 8 or more seats in the elections since 1921:

  • 3 parties  - 10 times
  • 4 parties - 16 times
  • 5 parties - 2 times

The history of when we get minority and majorities based on how many parties elect eight or more MPs seems to indicate that with three parties a majority has been twice as common as a minority but with four parties it has been 50/50 majority versus minority.

We have had two long periods of no minority governments.   From 1930 to 1957, after RB Bennett won in 1930, the Liberals won five consecutive majorities.   From 1980 to 2004 there six elections without a minority.   Both eras were marked by long periods in which the main opposition party was weak.

Are we headed towards a long term era of Conservatives winning majorities or will we see a return of minorities?   I think we are headed towards a fundamental change in our politics and will see an era of consecutive Conservative majorities.

One major difference between the coming 2015 election and all the past elections since 1921 is that the Liberal party is no longer the dominant force that it has been.    What we could see is a major re-alignment pf Canadian politics to a clear left and right split like in the UK or Australia.  If this happens, the Liberals become a small rump group.  If the Liberals fall to ten to twenty seats, they end up being almost too small as the third party to make minorities probable.   I see little hope from the Liberal leadership race that the party understands the trouble they are in and that they know what they need to be doing to improve things.   One media rock star is not going to build 338 riding associations or raise the millions the party needs.

There could be an active push from people opposed to Stephen Harper to make the election a two party race.   The closer we get to a two party race, the less likely minorities are.   The assumptions behind the sort of zero sum thinking that a two party election paradigm posits is highly flawed in an in practice reduces voter turn out as well as rarely benefiting anyone other than the largest current party.

Could we see the rise of a fourth party?   Realistically the only party that has a moderate chance of winning 12 or more seats is the Bloc, but are they preparing well on the ground?   Their polling number remain weak but the odds that many of the New Democrats elected in Quebec in 2011 losing in 2015 is high.   The return of the Bloc is most likely only going to reduce the odds of the NDP winning government and have little impact on the Conservatives.

The only other factor is the Green Party, but they only have one seat now.  The did surprisingly well in the 2012 Victoria by-election and placed a competitive third in the Calgary Centre by-election.   Can the party find two dozen seats in which it can realistically win?   Can it raise the $2.5 million needed to run all those candidates?   I do not think the party is ready to make that leap and are unlikely to do much better than gaining a couple of seats at most.   Looking at the map, it strikes me that the best seats for the Greens are all currently held by the NDP or the Liberals.

When I look at the pattern of elections in Canada since 1921 and the current state of the parties, there is little that says to me we are likely to see anything other than a majority Conservative government in 2015 and likely again in 2019.   I know the polling shows the Conservatives do not have a large lead but we are not in an election and polls do not measure how well parties are organized on the ground.  


Anonymous said...

Well that's a depressing outlook.

First of all, I think minority governments have a lot going for them. They are unstable if the other parties are more interested in gaining power than getting work done, but if they focus on their real task, a minority government could see better policies made because the policies have to pass through debate and win the approval of people with different perspectives. Isn't that the purpose of Parliament?

As for the Green Party's prospects - yes it's awfully difficult when you can't count on tithes (union dues) or peddling indulgences (corporate welfare) to raise money. However we're seeing the rise of a generation which has strongly valued individualism and free thought. With electoral finance reform to make corporate and union donations forbidden, parties will have to rely on the voters themselves to support their actions. That will level the playing field - and we'll see the next generation's values coming into politics which will really change the game.

Anonymous said...

Only if we keep our ridiculous method of electing, with 39% "majorities".
Proportional is needed badly.

Unknown said...

There will never be PR. ND and Libs would always hope for a 36% fluke win. If Greens became actually competitive, they would quickly adopt the same attitude.

After a period of minorities that satisfied no one, voters will react against them for quite a while.