Friday, June 22, 2007

A new Canadian political landscape

Power Shifts: A New Emerging Political Landscape in Canada

From 1896 till 1984 Canada was governed most of the time by the Liberal Party of Canada. The party was able to govern so consistently because they could count on a solid block of seats from Quebec. Quebec was home more than a quarter of the seats in Canada and delivered them to the Liberals. Since the late 1970s there have been two things that have altered this formula for success.

The first change is one that is more obvious to see. In the seven elections since 1980 the Liberals have not managed to win a majority of the seats in Quebec. Between 1896 and 1980 this only happened once - in 1958. The Liberals had a huge advantage being able to count on about 60 seats from Quebec in each election – close to ½ the way to a majority government. This came to an end in the 1984 election of Brian Mulroney. The Liberal hegemony was broken.

The Liberal weakness in Quebec was masked during the Chretien era because the Liberals had a divided right wing opposition and could win almost all the seats in Ontario. If the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives had cooperated in the 1990s, odds are that we would have seen a series of minority governments.

There has been a second and ultimately more important shift in Canadian politics in the last generation. Three provinces have been growing faster than the rest of the country. Two of these are BC and Alberta which now have a larger population than Quebec. The rise in their populations has been slowly mirrored in more federal seats being allocated to them.

In the 1974 election 61% of the seats in Canada were in Ontario and Quebec, 16% in BC and Alberta and 12% in Atlantic Canada. To win the election in 1974 the core was Ontario and Quebec. Given that the Liberals could count on winning 60 or more seats in Quebec, the Liberals could almost win the election by default.

In 1980 the Liberals won a majority government and only won two seats west of Ontario. Repeating this feat once new seats to the House of Commons are allocated will be almost impossible.

We fast forward to 2007 and the new proposed seat distribution before the House of Commons. The proposal is to add 7 seats to BC, 5 to Alberta and 10 to Ontario. This redistribution will see a major shift in the political reality of the nation.

When the legislation is passed, BC and Alberta will have more seats than Quebec. Both BC and Alberta will have more seats than all of Atlantic Canada. Close to ¼ of the seats will be in these provinces. Winning a majority government without being able to win a large proportion of the seats in BC and Alberta will be very difficult.

Along with BC and Alberta, Ontario has also been gaining seats over the last generation. The proposed new seats will mean that a majority of the seats in Canada will be in these three provinces. These three provinces are also the ones that are 'have' provinces and pay all the equalization payments in Canada. Given the complaints from the 'have-not' provinces of late about equalization, what will it mean for politics in Canada once the 'have' provinces have the majority of seats?

The nature of the 'have' versus 'have-not' debate in Canada is likely to change to a stronger support for a federal government based on a party with their core roots in the 'have' provinces once these provinces hold a majority of the seats. Everything indicates that this will be the Conservatives and not the Liberals.

Alberta is already clearly very strongly in the Conservative camp and BC tends to elect a majority of Conservative MPs. The Conservatives should be able to count on 55 to 65 seats from these two provinces. Together with another 20 from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Conservatives have close to half the seats needed to win a majority government.

With the loss of Quebec as a Liberal bastion and the fall in the relative importance of Atlantic Canada, the federal Liberals are reduced to being certain of 20 to 25 seats from Atlantic Canada and 30 seats in Greater Toronto. Their core support regions bring them only to 1/3 of what is needed for a majority government.

For over 80 years the electoral math of Canada favoured the Liberals. With the changes in the last generation the new electoral math favours the Conservatives for the foreseeable future.

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