Floor crossings: a tradition as old as Canada itself

The floor crossing of Jenica Atwin from the Green Party of Canada to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is noteworthy in one respect – it’s the first time a federal Green MP has crossed the floor to another party. It completes a ‘trade’ that happened 13 years ago when erstwhile Liberal MP Blair Wilson from British Columbia crossed to the Greens to become its first MP in Parliament. Atwin becomes the latest in a long line of Canadian politicians who have crossed the floor to sit with a different political party than the one they shared a ballot with in the previous election.

Newly minted Liberal MP

Not so long ago, a Liberal went Conservative. I had never heard of Leona Alleslev, the Member of Parliament for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, before she switched from red to blue.

(This post updated from September 2018 version)

Most of the time, the end is nigh for that politician. Some are pushed by desperation. Some are motivated by pique. Others for genuine policy and ideological reasons. Some are able to make the change stick, as Alleslev did in the 2019 election when she was re-elected as a Conservative.

Floor crossing is older than Canada itself. Wikipedia informs us that, in 1866, an anti-Confederate politician in New Brunswick switched sides when he did not receive a desired cabinet post. We could go back to WWI when many Liberal MPs left Wilfrid Laurier and joined with the Unionist government under Robert Borden. Or to 1935 when British Columbia’s H.H. Stevens bolted the Conservative barn to form the Reconstructionist Party.

At times, a floor crossing can signal a sea change in politics. Réne Lévesque leaving the Quebec Liberal Party in the 1960s to form the Parti Québécois is one of the most momentous moves in Canadian political history. It led to the election of the first Péquiste government in 1976 and a referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Watch the documentary Champions to see Lévesque’s impact and his enduring rivalry with Pierre Trudeau.

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Réne Lévesque: probably the most impactful floor-crossing in Canadian history (CBC)

In 1990, Lucien Bouchard spectacularly left the Mulroney government after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, forming the Bloc Québécois and taking other Quebec PC and Liberal MPs with him, including Liberal MP Jean Lapierre. Bouchard led the Oui forces to the brink of victory in 1995, and shortly thereafter became Premier of Quebec.

The 1993 election saw the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives to two seats with Preston Manning’s Reform Party dominating Western Canada. After Jean Chrétien continually swept up in Ontario, PC Senator Gerry St. Germain was one of the first to attempt to unify the Conservative parties and changed his allegiance in the Senate from PC to become the first Canadian Alliance senator in 2000. Later, eleven Canadian Alliance MPs left caucus to sit as the “DRC” – Democratic Representative Caucus when they couldn’t get along with Alliance leader Stockwell Day, and included some political heavyweights like the first Reform MP ever elected, Deb Grey. The DRCs would morph into a coalition with Joe Clark’s (second-coming) PC caucus: the PC-DRC. Ultimately, most everyone got back together under the leadership of Stephen Harper after new PC leader Peter Mackay agreed to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper’s Alliance. Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party and held Paul Martin to a minority in 2004 before winning his own minority in 2006. (Joe didn’t cross, he stayed PC until the end). The key point is that floor crossing influenced the course of events between 2000 and 2004.

In 2018, we saw Maxime Bernier jump out of Air Scheer without a parachute. It caused a rearguard action that hampered Scheer’s Conservatives as they readied themselves to fight the Liberals in the 2019 election. For Bernier, the impact of this Xtreme floor crossing was the sound of hitting political ground zero with an ear-splitting splat.

Some floor crossings reflect the ebb and flow of political tides.  Scott Brison was elected as a Progressive Conservative, but left when that party merged with the Alliance to form the modern-day Conservative Party. Brison became a senior Liberal cabinet minister. One can argue that he represented a shift in Canadian politics where some Progressive Conservatives migrated to the Liberals.  Many politicians, like Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, sat for one party, then came back to run for another party later, reflecting how they had migrated through the political spectrum.

Provincially, MLAs in both the Saskatchewan PCs and Liberals crossed the floor to the new Saskatchewan Party in 1997, which has governed the province since 2007. The PCs were extinguished and the Liberals are in the wilderness.

In 2002, Yukon NDP MLA Dennis Fentie left his party to join the Yukon Party. A month later he was leader and later that year he became Premier, serving until 2011.

The leader of the New Brunswick NDP from 2011-2017, Dominic Cardy, found himself as a New Brunswick PC MLA in the government of Blaine Higgs. In fact, he’s now the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and has been heralded for his role in advocating for a strong early response to COVID-19. In Cardy’s case, he didn’t “cross the floor” but nonetheless a rare sighting of a political leader switching sides and his experience going from the political hinterland to inner sanctum likely not lost on Jenica Atwin.

A candidate for the Liberal leadership in Newfoundland famously switched sides afterward. John Crosbie was a Minister of Finance under longtime Premier Joey Smallwood. Crosbie, and other younger Liberal MLAs, like Clyde Wells, chafed under Smallwood’s leadership and left Caucus, sitting as ‘Reform Liberals’. When Smallwood announced his retirement, Crosbie stepped up to run as Liberal leader. Smallwood came back to oppose him and won. Crosbie then left the Liberals to run as a Progressive Conservative, winning, and sitting in the new government of Frank Moores. He would go on to be elected federally in 1976, serve as Joe Clark’s Finance Minister, become a major contender for the 1983 PC national leadership, serve as a heavyweight in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, and serve as Newfoundland’s Lieutenant-Governor. Quite a career for a party switcher! Clyde Wells stuck with the Liberals and would serve as Premier, famously scuttling the Meech Lake Accord promoted by his old caucus ally, Crosbie.

BC has had three significant floor-crossings that led to a restructuring of political support bases. Leading up to the 1952 election, Conservative MLA WAC Bennett left that party and migrated toward to the Social Credit Party. The leaderless party won the plurality of seats in 1952 and Bennett became its leader (and, ultimately, Premier) after the election. Bennett governed for 20 years.

mcgeer-williams-bennett-and-gardom
Seismic shift in BC politics when three senior Liberal MLAs join Bill Bennett and the Socreds in 1974 (Vancouver Sun)

Then, following his defeat in 1972, his son Bill Bennett, the new leader, recruited former Liberal leader and MLA Dr. Pat McGeer, Allan Williams, and Garde Gardom to join the Socreds, along with PC MLA Hugh Curtis. All four floor crossers would play major roles in Bennett’s government, which lasted 11 years. He also attracted former Liberal leadership candidate Bill VanderZalm to run as a Socred in 1975 too. Then, in the 1990s, there was a two-step process. First, four Social Credit MLAs left the former dynasty in ruins when they turned away from the fledgling BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell, to join the BC Reform Party in 1994. Their defection ultimately benefited the ruling NDP – Glen Clark would win a majority in 1996 while losing the popular vote. Campbell corralled the Reformers after 1996 and remaining Reform MLA Richard Neufeld crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, marking the formalization of a de facto coalition. Neufeld served as BC Liberal minister for seven years and the BC Liberals governed continuously for 16 years.

(A footnote to the 1975 example above is that Frank Calder, British Columbia’s first First Nations parliamentarian, lost his NDP nomination in the riding of Atlin leading up to the 1975 election. Having been first elected in 1949, Calder brought his winning ways to the Socreds and was elected yet again. Four years later, he lost by one vote to the NDP’s ‘Landslide’ Al Passarell. Passarell would later cross the floor from the NDP to the Socreds).

Some floor crossings backfire spectacularly. Arguably, the WildRose defections to the ruling PC’s under Jim Prentice destroyed the political careers of those MLAs, like former leader Danielle Smith, and boomeranged disastrously on the Prentice government. It looked too cute, too orchestrated – the overdog overdoing it. Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing to the Liberals in 2005 helped save the minority Martin government for a time, but arguably galvanized Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the forthcoming election in 2006.

Some leave and come home again. The most famous example is Winston Churchill going Conservative-Liberal-Conservative. The aforementioned Jean Lapierre left the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois upon the election of Jean Chretien as Liberal leader. He returned to the Liberals under Paul Martin and was a senior cabinet minister in his government. Then there’s Joe Peschisolido who was a leading Young Liberal who drifted right and was elected as an Alliance MP then crossed the floor to the Liberals. After a stint out of politics, he was elected again as a Liberal MP in 2015 before his defeat in 2019. Gordon Wilson was Liberal leader in BC from 1987 to 1993. He left, with fellow MLA and wife Judi Tyabji, to form his own party, the PDA, and won his seat again in 1996 under that banner. He was recruited by NDP Premier Glen Clark to join the NDP cabinet in the late 1990s and then ran for the leadership of the NDP, unsuccessfully. Since 2001, he has been out of elected politics, but he did go ‘home’ again in 2013 when he made an intervention in that year’s election campaign in favour of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark (who once worked for him) and against NDP Leader Adrian Dix (who once recruited him). Never dull in BC.

Some floor crossings weren’t meant to be. BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen left the BC Liberals over unresolvable disagreements. He joined the BC Conservatives, but within months, left them over unresolvable disagreements. Conservative MP Eve Adams defection to the Liberals on the eve of the 2015 election reeked of desperation. Her career was soon over, at least for now. A husband and wife both crossed the floor from the New Brunswick PCs to the Liberals in 2007, but by 2010 they were both out of politics. As noted above, one-term West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country Liberal MP Blair Wilson got into some hot water and would eventually leave the Liberal Caucus to sit as an independent. Just before the 2008 election, he migrated to the Greens to become their first ever MP in Canada. He failed in his bid for re-election, as a Green.

Some cross and never look back, like Scott Brison and John Crosbie. Dr. Keith Martin was elected as a Reformer in 1993 and ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2004 and served as a Liberal until 2011. David Kilgour was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP. Even though John Turner was his brother-in-law, he stayed as a PC, but after Turner left, Kilgour crossed to the Liberals and continued from there.

Some floor-crossers are peripatetic.  Paul Hellyer was elected as a Liberal MP in 1949 and went on to be Minister of National Defence under Lester Pearson and a major contender for the leadership of the Liberals in 1968, placing second on the first ballot.    He fell out with Pierre Trudeau the following year and tried to form his own party.  He then crossed the floor to the PCs and in 1976, he ran for the leadership of that party.  He would return to the Liberals in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for a nomination in his old seat in 1988.  He then formed another party, the Canada Action Party, and would try to merge it with the NDP.  At the age of 97, he may have another run in him, but for which party? (fun fact: he’s the longest serving member of the Privy Council)

There’s also the interesting case of Garth Turner. Elected as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1988 and ran for the leadership of the party in 1993. He lost his seat and returned as a Conservative MP in 2006. He defeated Liberal Gary Carr who had himself changed parties having been elected originally as a provincial Tory. Turner then fell afoul of the Conservatives, went independent, flirted with the Greens, and finally joined Stephane Dion’s Liberals before Lisa Raitt ended his political career in 2008.

Countless others have gone to sit as independents only to return later.  Some are sent because they were naughty, others leave because they’re mad but come back once they’re happy. BC MLA Blair Lekstrom left caucus over the handling of the HST but came back after a leadership change.  MLAs and MPs who never leave, and feel that they are team players, can often be annoyed and upset when those that leave are welcomed back.  If handled properly, it can be seen as beneficial to the greater good that they return.  Alternatively, it can be seen as rewarding bad behaviour.

Surrey MP Chuck Cadman was elected as a Reform MP and carried on as an Alliance MP, but prior to the 2004 election, he lost his nomination.  He ran as an independent and won.  In 2005, battling cancer, he was pivotal in keeping Paul Martin’s minority government in power during critical votes, against the wishes of his former colleagues. Liberal MP John Nunziata was bounced from the Liberal fold in 1996 after voting against Paul Martin’s budget. He showed them – he won re-election as an independent in 1997. They showed him – he lost to the Liberals in 2000. Gilles Bernier was a Progressive Conservative MP elected in the 1984 Mulroney sweep, but in 1993, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell would not approve his candidacy due to fraud charges (he was later acquitted). Bernier ran as an independent and won his seat. He was appointed Ambassador of Haiti by Prime Minister Chrétien. He managed to miss the 1993 PC wipeout and appointed ambassador. The benefits of going against the grain may have inspired his son, Maxime.

There’s Bill Casey who was elected three times a PC, and twice a Conservative before announcing he would not support the Harper government’s budget. He was bounced and ran as an Independent, winning 69% of the vote in 2008. A clear case of constituents agreeing with his reasons for opposing his party. He would resign his seat later, before returning in 2015 as a Liberal MP – making it four different ways he had been elected – PC, Conservative, Independent, and Liberal.

And, of course, there is Jody Wilson-Raybould. Considered a ‘star candidate’ in the 2015 campaign, and made Minister of Justice, JWR’s shocking confrontation with her then-colleagues over SNC Lavalin gripped Ottawa for months in early 2019, culminating in her departure from the Liberal Caucus. She won re-election as an Independent and appears intent to seek re-election on that basis.

Another ‘star candidate’ from BC, David Emerson, shockingly defected to the Conservatives days after the 2006 federal election effectively marking the end of his career in electoral politics.  The ink was barely dry on the ballots when he reversed course, causing much consternation among his former Liberal supporters. But it provided Stephen Harper with experience and depth in cabinet for two years and demoralized the Liberals, who sat out of power for nine years.  Emerson, like JWR, did not have any roots in the Liberal Party. It is with some peril that political managers recruit candidates from outside the party – those candidates do not ‘owe’ anyone and tend to be untethered to party loyalties. In JWR’s case, the reasons for her leaving the Liberals were front page news for months. It was not unexpected that there would be a break-up (in fact, she was bounced from the Caucus). Emerson, on the other hand, gave no hint he was leaving. He was approached, he agreed. The voters that elected him, and party members that supported him, were caught unaware. There is the old argument – “I can get more done in government than Opposition”, which is a reason provided by Jenica Atwin.

Alberta PC MP Jack Horner crossed over to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977, joining the Trudeau cabinet.  There has rarely been a good time to be a federal Liberal in Alberta and this wasn’t one of them.  His constituents did not reward him for his efforts in the subsequent election. Following the Atwin switch, I talked to a grizzled old Prairie Liberal who was shuddering with Jack Horner flashbacks. The ‘betrayal’ of constituents by Horner was not unlike that felt by Emerson’s constituents in Vancouver-Kingsway. Around the time Horner ran into the arms of Pierre Trudeau, Winnipeg’s James Richardson, a member of PET’s cabinet, left the Liberal Caucus never to return, sitting as an independent. He tried to set up his own party then eventually helped found the Reform Party of Canada after he left elected life. My sources tell me his crossing was notable in that he told the Clerk, “I’m sitting over there from now on”. And off he went.

Many, many, many more floor crossings happen in the imaginations of political back roomers.  There is always the threat of a disgruntled MLA or MP taking off.  Most of the time, that representative is governed by some restraint.  The voters elected him or her largely on the basis of their party label.  Imagine you worked hard in support of your party only to find that the recipient of your hard work crossed no-man’s land to sit in enemy trenches?  Many would-be floor-crossers have surely taken a step back when realizing they would have to explain their actions to the volunteers who backed them.

To be accepted by the voters, the conflict usually has to be real and substantive and/or that representative must have a lot of personal credibility.  If it’s opportunistic, and imposed from the top, it’s not likely to go down well with the voters or the supporters of the sending and receiving party.  Not many like a turncoat, especially when they weren’t part of the process.

What floor crossings can demonstrate is the dynamic state of our political system.  In the ‘first past the post system’, parties are always in a state of constant movement.  Parties continually search for a plurality of votes and seats, and attracting someone who represents a set of ideas or representative of a community of interest is a way to grow a party’s base.  A floor crossing can give a tiny party a foothold in Parliament. Parties that fail to unify their members behind a common purpose can disintegrate, with floor crossings one such manifestation.  Unlike the United States, Canadian parties can rise and fall (and rise again).  There is much more fluidity.  Real policy differences – such as Quebec independence – can lead to dramatic changes and fracture coalitions.  Strong leadership glues coalitions together, unifying disparate elements.  When it comes down to it, elected representatives are just people, unbound to their party label.  They have the ability to exercise their free will.

As University of Manitoba Political Science professor Royce Koop puts it, “When an MP crosses the floor, it’s a beautiful reminder that in Canada we cast our votes for candidates, not parties”.

— with files from contributor Jay Denney

Talking BC politics on the Herle Burly

It was an honour to be asked to appear on the Herle Burly to talk about the recent BC election. It’s a wide ranging hour-long interview preceding the weekly Herle Burly political panel.

David Herle launched Canada’s premier podcast prior to the 2019 federal election. Along with his crew, Jenni Byrne and Scott Reid, they are a good listen because they’ve been there – they know campaigns, politics, and government from the inside out. They know how to win and they have been cut down hard by the voters too. Don’t trust a politico who says they always win! It means they don’t stick around for the hard times.

David was an ‘old’ Young Liberal when I came onto the scene in the mid 1980s. Like me, he was raised in a part of the country (in his case, Saskatchewan) not known for generating Liberals, especially in the 1980s. At my first national convention in 1986, he was the outgoing president of the Young Liberals of Canada, and soon to be at the very heart of Paul Martin’s brain trust. David guided Mr. Martin through leadership campaigns, one of the most successful reigns as Finance Minister in Canadian history (if not the most), and during his prime ministership.

Have a listen… and subscribe to the Herle Burly to keep informed and entertained.

If you watch the YouTube version, note the carefully curated stack of books – some great picks on BC / Canada for you:

BC history/politics

  • Canyon War, by Daniel Marshall
  • Sojourners in the North, by Lily Chow
  • Breaking Trail, Len Marchand’s bio with Matt Hughes
  • At the Bridge, by Wendy Wickwire
  • Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in power 1972-1975, by Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh
  • Vancouverism, by Larry Beasley

Canadian history/politics

  • Big Tent Politics, by Ken Carty
  • Elusive Destiny: the political vocation of John Turner, by Paul Litt
  • Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the romance of Canada, by Laurier LaPierre
  • Vimy, by Pierre Berton
  • Contenders, by Allan Gregg, George Perlin, and Patrick Martin

Would have also included All-Native by Rudy Kelly, and He Moved a Mountain: the Life of Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Land Claims Accord, by Joan Harper, if I hadn’t loaned them out!

The Leslyn Lewis factor in BC

One of the interesting storylines out of the Conservative leadership race that elected Erin O’Toole is the remarkable rise of Leslyn Lewis

Leslyn Lewis (source: Wikipedia)

According to the spreadsheet of results, Lewis won the popular vote, nationally, on the second ballot.

Lewis60,316
O’Toole56,907
MacKay54,165
Nation-wide results, 2nd ballot – raw votes

But the votes weren’t in the right places. Due to the weighted system of counting votes (every riding is equal to 100 points no matter how many members voted), Lewis slipped to third and was eliminated. This is exactly what happened to BC Liberal leadership aspirant Michael Lee in the 2018 race that elected Andrew Wilkinson – he had the most raw votes but was eliminated prior to the final ballot.

While there is a lot to chew over in the riding-by-riding results, I took a quick look at the seventeen Conservative-held ridings in British Columbia. And who won in these seats on the first count? Leslyn Lewis.

1st CountVotesVote %Weighted
Lewis4,10331.63%29.33%
O’Toole3,75628.95%29.64%
MacKay2,99823.11%24.66%
Sloan2,11516.30%16.37%
Conservative-held seats in British Columbia

This provides more than a glimpse of Lewis’s support among Conservative members in their heartland (and lack of support for Peter MacKay and his message).

Lewis’s strongest showing was in Chilliwack-Hope where she garnered 53.17% of the vote on the first count. By the second count, Lewis had 66% support in the riding, when she was eliminated. Who won on the final count in Chilliwack-Hope? O’Toole with 78% of the vote, rising from 21% on the previous count – a massive increase of 57 points.

She also won the first count in blue BC seats despite not having any MP endorsements. Many of the MPs endorsed MacKay and O’Toole.

As noted, the problem Lewis had was that her votes were concentrated in ridings with a strong membership base. The type of member that likes her tends to live in conservative areas. Her raw vote per weighted vote was high compared to O’Toole and MacKay. In the non-held seats in BC, where the membership base is lower, Lewis did not do as well. Overall, in BC, she had 24.93% of the weighted votes (points) on the first count compared to winning 29.33% of the weighted votes in the Conservative-held ridings.

Looking at first count in the 17 Conservative seats in BC, Lewis won 8 ridings on the first count, O’Toole won 6, and MacKay 3.

The raw votes ranged from 1,246 in Langley-Aldergrove to only 253 in Steveston-Richmond East. The two Richmond Conservative ridings had the lowest votes cast among incumbent seats in BC, suggesting that the membership drive did not take hold in the Chinese-Canadian community.

Congratulations to Erin O’Toole on the win. He clearly benefited from down ballot support from Lewis and Sloan. His team likely knew where those votes were heading on the final count, as long as he stayed ahead of Lewis. Just as Lewis was an underdog, so was O’Toole, and the underdogs combined to win.

As for Leslyn Lewis, it’s clear she has a very strong base within the party, especially in BC’s held seats. One wonders if she had more time to organize in the weaker ridings, and started from a stronger position, that she would in fact be the leader today.

A Contender for best political book on leadership conventions

As Conservatives await the results of the ballots mailed in from party members across Canada, most political observers would agree that conventions are not quite as exciting or dramatic as they used to be. One of the best Canadian political books of all-time – and likely the best on leadership conventions – masterfully chronicled the race. Contenders was co-authored by a journalist (Patrick Martin), an academic (George Perlin), and a pollster – the legendary Allan Gregg.

The Progressive Conservatives had a succession of nail-biting leadership conventions between 1967 and 1983 where the outcome was far from clear before the voting started. In 1967, the party dumped former prime minister John Diefenbaker, desperately (and sadly) trying to hang on, with the real battle place between Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, and former Justice minister, BC’s E.Davie Fulton. Other than Kim Campbell, Fulton’s campaign was the most significant waged by a British Columbian in living memory, and he was backed by two future leaders – Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Stanfield won on the fifth ballot against Roblin and led the party through three unsuccessful election campaigns against Pierre Trudeau.

After Stanfield’s third loss, there was another convention where the outcome was far from clear. Quebec’s Claude Wagner was in a position of strength, while Brian Mulroney – then 37 years old and an unelected party insider, made a fully funded full-court press. Wagner and Mulroney were 1-2 on the first ballot, but lurking behind in third place with less than 12% of the votes was a 36 year old MP from Alberta, Joe Clark. Clark jumped to second place on the next ballot and won on the 4th ballot thanks to support from Mulroney voters.

Contenders picks up the story in January 1983 in the office of the manager of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Joe Clark was surrounded by his key advisors while he awaited the results of a leadership review vote, essentially, a referendum on his leadership.

Clark had led the PC’s to an electoral win in 1979, albeit a minority. It was the PC’s first win in sixteen years. However, the Clark PC’s lost the popular vote by five points and failed to make enough headway in Quebec to win a majority. Nevertheless, they were in office and could govern with the cooperation of six Creditiste MPs from Quebec. The Liberals were in disarray. Pierre Trudeau announced he was retiring and a leadership race began. Like any rookie government, Clark’s administration was unsteady. Finance Minister John Crosbie brought in an unpopular budget that included a significant hike to the gas tax. Clark’s team underestimated the Liberals’ appetite for power. Behind the scenes, Liberal MPs were rallied for a confidence vote to force a do-over election. The PC’s failed to secure the Creditistes. Then-NDP MP Bob Rae moved a motion of non-confidence and the government shockingly fell on December 13, 1979. Clark went to Rideau Hall to ask for an election – which he would decisively lose to Pierre Trudeau, returning to take the helm of the Liberals one last time.

It was a crushing blow for Clark who was barely 40 years old by this time. He would have felt that he had a lot of politics left in his tank. As Contenders describes, he had modernized the party organization and fundraising apparatus and made significant efforts to build the party in Quebec, thus far, without electoral success. He had most of caucus on side but the stench of defeat lingered within the party. In 1981, the party held its first post-election leadership review where 66.1% of the delegates voted against holding a leadership convention, allowing Clark to continue as leader. He did, but it was hardly a resounding win.

We now rejoin Clark in the backroom of the 1983 leadership review in Winnipeg where he is awaiting the results, the 1980 electoral defeat, and tepid leadership endorsement of 1981 on everyone’s mind. The threshold of success this time was to be above 67%. Fewer than 66% would leave Clark no choice to call a convention (though he, technically, only needed 50%+1). As Contenders describes, “What they had not considered was if the vote should fall in between”. It did – 66.9% voted against a leadership convention. It was a maddening result for the Clark forces.

Chapter 1 describes the conversation around the room as Clark considers his future – soldier on as leader and withstand ongoing challenges to his leadership or ask the party executive to call a full-blown leadership convention and win his own job back, thereby securing his position. At that time, the Trudeau Liberals were deeply unpopular, but PC members feared the return of Liberal John Turner. Turner was very much ‘1a’ to Trudeau’s ‘#1’ in the first two terms of the Trudeau government. Out of politics, it was a only a matter of time before Turner returned, and he was popular. Many PC members were uncertain, or simply didn’t believe, that Clark could beat Turner.

A striking aspect of the scene described in Chapter 1 is youth. Not only was Clark a young man, he was surrounded by peers in their 30s and 40s. The threat to his leadership, Brian Mulroney, who organized fiercely behind the scenes for a leadership convention, was also of the same generation. It was a vigorous time in politics fought by those who had been in the trenches together and against each other since university days.

Clark went for a full-blown convention, unleashing pent-up energy within the party that would culminate in the June 1983 leadership convention in Ottawa. Watching on TV from afar, it was my first awakening in terms of party politics. It was exciting, the personalities were strong, and the outcome far from certain.

Contenders leads the reader through each of the four ballots at the convention with flashbacks to the campaign trail, providing many vignettes of toil and struggle. The three main contenders – Clark, Mulroney, and John Crosbie – are covered in great detail. The secondary players – Michael Wilson, David Crombie, and, bizarrely as it seems now, Peter Pocklington, are also discussed. The role of Amway salesman as a political force is touched on. The race had it all!

It was a long campaign and momentum shifts take place. At one point, Mulroney’s campaign is in disarray while Clark nurtures a strong base of support and Crosbie gains momentum. Would Crosbie overtake Mulroney? As any political warrior can relate, key campaign moments change the narrative. Initiative taken, blunders made, obstacles that could not be surmounted, such as Crosbie’s inability to speak french.

Contenders takes us to the convention floor and the release of the first ballot results. With 2,991 votes cast, the winner needs almost 1,500 votes to win. Clark has a strong lead after the first ballot with 1,091 votes but he is a ways away from victory. Mulroney at 874 has breathing space over Crosbie at 639. It was a long way down to Michael Wilson at 144. As is often the case, optimism crashes on the windswept rocks of political reality and, as the authors write, “the vultures had gathered”. Wilson and Pocklington moved to maximize what was left of their political capital and walked the convention floor. It appeared they were walking to Crosbie. As noted, “Straining reporters, still ignorant of the decision the two had made, began screaming into their microphones, ‘they’re going to Crosbie!'”. But Pocklington and Wilson actually went to a “relieved” Mulroney. It was good television.

After the second ballot, it was apparent that it would not be Joe Clark’s day, though he still led, with a thin 64 vote lead over Mulroney. One of the more dramatic scenes was Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, a Crosbie supporter, pleading with Clark to face reality. Clark stood firm and Crosbie was vanquished on the third ballot, which was now a 22-vote margin between Clark and Mulroney. Crosbie’s delegates wanted change, as did a majority of delegates, and Mulroney easily disposed of Clark on the fourth ballot by a margin of 1,584 to 1,325.

We elect leaders differently now. The outcome of the last Conservative leadership vote between Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier could not have been closer. However, it was just a matter of counting votes. There was no between-ballot jockeying. Is that a good thing? As much as I LOVE watching delegated conventions, whether it was the 1983 PC convention, the 1984 Liberal leadership, the 1986 BC Social Credit drama, or participating in the 1990 and 2006 Liberal races, it has its downsides too. A universal, preferential ballot for members, weighted by ridings, is not perfect but is a more democratic form of leadership selection. This is the manner in which the Conservatives are selecting their leader this weekend, and the one used in two previous BC Liberal races. It may lack drama, but drama alone should not decide how we choose leaders. A universal system draws upon skills that leaders need in a general election (and of course, you can find exceptions).

A benefit of hotly contested leadership races is the bonds that are formed among politically active members, particularly young people. The 1983 PC convention saw a generation of young politicos, particularly in Mulroney’s camp, move on to key roles in the ensuing years and decades, while maintaining a very tight network. The role of youth in the 1983 convention was influential as the authors describe the internal party coalitions that brought support to the respective candidates.

When it was published in 1983, the authors could not foresee the events that would take place. Brian Mulroney conclusively dispensed with John Turner in the 1984 election, winning the most lopsided majority in Canadian history and dominating Quebec – and won a second majority in 1988. Joe Clark became a highly respected Minister of External Affairs, and later, point man on constitutional negotiations. While there would have been no love lost between the two, they found a way to work together. Within the decade, Mulroney’s magic wore off and the PC’s decimated, eaten alive by the forces of regional alienation in Western Canada and Quebec. Joe Clark would return to the PC leadership for the 2000 election, winning an improbable seat, and helping keep the party alive – until Peter MacKay led it into a merger.

Contenders, like few other Canadian political books, not only describes what happened in the 1983 race, but how it happened, combining the disciplines of journalism, academia, and research. It informs us about what has happened since. Rarely do we see such insight from a Canadian political book that is informed by what it is actually like on the campaign trail. While it is now almost 40 years since that convention, and the publication of Contenders, it remains a Canadian classic, a reminder of a bygone time.

June 23, 1990: the rise of Chrétien, the demise of Meech, and more

June 23, 1990. It was quite a day.

It was a historic collision of events – the day the Liberal Party of Canada had two future prime ministers on stage and the day that the 1987 Constitutional Accord (The Meech Lake Accord) expired.

The events leading up to June 23rd and the events that followed are among the most remarkable in Canadian history and have been unmatched since. The era of 1987 to 1995 led to a transformational shift in Canadian politics resulting in the revival of Quebec separatism and the ascendancy of western populism, combining to destroy the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. More fundamentally, this era would feature three epic constitutional struggles – the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord, and, ultimately, the 1995 Quebec referendum. It also produced an uneasy, but workable Liberal partnership that defined an era of governance and restored Canada’s fiscal health.

On stage in Calgary that day, Jean Chrétien – derided as ‘Yesterday’s Man’ – prevailed as leader on the first ballot. He issued his rallying cry, “We have work to do”. He would take over the party following decisive defeats in 1984 and 1988, backed by a loyal and capable network across Canada but fighting against perceptions that his time had passed. His rival, Paul Martin, would join him in helping steer the currents of change in the Liberals’ direction.

The Long Road to Calgary

From 1988 to 1990, I led the BC Young Liberals (at the time, it served both provincial and federal Liberal parties). I loyally campaigned through the 1988 federal election for John Turner, and had a front row seat to grassroots party politics. Despite a spirited run, and a debate performance for the ages, Mr. Turner was outgunned by the well-oiled Big Blue Machine and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney had two centrepiece initiatives – the Meech Lake Accord and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The election was about Free Trade; the internal debate in the Liberal Party was about Meech.

When the Meech Lake Accord was agreed upon in 1987 by the all-male group of premiers and the prime minister, it was a surprise – in fact, to many, a welcome surprise in that Quebec was signing on to a constitutional deal. Liberals divided quickly on the point and Turner, painted into a corner, backed the position of the federal government, the Province of Quebec, and indeed all the provinces. Many in his caucus were opposed, but the real threat was outside his caucus. His predecessor, Pierre Trudeau came out strongly against Meech as did the runner-up to Turner in the 1984 leadership convention, Jean Chrétien. Chrétien, who had resigned his seat in Parliament in 1986, was not constrained by caucus discussions. He made his views known straight to the people.

As a Young Liberal among many during that time, there were countless discussions and arguments in university pubs about the minutiae of the Meech Lake Accord. Whether it was Quebec being a distinct society, a veto for all provinces, the absence of Senate reform, or federal spending powers, there was passion and a thirst to understand the details. There was a real sense of the gravity of the Accord and that the country was literally at stake. Maybe it was because I was young at the time and feel nostalgic about that period, but I have not encountered such a spirited and momentous time in politics since then.

Following the defeat of the Liberals in 1988, the leadership race was on, beginning formally in 1989. It was a given that Chrétien would enter the race. Many would say he never left the race after 1984. He had a well-established network of seasoned veterans across Canada bolstered by a diverse group of grassroots supporters. It was more than a machine though. Chrétien was a very unique force in Canadian politics. He was a populist crowd-pleaser who was strongly associated with the federalist cause in the 1980 Quebec referendum and the fight to patriate Canada’s Constitution in 1982. His biography Straight from the Heart flew off the shelves. He was more popular than John Turner across Canada, but despite internal Liberal machinations, he would have to wait. Turner would get a second chance.

By the time 1989 rolled around, grassroots Liberals were picking sides between Chrétien and the main contender Paul Martin Jr., who had just been elected MP in 1988. The son of a namesake Liberal cabinet heavyweight, Martin had his own national network to fall back on, along with the support of many in the Turner network. He was the pro-Meech candidate (along with Sheila Copps).

This was in the days that leadership conventions were delegated affairs. The grassroots of the party came alive as members jockeyed to become delegates and participate in an historic democratic event that came along once a decade (or less). Organizers for Chrétien and Martin fanned out across the country calling in chits, identifying the local power brokers (then identifying the people who really did the work), and putting together delegate slates and the memberships to get those slates elected.

In a bygone era, longstanding members might contest for a spot and be elected on their own personal standing. By 1984, that quaint practice had largely been disposed of and by 1990 it was a straight slug fest between two rival, well-financed teams. Yes, Sheila Copps was a presence, along with fellow MPs John Nunziata and Tom Wappel but this was a Chrétien-Martin fight and everyone knew it.

While largely staying out of the fray in 1989, I had a chance to meet and hear many of the candidates. I took a liking to a darkhorse candidate, Clifford Lincoln, a former provincial cabinet minister from Quebec. He resigned from Robert Bourrassa’s cabinet protesting the infringement of language rights (“Rights are rights are rights”) and from there jumped into the Liberal leadership race. His campaign winnebago pulled up to my house in Maple Ridge to meet the locals as he sized up his prospects. The moral of this story is that despite meeting him a few times, Lincoln never made the ask for support. I have seen this many times over the years – candidates who go 99% of the way then fail to make the sale. This was not a problem for Chrétien and Martin. They were going full Glengarry Glen Ross.

Into 1990

By the time 1990 arrived, the leadership campaign was heating up while the wheels had been falling off Meech. Prime Minister Mulroney needed to have the Accord approved by every provincial legislature, but as provincial elections took place, he was left with less cooperative partners.

Frank McKenna stormed to victory sweeping all of New Brunswick’s 58 seats in 1987. He would not be following his predecessor’s direction and was the first crack in the armour among the premiers.

Then in 1988, the Manitoba NDP government lost a confidence vote. An election was triggered in what was expected to be a waltz to victory for Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservatives over new NDP leader Gary Doer. Along came Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, a ferocious opponent of Meech Lake, taking control of the campaign agenda. Carstairs started with one seat and rocketed to 20 seats, just behind Filmon’s 25, forcing a minority parliament. Meech stalled. In my Forrest Gump-like youth politics life, my pal, Iain, and I drove to Manitoba to campaign for Carstairs. She was a force who galvanized opinion in urban Winnipeg. In due course, the position of the Manitoba government would change, demanding amendments to the Accord and holding back ratification. Rather than be led by Carstairs on the issue, Filmon seized it, bringing along Carstairs and Doer to the final negotiations. The 1988 Manitoba election was also noteworthy for the election of NDP MLA Elijah Harper. (My former colleague, Greg Lyle, ran Filmon’s campaign and would go on to fight the Meech wars as Principal Secretary – I’m looking forward to his retelling of that some day).

However, there would be no greater challenge for Prime Minister Mulroney than Newfoundland’s new Liberal premier, Clyde Wells. Elected in 1989, Wells, an accomplished lawyer, campaigned against Meech with relish. He became a folk hero among Liberal anti-Meechers. Back in the day, the national media was much more robust and the views of Wells, Filmon, Carstairs, et al. had a lot of airplay alongside the Prime Minister and the Meech defenders.

In BC, both the Vander Zalm Social Credit government and the Opposition NDP, led by Mike Harcourt, supported the Meech Lake Accord. The anti-Meech forces were led through the media by CKNW radio host Rafe Mair and politically by Gordon Wilson who was leading the then-seatless BC Liberal Party. As a new leader and political unknown, Wilson was able to fill a political vacuum and gain profile, while building key political relationships with Carstairs, Wells, and Chrétien.

While Mulroney held his Quebec fortress solid, with lieutenant Lucien Bouchard by his side, he had a grassroots brushfire on his hands in Western Canada. Denied seats in the 1988 election, Preston Manning’s Reform Party was clearly on the rise and, in 1989, it elected its first MP, Deb Grey, in an Alberta by-election. Manning was a fierce opponent of Meech and making life difficult for western right-wing premiers like Bill Vander Zalm, Don Getty, and Grant Devine who were finding it increasingly difficult to justify their support for the Accord.

That was the lay of the land heading into Liberal delegate selection meetings slated for March 1990. Each riding would elect 12 delegates – 4 adult males, 4 adult females, and 4 youth (2 female, 2 male) delegates (ages 14-25).

Teams were being solidified. I was on the fence. My heart leaned toward Chrétien, though I was looking for something a bit different. My Dad had always gravitated to the long shots, backing Eric Kierans in 1968 (not a contender) and always favouring the John Crosbies and Don Johnstons from the comfort of his arm chair. I had taken a look at Clifford Lincoln but he had actually dropped from the race in any event. I spent hours debating Sheila Copps at a friend’s kitchen table into the wee hours of the morning, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t agree with her on issues important to me (though I admired her for making a hard pitch). I did like Paul Martin but I just didn’t feel like he was the right guy right then. So, humming and hawing, I paid a visit to friends at Chrétien HQ in Vancouver. While there, a key Chrétien organizer, Joan Lew, taught me one of life’s lessons, paraphrasing her, “Mike, whether or not you support our candidate, make up your mind. No one is going to care what you think four weeks from now.” Gulp. I supported Chrétien. Joan was right, and I jumped in and never regretted it.

The next 3 or 4 weeks was a blitz of candidate selection meetings around British Columbia. It was a Chrétien buzz saw, as it was in most provinces, with slate after slate delivered for le petit gars de Shawinigan. Working as a naive youth volunteer, I began to see how the sausage was made in the sausage factory learning more life lessons. One key takeaway is that the Chrétien campaign had discipline. There was respect for campaign leadership. BC’s leader was Ross Fitzpatrick and everyone knew that he had Mr. C’s ear before and after everyone else. Another key point was getting real about the numbers. You had a list, you had to know the list. Get the memberships in, and once you got ’em, get ’em out. And make sure those delegates don’t turn! They better be solid.

On one occasion, I happened to be in Alberta and rode along to a delegate selection meeting in Wetaskiwin with my good friend Raj Chahal, a Chrétien organizer. It was the same there as it was in BC or any other province – working the list, getting the bodies out, right down to the presence of the prominent local lawyer make sure he was seen to be doing his part. There was something reassuring knowing that this process replayed itself in 295 ridings across Canada in similar ways, with regular folks showing up to have their say.

In my own riding of Mission-Coquitlam, I had a responsibility to deliver for Chrétien. My federal candidate and mentor, Mae Cabott, was strongly for Chrétien so were aligned and getting organized. There was an independent contestant for delegate, my Dad. I knew that Chrétien was going to be a hard sell on the old man, but I dearly wanted him to be elected and come to Calgary. So, at the meeting I stood up and spoke for the Chrétien slate, but requested that the good people of Mission-Coquitlam leave a spot open for Dad, who had paid his Liberal dues in years past. A hopeful pitch that didn’t work! But he did get elected as an Alternate.

At one point, some of the Young Liberals supporting Chrétien were sent to our own buzz saw experience in Kamloops where we had a slate contesting the Martinites. We were put up at the then-Stockman’s Hotel and went out to win hearts and minds. Some misguided soul in the Chrétien campaign thought a good strategy would be to promote me to be a guest speaker addressing Kamloops Young Liberals, with free pizza! My first sign that the evening’s vote would not go so well when 18 year old Martin organizer Todd Stone showed up for free pizza and made sure no one else did. The Martin team won the day and, since many were good friends, it wasn’t so bad. But in another life’s lesson, you can often as much fun losing (if you fight the good fight). We left Kamloops the next day with a few sore heads following a night’s entertainment at the Jack Daniels, with a letter from the hotel manager chasing us to Vancouver seeking damages after a drunken pillow fight went horribly wrong.

The 1990 leadership race also featured the active presence of the South Asian community. For the Chrétien side in BC, Prem Vinning was ubiquitous. When doing the math, you might expect 50 to 100 members voting in a typical BC riding to elect 12 delegates who will help choose, maybe, the next prime minister of Canada. A small membership in the Fraser Valley or Williams Lake had as many delegate spots as downtown Toronto. That’s a lot of power for a small number of people. Now, if you are able to recruit, say, an extra 50 members who will vote for your slate en masse, it’s a huge advantage. The flexing of muscle by the South Asian community – and other communities – has manifested itself in a substantial improvement in the diversity of MPs and MLAs across Canada since then. Membership strategies were not unique to the Chrétien campaign or the South Asian community. For example, pro-life MP Tom Wappel won 5% of the vote on the strength of the pro-life network within the Liberal Party. Moreso now, because of the decline in the role of membership participation and active riding associations in political parties, party politics is an open door for groups that want to influence policy and outcomes. But everyone has a chance to do it – that’s democracy. I saw it first hand in 1990.

The Convention and the demise of Meech

The meetings were over, the debates had been had. Proxy battles were being fought with Chrétien candidates and Martin candidates contesting the national executive positions and youth executive positions in Calgary. I became campaign assistant for a friend who was seeking the role of VP External Relations. We’ve worked on a few campaigns together since.

Thousands of Liberals were finding their way to Calgary including well over a thousand young people. Lifelong friendships were formed throughout the process and in Calgary. Where can you find so many people that share your affliction – political involvement – in the same place? That year, it was Calgary. It was a very exciting time.

By the time the Calgary Convention had arrived, my Dad had been upgraded from Alternate delegate to Full delegate status. It was kind of like an Aeroplan upgrade for longtime Liberals. Once he had his delegate package, he finally declared for Paul Martin. We spent an afternoon on the convention floor, me with my Chrétien gear, him with his PM for PM button, chatting with old and new friends. A great memory bonded by our mutual passion for politics, similar to many multi-generational political families across Canada.

In parallel to the leadership convention was the demise of Meech. It was a surreal overlap of events in a time before social media or cell phones.

Much had happened leading into June. Federal cabinet minister Jean Charest issued his report outlining constitutional recommendations to break the impasse. Colleague Lucien Bouchard would not stand behind it leading to his ouster from Cabinet, and his rededication to Quebec sovereignty. It was a shocking turn of events and huge blow to the Mulroney government, especially given that Mulroney had personally recruited him straight into cabinet on the strength of their personal friendship.

Following the Bouchard conflagration, high stakes constitutional negotiations took place in early June in Ottawa. Extreme pressure was placed on the holdouts with CBC Newsworld breathlessly reporting every hallway conversation to the millions of Canadians tuning in. Premier McKenna found his way to support a compromise. Manitoba promised to bring back a compromise to its Legislature. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells was the most adamantly opposed but even he relented and promised to bring it back to St. John’s for a vote. At one point, Wells was intent on bolting the negotiations but was blocked by other premiers who pleaded with him. Ontario Premier David Peterson, recipient of much laudatory pro-Meech media coverage for his role in backstopping Mulroney, put six Ontario senate seats on the table to make the deal happen. It was dramatic deal-making stuff. And it looked like it would work.

Largely ignored throughout this entire process were Canada’s indigenous people. Indigenous leaders had been excluded from the 1987 negotiations that led to the Accord in the first place and had grave concerns over the impact of the Accord on their rights. While the premiers may have found their pathway to say yes, an incredible turn of events was yet to unfold.

By the time the Calgary convention convened on the week of June 18th, the Meech Lake Accord was barrelling to its conclusion. The Accord would expire on June 23rd, meaning ratification would have to take place by Friday, June 22nd.

Following the ‘successful’ Ottawa negotiations in early June, Prime Minister Mulroney made a publicly reported comment that the had “rolled the dice”. His lack of post-agreement humility angered premiers who had given way to pressure and compromise and caused a media firestorm. He had made the task of ratification much harder.

Ratification was fought on two provincial stages – Newfoundland and Manitoba. My recall of events is imprecise, so I defer to official accounts. On June 21st, while the Calgary Convention was underway, Prime Minister Mulroney went to Newfoundland to speak from the floor of the Legislature – an extremely rare move for a sitting prime minister to address a provincial legislature, pleading for ratification. Meech was really on the ropes.

Manitoba required unanimous consent of the Legislature to allow for the ratification process to take place before June 23rd. A single MLA, Elijah Harper, denied approval for that consent effectively stopping Meech dead in its tracks.

Clutching an eagle feather in his hands, Elijah Harper exercised the rules of parliament and his rights as MLA to reject an Accord that, he argued, had ignored indigenous people. He refused to grant leave on eight separate occasions between June 12 – 21st.

CBC: Elijah Harper, June 1990

In Calgary, delegates were straining to catch snippets of these events on televisions where they could find them, or hear reports from other delegates. The delegates choosing the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada were in a vacuum-sealed bag, finding it difficult to keep up with fast-moving events. No cell phones, no social media. It was bizarre to be part of a historic event and not entirely knowing what was happening with the other.

With Elijah Harper delivering a mortal blow to Meech Lake, Newfoundland opted not to proceed with a ratification vote, which signed the Accord’s final death warrant. By the end of the day on June 22nd, Meech was dead.

Throughout the month, Chrétien, who had opposed Meech, had avoided taking a strong position on the June compromise, walking a delicate line. Now that Meech was dead, he may have thought he had steered clear.

Saturday, June 23rd

I’m sure there was no doubt in the minds of the Chrétien and Martin senior commands when they woke up on the 23rd. The numbers were the numbers.

Yet for impressionable Chrétien youth delegates, you heard all sorts of wild convention floor rumours. So and so was defecting to Martin or this riding or that riding had switched sides. And some, in fact, did switch allegiances. The Martin campaign fought valiantly until the end – and they did sing a lot.

Meanwhile, Clyde Wells arrived in Calgary sparking an electricity in the building, meeting up with Chrétien for a famous hug. In his book, The Big Red Machine, author Stephen Clarkson writes that repercussions of the hug were immediate. Wells was blamed for refusing to bring Meech to the floor of the legislature for a vote, thus denying Quebec.

At one point when I was on the floor of the convention hall, I looked up into the seating area and saw Pierre Trudeau in a bright orange shirt, thinking, “He’s here?” It hadn’t occurred to me that he would attend. There were a lot of strong feelings in the hall, fuelled in large measure by Meech.

But any notion that there might be a second ballot was made ridiculous by the results of the first. Of the 4,888 votes cast at the Calgary Saddledome, Chrétien stormed to victory with 56.8% of the votes. Martin was well back with 25.2% while Sheila Copps garnered 11%.

Chrétien mounted the stage and paid tribute to Mr. Turner and to his rivals, announcing that “we have work to do”. Meanwhile, Liberal MPs Jean Lapierre (a senior campaign official for Martin) and Gilles Rocheleau quit the party before they even left the building, joining Lucien Bouchard in a newly formed breakaway group in Parliament.

At that point, it was time to leave the Saddledome and enjoy the after-party.

Post-script

From that dramatic day, numerous events flowed from it.

  • Prime Minister Mulroney, with Joe Clark at his side, would try again to deliver a constitutional deal – The Charlottetown Accord. It went to national referendum and failed decisively.
  • Decimated in Quebec by Lucien Bouchard and by Preston Manning in Western Canada, the two-term Progressive Conservative government was reduced to only two seats in the 1993 election. The Bloc Quebecois became Official Opposition and the Reform Party elected over 50 MPs. The PC’s ultimately merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada. It has a fundamentally different character today than it had prior to 1993.
  • Quebec voters elected a separatist government under the leadership of Jacques Parizeau who readied the province for a second referendum. Lucien Bouchard was the heart and soul of the Oui campaign, which led the polls, but narrowly lost (49.42%) to federal forces (50.58%). Bouchard would shortly become the next Premier of Quebec.
  • Ontario Premier David Peterson rashly called a snap election in the aftermath of the Meech collapse. He badly misjudged the mood of his voters and was shocked by Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP that September – the first and only NDP government in Canada’s largest province.
  • Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon called an election after Meech Lake and won a majority government. Carstairs’ Liberals were pushed down to third-party status and have never recovered.
  • A year after Meech, Gordon Wilson’s BC Liberals rose from zero seats to Official Opposition, a platform from which he would oppose the Charlottetown Accord.
  • Elijah Harper put indigenous issues more firmly on the agenda in constitutional discussions and went on to serve as a Liberal MP. He was voted Newsmaker of the Year by Canadian Press in 1990.
  • Paul Martin would become one of Canada’s most successful Finance Ministers before serving as prime minister from 2003 to 2006.

What of Jean Chrétien? He successfully navigated through treacherous waters to win three successive majority governments, a feat not accomplished since Mackenzie King. He took a fractious party and brought it together – for a time – to govern and win. Underwriting his three majorities was a near total dominance in Ontario due to the vote split between the PCs and Reform Party/Alliance. Lucky? Sure, but smart enough to take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses. His partnership with Paul Martin led to a huge improvement in Canada’s fiscal health and the slaying of the deficit`.

But for a modest shift in Quebec opinion in the 1995 referendum, Chrétien could have been a short-lived prime minister who had failed to defend federalism. Instead, federal forces rallied in the final days and he scraped by, ultimately bringing forward the Clarity Act which has helped put the constitutional question into hibernation. Starting on the back foot with Quebec voters, the reclaimed support by his third election. For over 25 years, Canadians have been spared the constitutional wars, as exciting as they may have been.

These were exciting times. As a 21-year old university student, it was a privilege to be a witness to these historic events and the leaders who drove, steered, harnessed them. I haven’t seen a time like it since.

(Comments welcomed)

Trudeau Liberals win plurality with lowest ever popular vote

It’s not uncommon in Canada to have a party with the most seats have fewer votes than another party.  But the 2019 election will be the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote.  Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% is the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.

Justin Trudeau’s minority win is much lower than other minority wins we have seen over the past sixty years.  Joe Clark’s government came to power in 1979 after winning a plurality of seats with 35.9% of the popular vote, over 4% lower than Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.

Over under

Aside from Justin Trudeau and Joe Clark, other prime ministers and parties that had more seats, but fewer votes:

  • 1896 – Wilfred Laurier Liberals lost popular vote by 7 points to Charles Tupper’s Conservatives
  • 1926 – William Lyon MacKenzie King’s Liberals lost popular vote 43% to 45% for Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives
  • 1957 – John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives had 39% compared to Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals 41%

Then there is MacKenzie King who had fewer votes and fewer seats in 1925, but continued to govern thanks to the Progressives which held the balance of power.  That could have happened following October 21st had Scheer won more seats, but fallen short of a majority.

So, that’s where the Trudeau Liberal win on October 21st fits in the context of Canada’s electoral and parliamentary history.  It’s not a majority and it’s underwhelming in terms of popular support.  With the lowest popular vote since Confederation to form government, the Trudeau Liberals can reflect on how it approaches governing where two-thirds of the electorate voted for other parties.

Your Election Night yardstick

It could be a long night.  Results will be coming in rapid fire from Cape Breton to Cape Scott.  How to make sense of it all?

Here are five charts to help you follow along on election night.

Chart 1: 2015 federal elections results by region

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In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took 184 of 338 seats – a majority is 170.  As the chart above shows, the Liberals swept the Atlantic and North (35 for 35), took a majority in Québec, two-thirds of Ontario, and a bigger slice than usual on the Prairies and B.C.

Chart 2: Conservative pathway to victory

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 7.38.12 AM

During the campaign, I wrote about the potential pathways to power for the Conservatives, based on historic examples from Diefenbaker to Harper.

Winning 160 seats is a ‘stretch goal’ tonight, and if Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives pull it off, it will likely be because they won three-quarter of the seats from B.C. to Manitoba, and took at least half of the seats in Ontario.

Chart 3: Liberal pathway to a majority

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 7.37.02 AM

No one is really talking about the prospect of a Liberal majority and appears quite unlikely unless there is a last minute surge.  I looked at the ways Liberals have won in the past. A minority may look like Paul Martin’s win in 2004, but if they come close to, or pull off a majority, it may look like this:

  • Hold support in Central Canada
  • Limit losses in Atlantic Canada and the West to about 12-15 seats

Chart 4: the ‘over-under line’

Slide1

No party has won a majority government with less than 38% of the popular vote.  It’s not impossible, but it hasn’t happened yet.

No party has won a plurality of seats in past 60 years with less than 35% of the vote.  Perhaps tonight is that night.

See What is the magic number for a majority in #Elxn43? and A deeper dive into the conditions for majority and minority governments.

Chart 5: the B.C. Battleground

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The first campaigns of Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau were the high water marks for Liberals in British Columbia between 1968 and 2015.  During most of that time, the leading conservative party had the plurality of seats, with two NDP exceptions.  Will the Liberals be able to hold 2015 gains tonight? Will the Conservatives return to historic patterns? Will the NDP hold its own and surge to a plurality in B.C.? Will the Greens add to their current tally of two seats?  And what about JWR?

See two posts on the BC landscape:

Tune in tonight to Global BC’s election night coverage.  See you there.

Vegas for political nerds – where the ‘smart money’ is going in #elxn43

It’s Vegas for political nerds. It’s one thing to read the polls, listen to your gut, and have a prediction.  But what about putting hard-earned, cold cash on the line? That’s exactly what UBC’s Sauder School of Business offers with their Election Prediction Market.  You can invest up to $1000 to test your theories.

The prediction market has been taking place in one form or another since 1993.  Here’s why they do it:

The exclusive purposes for conducting the prediction markets are teaching and research. Participants learn first-hand about the operation of a financial futures market and, because they have an added incentive to do so, learn more about the political or economic events associated with the contracts. As a research project, our markets generate valuable data that provide insights into market and trader behaviour.

There are four markets where you can bet:

Popular Vote Share Market

This is my least favourite as the bettors slavishly follow the latest poll results.  Sometimes you will see some sentimental investing, but the results basically mirror poll aggregators.   The payoffs aren’t great unless the pollsters are very wrong.

As the chart below indicates, the betting lines have closely mirrored public opinion during the writ period.  In the past 7 days, the Liberals have traded at a high of 33.69% and the Conservatives peaked at 33.88%. The NDP fever crested at 18.98%, but miserly traders currently peg them at 17.54% (no more Jagmentum, says the market).

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 7.52.59 AM.png

Seat Share Market

This one is more interesting and has more volatility.  Right now, the market has the Liberals and Conservatives both at about 39 cents, based on 132 seats each in the House of Commons.  There is likely some betting upside for one of the parties.

The NDP are trading at 11 cents, which translates to 37 seats.  This seems high.  If only I knew how to short sell.  The Bloc Québécois comes in at 10 cents or 34 seats, while the Greens are a penny stock (1.25 cents), translating to 4 seats.  It’s depressing when an historic breakthrough is only trading for a penny!  They don’t even make pennies even more.

This market has seen the NDP move from a low of 7 cents to almost 12 cents in the past week, while the Liberals have dropped from 47 cents to 39 cents.

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 8.02.46 AM.png

Parliamentary Plurality Market

Now, here’s a place to make 2:1 on your bet.  Only one party can win a plurality so it’s feast or famine.  The Liberals have moved from 71 cents to 50 cents over the past week, while the Conservatives have moved up from 31 cents to 46 cents.

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 8.19.43 AM

With the Conservatives and Liberals both in the 50 cent range, that’s a tidy payoff if you get it right.

Majority Government Market

The market has moved away from a majority government during the writ period.  Now, “any other outcome”, ie. minority government, is trading over 76 cents.  Still, if you are convinced that is the likely outcome, it’s still giving you in the neighbourhood of a 30% return.

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 8.21.12 AM

A Liberal majority is trading at 12 cents and a Conservative majority is trading at 10 cents.  Wouldn’t it be nice to get an 8:1 or 10:1 return on your investment.

The market is moving all the time so be quick if you see an opportunity.

The OVERWHELMING CONSENSUS is that there will be a minority government. We know the Holy Trinity – public pollsters, pundits and political scientists – are never wrong and would never lead the market astray!

Uh, so this was the 2013 BC election prediction market:

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I can tell you there was a very sweet payoff.  More than 10:1.

The prediction market at least proves one eternal truth.  There is a sucker born every minute, 19 times out of 20.

Where does the NDP pathway lead?

Jaggernaut.  Jagmentum.  Jagmeet Singh has been the story of the campaign since the English-language debate – in English Canada – where the NDP, for most of its history, has won its seats.

Until 2011, the NDP’s political game plan was all about Canada outside Québec – the rest of Canada (ROC). It has only won multiple seats in Québec twice – the previous two elections.  Historically, NDP vote in ROC ran far ahead of its vote in Québec. But in 2011 and 2015, that equation changed, with NDP vote in ROC running behind the national number, because of NDP strength in Quebec.

Table 1: NDP popular vote and seat share (1997 to current poll estimates in 2019)

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Layton’s Quebec surge of 2011 did not translate the same way in ROC. Even at its peak in 2011, the NDP was only at 26% of the vote in ROC, which translated into the NDP winning only 19% of ROC seats, running well behind the Harper Conservatives. Happily for the NDP in that election, 59 seats of the 75 seats in Quebec went orange, more than doubling their best-ever seat count in a federal election.

In 2015, the NDP plummeted in ROC from 26% to 18% – a lower level than all four of Jack Layton’s elections between 2004-2011, and resulted in only 11% of the seats from ROC.  – half of those (14) were in British Columbia.  The remaining seats were in Alberta (1), Saskatchewan (3), Manitoba (2), and Ontario (8).  

Table 1: NDP by the numbers in Canada and ROC (1997-2015)

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Jagmentum?

Clearly, the NDP leader has been the recipient of well-deserved positive media coverage since the English debate, and he has campaigned well throughout the writ period.  How does it translate into seats?

In ROC, the NDP looks to be at or above where it finished the 2015 election under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair.  However, they will likely lose all or almost all of their 16 seats in Québec.  That’s a lot of seats to make up in ROC, especially when they are still a fair distance below the historic ROC highs of Jack Layton’s 2011 campaign (44 seats) and Ed Broadbent’s effort in 1988 (43 seats in ROC).  In other words, to come out even in this campaign with 2015 (which was a disappointment that caused the resignation of Mulcair), Singh will have to pull off a record performance in ROC.

Even if Singh’s NDP pushed it to Laytonesque levels (26% in ROC), the NDP would still be far behind the major parties.  As it sits right now, the NDP may be the fourth place party in the House of Commons behind the Bloc Québécois.

The more impactful consequence may be the NDP feasting on Liberal votes in suburban battlegrounds where the Conservatives stand to benefit.  NDPers can also rightly assert that their rise may come at the expense of Conservatives in other places, such as the BC Interior where two NDP incumbents face tough re-election battles.

The campaign momentum is surely a welcome reprieve from the doom many NDPers feared.   To their credit, the federal NDP has finally shaken off its extended phase of self-destruction and unsteady start of Mr. Singh. It was only four years plus a month ago that the NDP were on the very verge of power with Thomas Mulcair.  Now, here they are celebrating momentum that will deliver, what, 30 seats?   Singh’s comeback started with winning the Burnaby South by-election, and, now, the NDP has stabilized itself on a footing very consistent with its history, but a long way from what a 2015 pathway looked like: Quebec domination plus seats in all regions.

So, who is really cheering Jagmentum in the final week? Scheerly, you can figure that out.

Liberal pathways to victory

If the Big Red Machine rolls to victory on October 21st, how will it be done? Regional seat balances have been like whack-a-mole this election.  In this post, I look at examples of Liberal wins, and the regional coalitions they were based on, since the 1960s – and which of these scenarios Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might emulate this time.  (See my recent post on Conservative pathways to power).

Will it be:

  • Lester Pearson’s near miss in 1965
  • Pierre Trudeau’s close shave in 1972
  • Pierre Trudeau’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
  • Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ win in 1997 (a model he used three times), or
  • Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
  • Or a repeat of the all-in majority of 2015?

Pearson 1965: the near miss

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He loved baseball but couldn’t hit the home run in 1965

Lester Pearson won a minority in 1963, defeating John Diefenbaker’s minority government that was elected in 1962.  The 1965 campaign was their fourth battle and Diefenbaker seemed out of gas.  Pearson recruited three star candidates in Québec by the names of Pelletier, Marchand, and Trudeau.  Despite boosting support there, Diefenbaker stubbornly clung to support in the rest of Canada (ROC), and rolled back Liberal support to some extent in the west and Atlantic Canada.  The math came up a little short with Pearson winning 49% of the seats (131 of 265).  Tommy Douglas’s NDP held the balance of power along with the Social Credit/ Créditistes.  Pearson won almost three-quarters of Québec, a majority in Ontario, but did poorly in the West.

Won big in Quebec, majority in Ontario, but lost badly in the west

PET’s close shave in 1972

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Land was Strong, but campaign wasn’t

Pierre Trudeau’s first win was in the height of Trudeaumania in 1968.  He won two-thirds of the seats in B.C. along with a strong showing in Central Canada.  By getting more out of the west, he had done what Pearson couldn’t do – win a majority.

The mood soured by 1972.  In the rematch with Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Trudeau’s Liberals were very much on the back foot, and reduced to 38% of the vote and 109 seats in a Parliament of 265 members.  The Liberals sunk below thresholds that Pearson had won with in 1965, scraping by with a two-seat margin over the PC’s because of its strength in Québec where they won over half of their seats (56).

Won big in Québec, lost majority in Ontario and Atlantic, lost badly in the west

PET’s Central Canadian Special in 1980

Screen Shot 2019-10-12 at 2.20.33 PM.pngIn his fifth and final election campaign, Pierre Trudeau drove the Central Canadian Special right down the gut of Canada’s electoral map, winning a majority with 147 of 282 seats (52%).  He took 99% of the seats in Québec and a majority of seats (55%) in Ontario.  He had a little help from the Atlantic too, where  he had a better result (59%) than the previous two examples.  In the west, the Liberals were virtually extinguished, winning two seats in Manitoba.  Nuttin’ in BC, Alberta, or Saskatchewan.  Blanked in the North as well.

Dominated Québec, majorities Ontario and Atlantic, nowhere in the west

Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ in 1997 (and 1993 and 2000)

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“Ontario was really good to me, like really really really good”

In his first re-election campaign, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals took 155 of 301 seats for a majority.  It was not the mandate that Chrétien received in 1993 but it was still a majority.  No party has ever relied upon one region so thoroughly as the Liberals did in this campaign – Ontario – where they won 101 of 103 seats.  Ontario accounted for 65% of the Liberal Caucus.  This was due to a stubborn vote split where the PC’s and Reformers played chicken with the Liberals coming out on top.  Even the NDP couldn’t figure out how to steal some seats from the the wily Shawinigan fox in Ontario.  Unlike PET and the Central Canadian Special, Chrétien only won about one-third of the seats in Québec, and also failed to win a majority of seats in the Atlantic and the west, though he had a much stronger showing in the west and north than PET did in 1980.  Chrétien’s Ontario, baby! formula was entirely based on the opposition’s lack of unity.  Though it worked three times, it was not sustainable.

Dominated Ontario, got enough from Québec, Atlantic, and west to reach majority

Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004

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And now the opposition gets organized?!

Paul Martin looked like an unstoppable force when he won the Liberal leadership in 2003 but he was bedevilled by lingering scandal from the decade-old Liberal government.  New Conservative leader Stephen Harper chipped away, as did new NDP leader Jack Layton.  The opposition was now much stronger than the Chrétien years.

Martin did better in the Atlantic and came in about the same in the west as Chrétien, but he could not replicate the Ontario dominance and fell a bit in Québec.  Losing 31 seats in Central Canada cost him the majority.  Under any other circumstance, winning 70% in Ontario would be a huge accomplishment but it wasn’t the 98% that Chrétien had, and he couldn’t make those seats up in other regions.

Strong majority in Ontario and Atlantic, weak in Québec and the west

Justin Trudeau’s all-in majority in 2015
Justin Trudeau’s majority in 2015 (54% of seats) was unlike these other examples.  It was much more balanced than his father’s majority in 1980 – not as dependent on Québec and much stronger in the west, winning almost 30% of the seats there (the most of any example discussed).  Justin won two-thirds of the seats in Ontario, half in Québec, and 100% in Atlantic Canada.  There were no glaring regional weaknesses.  Of all the examples, this was the most regionally representative.

Strong majority in Ontario, dominant in Atlantic, majority in Québec, competitive in west

Chart 1: Results from six Liberal wins (popular vote %, and seat %)

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What it means for Justin Trudeau, this time

Screen Shot 2019-10-13 at 1.19.16 PMThe examples discussed demonstrate that you can win by utterly dominating a large region, as PET did in 1980 and Chrétien did in 1993, 1997, and 2000.  However, if there’s not domination, there must be some regional balance.  Justin Trudeau’s pathway is regional balance.

It looks like it will be very difficult to replicate the regional strength he had in 2015.  Seats will be given up in the Atlantic.  The Bloc Québécois is a stronger contender this time making it difficult to hold 40 seats (not impossible).  The likely pathway to victory is a strong majority of seats in Ontario and Atlantic, bolstered by getting enough seats out of Québec and the west to win a plurality.  Without regional dominance, it depends on broad popular support, which works on a rising tide, but can be fatal when the tide goes out.  The Liberal 2019 position looks very similar to the regional shape of Paul Martin’s 2004 results.  It does not look like 1972 when PET nearly lost his first re-election bid.  Justin Trudeau is much stronger in ROC, but weaker in Québec than his father.  The final week will show if the Liberals can stay on a pathway to victory.  Like the Conservative pathway, it is not an easy one.

**

Table 1: Results from six Liberal wins

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