The BC Battleground

British Columbia has 42 of Canada’s 338 seats. When the votes are being counted on the evening of October 21st, British Columbians may push one of the contending parties into a plurality, or even a majority.

In 2015, the Liberals won the most seats in British Columbia for the first time since 1968. Heading into BC on election night, the Liberals were three seats short of a majority. A record 17 Liberal seats west of the Rockies gave them a majority, and a comfortable one at that.

Table 1: 2015 BC results and current standings

Party Vote Seats At dissolution Incumbents seeking re-election
Liberals

35%

17

17 (1 gain, 1 loss) 16
CPC

30%

10

8 (1 loss, 1 vacant) 8
NDP

26%

14

13 (1 loss) 10
Greens

8%

1

2 (1 gain) 2
Independent JWR 1

Between 1968 and 2015, the leading conservative/right wing party – whether that was Progressive Conservatives, Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, or Conservative Party – had the plurality of seats in BC 11 out of 13 times.  Through most elections, the blue team has been at the top while the NDP and Liberals flipped positions.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Liberals were mainly in decline due to a strong sense of western alienation and atrophy of the party’s base in BC.  In the 1990s, when the NDP were in power provincially (and unpopular mostly), federal NDP vote plummeted while the populist Reform and Alliance campaigns surged – a populist crossover – demonstrating that BC voting is not strictly a left-right continuum.  The Liberals also gained during this time, but plateaued between 1993 and 2006.  As the NDP regained strength post-2001 (now out of power provincially), the Liberals slipped again, this time reflecting the party’s woes nationally. It all changed in 2015 when Justin Trudeau brought it full circle back to 1968.

Chart 1:  Popular vote and seats in BC from 1968 to 2015

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Liberal (red); NDP (orange); leading conservative party (blue): PC (1968-88); Reform (1993-97): Canadian Alliance (2000); Conservative (2004-15)

2019 context

The Conservatives will be looking to restore the historic pattern and win a plurality of seats, as they have consistently done over the years.  The Liberals hope to make the 2015 election a new, sustained pattern.

The NDP will be looking to BC for survival. With its gains in Quebec evaporating, the NDP is desperate to hold its remaining 28 seats in English Canada – half of which are in BC. 

The Greens have an opportunity to grow their caucus from two to five or more on Vancouver Island. Just like the Nanaimo byelection, it requires traditional NDP voters – and Liberals – to move over to the Greens.

BC’s regional picture

While BC has 42 seats overall, the federal election will play out in four regions that have unique battlegrounds.

The Lower Mainland has a majority of seats and is multiculturally diverse. Within the Lower Mainland, there are key differences, similar to core Toronto seats and the 905.  The urban core (Vancouver and adjacent communities) have different characteristics than the outer suburbs and Fraser Valley – different housing density, immigration patterns, and transportation habits, for example.

While both regions are more rural and less multicultural than the Lower Mainland, they have very different voting patterns. Vancouver Island leans granola and the Interior/North leans hardhat.

Vancouver Island

The Island’s seven seats may elect representatives from four separate parties. The NDP managed to win 6 of 7 Island seats with only 33% of the vote, a very efficient result, but one that puts them on the edge of major losses if they fall back in public support. The Greens proved this point in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection, catapulting over the NDP to win their second seat.

Table 2:    Vancouver Island 

2015 Vote%

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

NDP

33%

6 5

4

Greens

24%

1 2

2

Liberals

21%

0 0

0

Conservative

21%

0 0

0

Elizabeth May is the safest MP on the Island.

Jagmeet Singh is not well known on Vancouver Island and is under significant pressure to hold the NDP’s remaining five seats. The NDP held off a strong Green charge in Victoria in 2015 due to the strength and popularity of MP Murray Rankin. He’s not running again and his successor lacks his personal standing. Of the NDP’s four remaining ridings, the NDP won two of them with 35% of the vote and the other two with 38% to 40%. They are all vulnerable to a Green surge that could either overtake them or split the vote and elect a Conservative, or even a Liberal.

The Liberals are keying on Victoria, a seat that Liberal David Anderson held between 1993 and 2006, and look longingly at Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, which erstwhile Reform/Alliance MP Keith Martin won for the Grits in 2006. Anderson and Martin had strong personal brands so it remains to be seen if the Liberals can win with lesser-known candidates.

The Conservatives are likely pinning their hopes on Courtenay-Alberni and North Island-Powell River. These ridings are more resource dependent and less urban, and overlap with areas where the provincial BC Liberals are strongest. The Conservatives will be in the conversation in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, where vote splits could deliver a Conservative win with 28%-30% of the vote.

Upshot:
A Green ‘breakthrough’ would be a minimum of 3 seats.

A ‘successful’ NDP salvage mission would be maintaining a minimum of 3 seats. Holding 5 seats would be a remarkable accomplishment considering the low expectations.

The Conservatives need a minimum of two gains to contribute to a winning plurality nationally.

The Liberals will be happy with one seat. The action is elsewhere for them.

Vancouver Core

Thirteen seats in the western portion of the Lower Mainland, around Vancouver’s urban core including the North Shore, Burnaby, and Richmond, strongly favoured the Liberals and punished the Conservatives in 2015.

Table 3:    Vancouver Core  

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

Liberal

44%

8 7

6

CPC

26%

1 1 1
NDP

24%

4 4 4

Green

5%

0

0

0

The NDP won four seats in this area due to a concentration of vote in historically strong seats. The Greens are not a contender in any seats on BC’s mainland.  If they get close anywhere, it would probably be West Vancouver-Sea to Sky-Sunshine Coast where they have some history of strong showings and the absence of an incumbent.

There is limited opportunity for the Conservatives to claw back seats in 2019 in this area, but Steveston-Richmond East will be highest on its list. It’s a rematch between the 2015 Liberal and Conservative candidates. Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido is a former Canadian Alliance MP and Reform Party candidate, a maverick, who has been an active campaigner in Richmond for almost twenty years.

The Conservative breakout opportunity would be winning Vancouver South and seats on the North Shore, but they have already punted their candidate from the winnable seat of Burnaby-North Vancouver, a costly loss where a smarter candidate strategy would have made a difference.  In the blue target riding of Vancouver South, the Conservatives are running former MP Wai Young (Young ran a distant fourth. Her breakaway civic party clearly cost the centre-right NPA a majority on Council and was decisive in enabling former Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart to win the mayoralty with only 28.7% of the vote. Interesting footnote is that Young’s party released a poll from Hamish Marshall’s firm in dying days of campaign that showed Young only three points behind the NPA mayoralty candidate and Kennedy Stewart 14 points in the lead.  On election night, the NPA lost to Stewart by half a point while Young had less than 7% of the vote).

The Liberals are seeking to win Vancouver Kingsway from the NDP with well-known news anchor Tamara Taggart, but she needs national wind in her sails to knock off popular MP Don Davies.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh hopes to retain his Burnaby South seat and would appear to be in good shape. Svend Robinson is campaigning hard in Burnaby-North Vancouver, however, with the demise of the Conservative candidate, it’s hard to see how he overcomes Terry Beech and the Liberals. There is no orange wave yet in Metro Vancouver to lift the boats of NDP candidates in Metro Vancouver.

Then there is Vancouver Granville. Independent Jody Wilson-Raybould hopes to make history by being the first indigenous women re-elected in BC and to pull off the rare feat of being elected as an independent and the first to do so in BC since Chuck Cadman in 2004. Last election JWR and the Liberals took 44% of the vote with the NDP and Conservatives taking 27% and 26% respectively. JWR will need to take many NDP (and Green votes), along with Liberals who stick with her. How many Liberals will stick by their brand? Can the Conservative make it to 30% and win on a split? At this point in the campaign, it looks like JWR may have the largest pool of potential votes.

Upshot:
Overall, this area looks fairly static.

There are not a lot of gains in this area for the Conservatives. To win a plurality of seats in Canada, they need to win seats like Steveston. To win a majority, they need to win seats like Vancouver South and the North Shore. Right now, it looks like two seats is a realistic goal.

The NDP hope to hold their four seats but do not have a very good opportunity to add others.

The Liberals should be in a position to hold at least 6 of the 8 they won in 2015.

Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

Further from the Vancouver core, there are a baker’s dozen of suburban and Fraser Valley seats stretching east to the Fraser Canyon. There are a lot of commuters, an especially strong South Asian population, and traditional conservative farming areas. You could call it BC’s 905, to some degree.

The Liberals picked the Conservatives’ pocket in this region in 2015, winning unexpected seats in places like Langley, Abbotsford, and James Moore’s old seat in Coquitlam, while gaining a new dominance in Surrey.

Table 4:             Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

Liberal

40%

8 9

9

CPC

34%

4 2 2
NDP

21%

1 1 0

Green

4%

0

0

0

The Conservatives used to ‘own’ Surrey so must claw their way back, but it won’t be easy. The Liberals took four seats handily in 2015.  Sukh Dhaliwal’s Newton seat is a fortress, while Surrey-Centre, Fleetwood-Port Kells, and Cloverdale-Langley City were all won with healthy margins and over 45% of the vote. In 2015, Dianne Watts preserved South Surrey-White Rock for the Conservatives in the face of a red tide in Surrey, but in a 2017 byelection, the Liberals stole the riding, leaving the Conservatives with only one seat west of Langley. Now, the Liberals may hold South Surrey-White Rock because they have a candidate advantage, and withstand what should be a Conservative pick-up.

Of all the regions in BC, this is the one where the Conservatives need to make major gains. Liberal wins in Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, and Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon were won with 33% to 37% of the vote and are at high risk. The Conservatives will also key on Delta, but incumbent Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough is popular. The Conservatives can count on three Fraser Valley seats between Langley Township and Chilliwack.  Long-time MP Mark Warawa passed away recently leaving a vacancy, however, the Conservatives should have little difficulty winning the seat.

The NDP’s only MP in this region, Fin Donnelly, is retiring, opening up a three-way fight in Port Moody-Coquitlam. This will be a tough one for the NDP to hold. The Liberals and Conservatives both have an opportunity to win a new seat.

Upshot:
This will be the region to watch. It could go 7-6 or it could go 10-3 either way, and have a major impact on national seat totals. If Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, he will have made major gains here.

The Liberals have very little history of winning seats in this region  Taking even half of the seats would represent a sustained shift in BC’s federal voting patterns.  Winning 4 or 5 out of 5 seats in Surrey would provide the Liberals with an ongoing power base that complements its traditional base in Vancouver.

As for the NDP, they have historically won seats in Surrey and northeast suburbs, but have been eclipsed by the Liberals.  They have not yet demonstrated they have the formula to flip the dynamic and may well be shut-out here on election night.

Interior and North

BC’s Interior and North holds nine of BC’s forty-two seats. This is an area where Conservatives should make their easiest gains, at the expense of the struggling NDP, and another potential pickup from the Liberals in Kelowna.

Table 5:  Interior/North

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election

CPC

37%

5 5

5

Liberal

30%

1 1 1
NDP

28%

3 3 2

Green

4%

0

0

0

Until they won in Kelowna in 2015, the Liberals had not held a seat in the Interior since 1979. BC’s Interior cities have gradually become more urbanized with stronger university presence over the years in Kelowna, Kamloops, and Prince George. A Liberal win in 2019 would make a turning point, and they hope to do the same in Kamloops with star candidate Terry Lake, a former BC health minister.

NDP seats in the South Okanagan and East Kootenay are very vulnerable. High profile NDP MP Nathan Cullen is retiring in Skeena-Bulkley Valley. However, this is a riding with different politics than the rest of the Interior and North – perhaps belonging with Vancouver Island region, and will likely stand as the lone NDP seat ‘beyond Hope’.

Upshot:

It should be a major disappointment for Conservatives if they do not take 8 of 9 seats in BC’s Interior. Given their struggles to make gains in urban Canada, they must clean up outside the major cities.

The Liberals hope to maintain its Interior beachhead in Kelowna. While they are making a spirited charge in Kamloops, a win there would be political gravy. The Interior is not a region that is critical to win in order for the Liberals to hold power.

NDP disaster would be losing Skeena-Bulkley Valley. A key part of holding that seat is the First Nations vote, where it is one of the highest in Canada (I’ll look at First Nations vote in more detail in another post). Holding its two southern Interior seats looks unlikely in the face of a Conservative challenge combined with a new leader that is struggling to make his impact in BC.

Provincial wrap-up

National momentum can make a big difference in BC where three and four-way fights may send an MP to Ottawa with 30% of the vote. Certainly, BC is a region where the Conservatives have a significant opportunity. If they are able to reach north of 35% of the vote and have more than a 5% lead over the Liberals, they could win a majority of BC’s seats.

It’s fair to say the Liberals have a candidate advantage this election.  Almost all of their incumbents are running and they are strongly contesting what they feel are winnable seats.  The Conservatives squandered Burnaby-North Vancouver and, overall, their BC team lacks recognizable figures.  Both parties can look back to 2004 when the Paul Martin Liberals, and BC master strategist Mark Marissen, put a lot of focus on gaining seats in BC, recruiting Ujjal Dosanjh and David Emerson, and issuing a ‘made in BC’ agenda. That extended to the 2006 election when the Conservatives won the federal election, but paradoxically lost some ground in BC.  It takes commitment and support from party leadership to recruit candidates and strengthen the ground game. 

As outlined in an earlier post, the Conservative pathway to power depends on winning in the neighbourhood of 75% of the seats in Western Canada. While Alberta and Saskatchewan are looking very good for Andrew Scheer, winning at least half of BC’s 42 seats will be a necessity.

As of today, the Conservatives are poised to make some gains, nibbling away at seats in the Interior and possibly on the Island.  The big question mark is whether the Conservatives can challenge the Liberals’ strong position in the Lower Mainland.

We can expect to see four parties, and quite possibly an independent, win on election night.  We can also expect to see BC play an important role in shaping the next government.

As of today, expect the parties to be in the following range:

Table 6:     Party ranges Island (7) Vancouver core (13) L.M. suburbs / Valley (13) Interior / North (9)
Liberal 0-2 6-10 3-10 0-2
CPC 0-4 0-5 3-10 5-9
NDP 0-6 3-5 0-3 0-3
Green 1-5 0 0 0
Independent 0-1

My general range estimates provide a universe of 24 seats of the Liberals, 28 for the Conservatives, 17 for the NDP, 5 for the Greens, and 1 for JWR.  Conversely, the floor for parties in BC looks to be 9 for the Liberals, 8 for the Conservatives, 3 for the NDP, and 1 for the Greens.  So, that’s a range of 21 (low) to 75 (high) seats across the party universes. Obviously, I’m hedging with two weeks to go, but in BC, it’s wise to hedge.  Given the nature of this campaign, a soft breeze one way or another may tilt three and four way races into the lap of our next prime minister, or into the lap of a leader – Mr. Singh or Ms. May – who will decide who is the next prime minister.  They both represent BC ridings – if BC doesn’t ‘elect’ a majority government at the polls, a BC leader will likely help ‘elect’ a new government at Rideau Hall or in the House of Commons.

Conservative pathways to power

Does Andrew Scheer have a pathway to power?

One way to find out is to ask how the math worked for six (Progressive) Conservative wins dating back to 1962.  Excluding the freakishly large Mulroney win in 1984, examples of Conservative wins provide insight as to how Andrew Scheer can find his pathway to power.

Of these six examples, only two resulted in majorities.  One example – Mulroney ’88 – was the ‘Quebec-Alberta bridge’, where the PC’s dominated in both.  The second example – Harper 2011 – was domination in English Canada.

Diefenbaker 1962

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 10.45.59 AM.png

Nice maps

Dief won a minority government in 1962 following a massive majority he won in 1958.  The Progressive Conservatives won 44% of the seats on 37.2% of the popular vote.  The plurality was based on winning two-thirds of the seats in the West and North and two-fifths of the seats in Ontario.  He lost the huge gains he had made in Quebec.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Clark 1979

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Majority: close but no cigar

It was a long wait for the PC’s to win another government and Joe Clark came close to a majority (48% of seats) with less than 36% of the popular vote.  No government has won a majority with less than 38%.  Clark lost the popular vote by over 4%.  How did he win a plurality? Domination in the West, winning almost three-quarters of the seats, and winning a strong majority (60%) of seats in Ontario. While he won a majority of seats in Atlantic Canada, he was virtually shut out of Quebec. This template was virtually the one Harper won a majority with in 2011.

Won big in the West, won majority in Ontario, but blown out in Quebec

Mulroney 1988

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Mulroney did what no other Conservative could do in last 60 years – win Quebec

Brian Mulroney won everywhere in 1984 in what was truly a change election. However, in 1988, the ‘free trade election’, it was much more competitive.  In the West, Mulroney had to contend with an upstart Reform Party and strong NDP campaigns.  He managed a majority of seats in the West (54%) but it was lowest level of the six examples – while Alberta was dominated by PCs, BC went NDP and Liberals made gains in Manitoba.  The PC’s did not win a majority of seats in Ontario (47%) but came close.  The big difference was Quebec.  Unlike the five other examples, Mulroney won big in la belle province, taking 84% of its seats.  The Quebec-Alberta bridge delivered a majority – the PC’s held 57% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Won big in Quebec to complement bare majority (50%) of seats in combined West/Ontario

Harper 2006

In Stephen Harper’s first successful election, he won a minority (40% of seats) with 36% of the popular vote.  The Conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the West but less than two-fifths of the seats in Ontario.  The shape of Harper’s win was similar to Dief’s in 1962 except that Dief won in Atlantic Canada and Harper fell far short.  Both did poorly in Quebec.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Harper 2008

Stephen Harper fought hard for a majority in 2008 but fell just short with 46% of the seats on 38% of the popular vote.  The shape of this win was similar to 2006, except that the Conservatives were stronger in the West (76% of seats) and Ontario (48% of seats).  They continued to fall short in Quebec (13%) and Atlantic Canada (31%).  Compared to 1962 and 1979, the West/Ontario rose from 59% to 65% of the seats in the House of Commons making it more possible to win with a strong position in those regions, but Harper needed a clear win in Ontario in 2008 and he didn’t get it.

Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario

Harper 2011

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Partying likes it’s 2011

Harper finally gets his majority winning 54% of the seats with 40% of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominated the West (78% of seats) and Ontario (69% of seats).  They also raised their game in Atlantic Canada (44% of seats) while falling back in Quebec (7% of seats).  The Harper win was a souped-up Joe Clark pathway to power – winning everywhere while being trounced in Quebec.  The difference was that Harper got more out of the West and Ontario than Clark.

Won very big in the West, won strong majority in Ontario

Table 1:   Popular vote, Percentage of total seats for examples

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What it means for Scheer

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 10.42.44 AM

Can he make it to 170?

Even if Scheer wins 20%-25% of the seats in Quebec, he must dominate Western Canada while pushing toward a majority of seats in Ontario.  There are now more seats in these two regions than there were in the examples listed above.

  • West/North 107 seats
  • Ontario 121 seats
  • Combined 228 seats (67% of all seats in the House of Commons)

The Conservatives are expected to dominate Alberta and Saskatchewan, but will need to improve their standings in BC and Manitoba, compared to 2015, in order to get the seats needed to win a plurality of seats.  Without a strong showing expected in Quebec, Scheer would need over two-thirds of the seats in the West to ‘pull its weight’, which would equate to over 70 seats.  Other than Mulroney ’88, the (Progressive) Conservative wins have had at least 42% of all of their seats from the West, and in Harper’s minorities, over 50% of Conservatives seats came east of Ontario.  If that was to be the case this time, Scheer would need to push north of 75 seats in the West, meaning he will need to do much better in BC.

Winning just half of the seats in Ontario would yield 60 seats for the Conservatives. Therefore, the Conservatives could scrape a plurality by adding a combined 20-25  seats from Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

A Scheer majority comes into play if he follows the “Win big in the West, win majority in Ontario” model.  If he has a dominant effort in the West (75-80 seats) combined with majority-plus in Ontario (70-75 seats), topped off by 20-30 seats in Quebec in Atlantic Canada, then a majority (170) is attainable.  The popular vote required to deliver a majority is, historically at least 38.5% of the vote, but with more parties splitting votes (eg. Greens, PPC), it’s possible that the magic number is 37% or even lower.

Prime Minister Scheer?  It could look like a Dief/Clark minority path or a Harper majority path, but it won’t be easy and it won’t look anything like the Mulroney path.

In a future post, I will look at the Liberal path to re-election.

**

Table 1: Results from six (Progressive) Conservative wins

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A deeper dive into the conditions for majority and minority governments

I was having a perfectly nice Monday morning doing what most normal people do – blog about obscure electoral statistics.  After posting about the minimum threshold historically needed to secure a majority in Canada, ink-stained wretch Vaughn Palmer entered the conversation on Twitter to make things more complicated.

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My point was that no majority government has ever been formed in Canada over the past century with less than 38.5% of the popular vote.  Fairly straightforward, but Vaughn wanted to belabour it.

So, fine, let’s get into it – when Jean Chrétien won a majority with 38.5% in 1997, he had some help.  The right was hopelessly splintered.  Despite a low popular vote, the Liberals had a 19-point margin over the second place Reform Party, the sixth-largest margin-of-victory, in terms of popular vote between 1921 and 2015. Plus, the Liberals annihilated the opposition in Ontario.  They won virtually every seat.  Let’s also remember the NDP was in the serious doldrums nationally in the 1990s.  It was easy street for the Chrétien Liberals.  Ridiculously easy.

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Of course, Vaughn couldn’t leave it at that.  He had to consult his groaning book shelves for more statistical peculiarities.

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By extending this barely-read Twitter thread, Vaughn was making me think I needed to do a deeper statistical dive.

And I did.  Is there a pattern between polarization and majority/minority governments?  After a pile of work, the answer is… not really.

Here is a chart that shows the combined amount of the top 2 federal political parties (popular vote) from 1921 to 2015.  The blue dots represent majority governments and the black dots represent minority governments.  Some majorities happen when there is low polarization and some

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 11.10.55 PM.png

The ‘extreme polarization’ occurred in 1925 and 1926 when William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen waged battle, and in 1930 when R.B. Bennett prevailed over Mackenzie King, peaking at 93% (combined votes of Liberals and Conservatives).  In spite of the polarization, Mackenzie King and Meighen both failed to win a majority, with the Progressives holding the balance of power.

Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 12.54.02 PM.png

William Lyon Mackenzie King: “Majorities are hard”, he might have said.  He finally got one on his 5th try.

Extreme polarization flared up again in 1958 when the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals combined for 87% of the vote (mainly PC).  That’s the last time any two parties combined for over 80%.

The Liberal – PC oligopoly held between the 70% to 80% level from 1962 to 1988.  In the 1990s, all hell broke loose when the PC coalition shattered with the Bloc Québécois going on a five election run of 10% to 13% of the national vote, and the Reform Party devouring the PC’s starting in western Canada.  For six elections between 1993 and 2008, the top 2 level ranged from 58% to 66%.  Very low polarization with many parties receiving double-digit popular vote amounts.

In 2011, the top 2 level rose above 70% and was 71% in 2015.

While this is kind of interesting (to me) about federal polarization, it doesn’t really say much about likelihood of minority and majority governments.

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 11.24.07 PM.png

Vaughn then helpfully recounts how the BC NDP did better in the popular vote – losing – than when they actually won.  True, Glen Clark with 39% and Mike Harcourt with 41% won majorities, while Bob Skelly at 43% was crushed.  Difference was that Skelly faced a dominant Social Credit party while Clark and Harcourt faced a split opposition.

So, I looked at it further, putting aside family time and personal wellness, to deal with Vaughn’s haranguing.

In the past 29 elections, there were 12 where the #1 party won by about 12% of the popular vote or more.  All of those were majorities.

Then there’s a set of 8 elections where the winning party had a popular vote edge of about 7.5% to about 11.5%.  Half of those were majorities, half were minority governments.

Finally, there is a set of 9 close battles where the party with the plurality of seats won the popular vote by 7% to minus 4%.  Huh?  Yes, three governments in the past century lost the popular vote but won the plurality of seats – Mackenzie King in 1926, John Diefenbaker in 1957, and Joe Clark in 1979.  (I should add that Meighen won the popular vote and the plurality of seats in 1925, but Mackenzie King hung on with support of the Progressives, ultimately leading to the King-Byng Affair).  Of those 9 elections, there was only one majority: R.B. Bennett in 1930.

Moral of the story: in #elxn43, the margin between the two parties appears to be pretty close.  The public polls indicate a way lower spread than 7%, at this time.  History tells us that there is strong likelihood of a minority government if it is a tight race, especially if third parties have strongholds where they have a greater chance of winning.

I think we all knew most of that already, but Vaughn has succeeded in sparking a tour through dusty old election results.  Ah, it wasn’t so bad.

***

See below for stats:

Table 1: Results of top 2 parties (1921- 2015); sorted by difference in popular vote between party with plurality of seats, and second place party (pop vote)

Top 2 Margin Plurality 2nd Majority
1993 59.9% 22.55% 41.24% 18.69% y
1940 80.6% 22.08% 51.32% 29.24% y
1984 78.1% 22.01% 50.03% 28.02% y
1958 87.4% 19.92% 53.67% 33.75% y
1949 78.8% 19.50% 49.15% 29.65% y
1997 57.8% 19.11% 38.46% 19.35% y
1953 79.5% 17.41% 48.43% 31.02% y
2000 66.3% 15.36% 40.85% 25.49% y
1935 74.5% 14.84% 44.68% 29.84% y
1968 76.8% 13.94% 45.37% 31.43% y
1945 67.4% 12.16% 39.78% 27.62% y
1980 76.8% 11.89% 44.34% 32.45% y
2008 63.9% 11.39% 37.65% 26.26% n
1921 71.1% 11.20% 41.15% 29.95% n
1988 74.9% 11.10% 43.02% 31.92% y
2011 70.3% 8.99% 39.62% 30.63% y
1963 74.3% 8.68% 41.48% 32.80% n
1965 72.6% 7.77% 40.18% 32.41% n
1974 78.6% 7.69% 43.15% 35.46% y
2015 71.4% 7.58% 39.47% 31.89% y
2004 66.4% 7.10% 36.73% 29.63% n
1925 85.9% 6.39% 46.13% 39.74% n
2006 66.5% 6.04% 36.27% 30.23% n
1972 73.4% 3.40% 38.42% 35.02% n
1930 93.3% 2.29% 47.79% 45.50% y
1962 74.2% 0.25% 37.22% 36.97% n
1957 79.0% -2.00% 38.50% 40.50% n
1926 88.3% -2.45% 42.90% 45.35% n
1979 76.0% -4.22% 35.89% 40.11% n

What is the magic number for a majority in #Elxn43?

We all know that it’s seats that matter, not the popular vote.

How does popular vote translate to seats, and what is the threshold for winning a minority or a majority in federal politics?

In the past 60 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 35.9% for a plurality of the seats, which historically leads to a minority government.  The highest popular vote that did not translate into a majority was 41.5%, therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to be free and clear of a minority.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals finished above the 38.5% ‘minimum’ for majority governments, earning 39.5% of the popular vote.

Chart: Popular vote of party that formed government with plurality of seats

Slide1In fact, only Lester Pearson’s Liberals were unlucky enough to be above the 38.5% mark and not win a majority – in consecutive elections too.  John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives were on the 38.5% line in 1957 and missed out on a majority that time. In 1958, he took care of business with a majority of seats and votes.

Jean Chrétien in 1997 had the lowest popular vote at 38.5% in past 50 years to win a majority.  Here is a list of the majorities and popular vote since 1957:

Majorities PM Vote
1958 Dief 53.7%
1968 PET 45.4%
1974 PET 43.2%
1980 PET 44.3%
1984 Mulroney 50.0%
1988 Mulroney 43.0%
1993 Chrétien 41.2%
1997 Chrétien 38.5%
2000 Chrétien 40.9%
2011

2015

Harper

Trudeau

39.6%

39.5%

Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives had the lowest popular vote to win a plurality of seats (35.9%).  Not only that, he lost the popular vote by five points to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, but he still won more seats.  Here are the minority governments:

Minorities PM Vote
1957 Dief 38.5%
1962 Dief 37.2%
1963 Pearson 41.5%
1965 Pearson 40.2%
1972 PET 38.4%
1979 Clark 35.9%
2004 Martin 36.7%
2006 Harper 36.3%
2008 Harper 37.7%

Sure, a majority could be earned nationally with less than 38.5% of the vote.  It’s happened provincially.  François Legault won a majority with 37.4% of the vote in Québec’s 2018 election.  The Bob Rae government scored 57% of the seats with 37.6% of the vote in 1990.

The 2019 election and after

So far in the 2019 election, the public polls indicate that the two contending parties – Liberals and Conservatives – are falling below the 38.5% threshold.

If they continue to hover in the 35% range, the likelihood of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, Yves-François Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois, and/or Elizabeth May’s Greens holding the balance of power increases.  It could even be an independent if the margin between minority and majority is razor thin.

Canada was governed by minority governments from 2004 to 2011.  It was Jack Layton’s NDP that pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s Liberal government.  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives governed with a minority for five years thanks to the NDP.

This time, winning a plurality of seats is no ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office.  Jagmeet Singh has said as much.  Elizabeth May says she may not decide to prop up anyone.  Andrew Scheer may find it harder to pull together confidence than Stephen Harper – the Bloc Quebecois may be his only hope, which would be ironic when considering the aftermath of the 2008 election.

Crossing that line of 38.5%, or wherever it exactly lies, will ensure the government is decided on election day.  Falling short means that winning the confidence of 338 Members of Parliament will be the election that takes place soon after, and that will be decided in the backrooms.

A local take on the Burnaby South by-election

Guest Shot – by Adam Pankratz.  2015 Liberal candidate in Burnaby South.

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used to read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

Political observers are talking about how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Kinder Morgan – it’s the issue everyone wanted to talk about 6 months ago, and Jagmeet Singh opened his candidacy by attacking the “leaky pipeline.” I said then that Mr Singh missed the mark with Kinder Morgan, which is a minor issue in Burnaby, and not one that would decide the by-election here. The current situation in Burnaby, despite all the attention heaped on it through the summer and fall, is that no candidate is focused on Kinder Morgan. Burnaby residents are ultimately practical and realistic on Kinder Morgan, as are most Canadians. Responsible resources extraction is necessary for the Canadian economy and the residents here recognize that. It is a very loud minority who made it the issue it was.

What the candidates have all zeroed in on is the major issue in Burnaby of housing. It is the issue which sank Derek Corrigan, the four-term mayor of Burnaby, who lost to current mayor Mike Hurley last October.  Once again, the issue is front and centre. Like all the Lower Mainland, Burnaby is expensive and residents here want to see more action taken at all levels of government.

These issues are in many ways similar to the ones I came across doorknocking and speaking with residents during my 2015 federal election campaign. During that election there was also serious concern about the Harper Government and their impact on Canada’s image and sense of ourselves as a compassionate society. Canadians want a government that listens to them and understands their concerns and Burnaby residents are no different. That is why I always thought, and still do, that Mr Singh’s major challenge this by-election is gaining local credibility with Burnaby voters.

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Pankratz campaign: won Election Day, but could not overcome strong NDP machine delivering support to the advance poll.

Mr Singh clearly thinks Burnaby is an NDP slam dunk or he wouldn’t be here. History is on his side, but will Burnaby voters deliver what Mr Singh expects? “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

I believe Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

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Svend: Knocker of Doors, also now on Twitter (photo: CBC)

What can we expect of this by-election?  At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all is the Conservatives in Burnaby. They have flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 (40%) and even 2015 (27%), given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party.

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So the surprise is that the Liberals and Conservatives do not look like they can take advantage of a weak NDP leader with no connection to Burnaby, while the upstart PPC might have a boost that puts fuel in its tank.  Politics is always interesting in BC.

Whither JWR?

A chain of events has cascaded upon the federal government and Liberal Party of Canada over the past week.

How will this end?

First, where are things at?

  • Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from Cabinet.
  • She has not resigned from Caucus.  She remains a Liberal MP.
  • She is the presumptive Liberal nominee in Vancouver-Granville for the 2019 federal election, having been ‘green lit’ by the Party in 2018.
  • She has not voted against the government on a whipped vote.  In fact, as a senior member of Cabinet, she helped shape the government’s agenda over the past three-plus years.

As far as I know, the only ‘difficulty’ that exists is disagreement, and related events, stemming from the SNC-Lavalin issue.

Thus, I am going to assume that Wilson-Raybould remains a Liberal in the partisan and ideological sense.  An assumption, but I see no evidence to the contrary.

So, what next?

In Canada, we have not demonstrated a lot of tolerance for public dissent within political parties.  The media punishes political parties for dissent, treating it as a sign of weak leadership.  Dissent certainly exists privately.  Every political caucus in Canada has a wide range of opinion about what its party leadership should be doing and usually a considerable amount of complaining.  It mainly stays inside the room.

In major political parties, not everyone gets along. Uneasy alliances exist, in fact, they are essential to the growth and success of parties. Chretien-Martin.  PET-Turner.  Mulroney-Clark.  Harper-MacKay. Cabinets and caucuses don’t have to like each other to work together. In the UK, dissent is much more of the norm and widely accepted.  MPs routinely challenge and speak out against leadership.

It doesn’t always have to be bunnies and rainbows in order for people to serve together and to campaign alongside together.  A common enemy unites, come election time.

Whither JWR?

Had the shuffle not happened, I assume she would still be Minister of Justice (and the fact the shuffle did happen in the way it did will go down as one of the top unforced errors of the first term).  This would be playing out behind the scenes.

It seems the reactions to the public disagreement exacerbated the situation to the point where she resigned from Cabinet.

Is it possible for her to remain as a Liberal MP?

If, as outlined above, she remains a ‘Liberal’ and continues to support the broad policy agenda of the government, not only should she remain a Liberal MP if she chooses, but she is basically untouchable.  Party leadership would have to proactively rescind her candidacy, which I am sure they would be loath to do.

The support of her local membership is not a requirement, however, it is probable that she is well supported locally.

There is an assumption held by many that the only meaningful way to contribute in politics is to serve in Cabinet. But one can make significant contributions outside Cabinet, especially an MP who has a strong national profile.

Over the past week, Wilson-Raybould has enhanced her stature in Canada. She has a constituency of support out there in the country.  When she speaks on an issue, she will be heard.  She would be a force to be reckoned with in Parliament.

Most Liberals are unhappy about these events, and some have come to the public defense of the PM, and others to ‘Team Jody’. Such controversies compromise the ability of colleagues to get re-elected, and may even jeopardize the survival of the government.  It’s also fair comment that almost all Liberal MPs are all there because of one guy – Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau – who rescued the Party from oblivion and led them to an improbable majority in 2015.   In fact, the sense of invulnerability has contributed to the magnitude of this issue. Yes, Liberals do owe Justin Trudeau. But, they also owe him their honest opinion, for the good of his leadership and the party.

Wilson-Raybould staying in Parliament, serving as an MP, running for re-election as a Liberal is not something that is really being contemplated publicly in the current context.  It seems to be assumed that this is leading to a break-up.  By staying put, Wilson-Raybould would have presence in Parliament and serve as a moral conscience from outside Cabinet. In time, who knows where the road will take her?

She could cross the floor and serve with another party.  But if she continues to identify as a ‘Liberal’, that doesn’t work, and where would she cross to, anyway? Neither the Conservatives nor NDP would seem to be attractive options for her.

Or she should could leave federal politics, but that would be regrettable.  She has barely started, and Vancouver-Granville voters permitting, should have more runway ahead. This is about more than one MP’s political future  Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the first indigenous woman to ever be elected from British Columbia.  It took 148 years to get there.

Making room for disagreement and dissent is messy, and as a former political manager, it made my life complicated and could be very frustrating.  But, it’s ultimately good for the system.

Let the events of SNC-Lavalin play out.  Changes can be made, lessons can be learned, people will move on to other issues once that has all taken place.

“How this ends” could well be JWR on the ballot as a Liberal in October 2019.  In fact, it would be a new beginning, for everyone.

(photo credit: CBC)

30 years later: the election that shaped Canada in 1988

November 21st marks 30 years since the most consequential election in a generation – the 1988 federal election.   This rematch of 1984 was remarkable for its substance, its strategies, and its aftermath.

It demonstrated that campaigns matter, with huge momentum shifts and gutsy, dramatic performances by John Turner and Brian Mulroney. It was an election that pivoted on Canada’s image of itself in relation to the United States and drew 76% of voters to the polls. Not only did the election decide Canada’s course on free trade, it represented the climax of the Mulroney era. No Conservative government had won back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald in 1891. Despite this moment of triumph, five years later the Progressive Conservative Party would be a smoldering ruin, its grand coalition (Quebec-Alberta Bridge) ravaged by regional alienation and Quebec nationalism.

It was the first general election where I was able to take a peek in the campaign cockpit. It was an election I will never forget.

The Substance

Like no other campaign in the past 30 years, it revolved around one major issue- Free Trade. Canada had signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At that time, there was a much stronger sense of Canadian economic nationalism than there is today.   Already a prominent issue, Free Trade dominated the agenda when Liberal leader John Turner instructed Liberal senators to block Free Trade legislation. The Liberals had a majority in the Senate. The Mulroney government was powerless to pass Free Trade without Senate approval. Turner had forced Free Trade as the defining issue of the election.

The other centerpiece of Mulroney’s agenda was the Meech Lake Accord. In 1987, Mulroney secured the approval of all ten premiers for a package of constitutional reforms that would bring Québec ‘into the Constitution’. The most contentious aspect was recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Many critiques complained about its decentralizing power. It became a very controversial issue among elites (particularly liberal elites) and discontentment grew, especially in Western Canada.

The Strategies

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 10.56.10 AMJohn Duffy’s excellent book, Fights of Our Lives, outlines the political strategies used in the 1988 campaign – he named 1988 as one of the five top campaigns in Canadian history.

The Mulroney campaign started off in a bubble – a frontrunner campaign. After three years of scandal in his first term, Mulroney had righted the ship, in part because Free Trade provided him with a proof point of his leadership traits and economic agenda. The Liberals were internally divided and Ed Broadbent’s NDP were threatening to vault into second place. It seemed that Mulroney just had to play it safe, but that was hard to do in what was a seven-week campaign.

John Turner had his back to the wall. He had embraced the Free Trade issue and took some control of the agenda through the Senate gambit. He had public backing for his position: “Let the people decide”. However, by the time the election was called on October 1st, the Liberals were sagging in the polls. The Meech Lake Accord had badly divided them, while Free Trade also exposed a major rift. As Duffy writes, Turner supported Meech Lake for Quebec, and opposed Free Trade for English Canada. That was the bargain. In the first two weeks of the campaign, Peter Mansbridge breathlessly reported that there was a push within the Liberals to replace Turner mid-campaign with Jean Chrétien, his leadership rival. Turner stared them down and held on for the national TV debates taking place October 24 and 25.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent did not want a referendum on Free Trade. He wanted to talk about social issues and trust. He had successfully likened Mulroney and Turner as “Bay Street boys” in 1984, hurting Turner, and by 1988, there was also an aroma around Mulroney on trust. A Free Trade election would relegate Broadbent to the sidelines while Mulroney and Turner went mano a mano.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, Preston Manning was recruiting candidates and running a slate of candidates in Western Canada. He was gaining notice in church basements and in rural areas, but not seen as a major threat.

Mulroney, Turner, and Broadbent all supported Meech Lake. It did not become a vote-driving issue in the campaign.   This all-party consensus would have far-reaching implications after the election.

In 1988, campaigns could not advertise on TV until the time of the TV debates toward the end of October. The first few weeks were the ‘phony war’. It was the debates that changed everything, until they changed again.

John Turner limped into the debates looking like a political dead man – metaphorically and physically. He was fighting immense back pain. In the French debate, he exceeded expectations and brought some fight. Ed Broadbent, with limited French skills, was peripheral.

In the English debate, the fireworks came near the end. In 1984, Mulroney had destroyed Turner with a devastating attack on political patronage. In 1988, Turner assailed Mulroney on Free Trade, demonstrating considerable passion and conviction. As Duffy points out, Turner had been coached specifically on body language. While Mulroney returned Turner’s salvos, Turner was simply more convincing and authentic.

As has been the case with highly-charged leaders’ debates, the full impact is not known until days or even a week later. The same-night judging is conducted in a vacuum. It’s not until news clips have been repeated endlessly, and water cooler discussions take place, that momentum truly forms. Within a week, the Liberals were on a big-time roll, galloping into the lead. The PCs were on their heels. At this point, there were three weeks to go.

The Liberals also released one of the best TV ads ever produced in Canadian elections. It showed the Canada-US border being erased as part of Free Trade negotiations.

As a Young Liberal working in the trenches in BC, the sense of momentum was palpable. Excitement flowed through the campaign. For the first time since John Turner was elected leader in 1984, there were real grounds for optimism. Turner had been a major star as a cabinet minister, but after his retreat to law, he had not thus far returned to form as leader. The debate was a major turning point for him.

As Duffy chronicles, Mulroney held things together using his instincts while his strategists, like polling wizard Allan Gregg, crafted a new approach to deal with the Liberal insurgency. Ultimately, the PC campaign, which had lots of money, sent in the B52 bombers to pound the Liberal campaign, “bombing the bridge” of Turner’s credibility. The PCs had wisely agreed to TV debates well in advance of Election Day. This allowed them crucial time for a course correction. In provincial campaigns in BC in 1991 and 2013, and in Manitoba in 1988, TV debates that led to huge momentum changes occurred relatively close to voting and had big impacts. Mulroney’s forces turned back the Liberal tide.

The campaign saw a gutsy charge by Turner, taking his opponents by surprise with his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. It also saw a skillful counterattack by Mulroney in the final weeks, restoring the PC’s advantage. Both campaigns showed initiative and resolve. The Liberals, weakened by years of infighting and the disastrous 1984 campaign, simply did not have the wherewithal to win.

The Aftermath

Mulroney held Québec for which he had a clear proposition – pro-Meech Lake and pro-Free Trade. He held the West, which also embraced Free Trade. The Quebec-Alberta Bridge of 1984 was kept in tact, but would soon crumble.

Turner’s Liberals reclaimed some of their lost ground in English Canada, especially in Ontario. The Party, reduced to rubble in 1984, now had a much stronger caucus and a lot of new blood.  Turner left the Liberals in better shape then he found them in 1984.

The NDP had its best showing, in part because it did very well in British Columbia. Strategic voting against Free Trade in BC meant voting NDP instead of the Liberals. Overall, the results were a disappointment for Ed Broadbent in his fourth campaign as leader.

With a majority in hand, the Senate relented, and Free Trade was passed. In the 1990s, it would morph into NAFTA. As a national policy, it has stood the test of time.

The re-election of the Mulroney PCs also led to the introduction of the GST. The GST had as much or more to do with its ultimate demise than anything. But again, it’s a policy that has stood the test of time. No government will get rid of the GST.

Has there been an election since Confederation that led to two foundational blocks of our national economy like 1988?

Despite the all-party consensus over Meech Lake, the consensus would break down as new premiers were elected. Liberal Frank McKenna expressed his doubts. A minority government in Manitoba in 1988 forced PC Premier Gary Filmon to take hard line, in step with his opposition leader Liberal Sharon Carstairs. Then Clyde Wells was elected as Premier of Newfoundland, the staunchest critic among the premiers. Preston Manning and the Reform Party were a gathering storm in Western Canada. With Free Trade settled, westerners turned their attention to a constitutional deal that went against their grain.

In 1990, the Meech Lake Accord fell apart in a final desperate week to salvage it. Regional forces were unleashed that blew up the PC’s Quebec-Alberta Bridge. Brian Mulroney’s star recruit in Quebec in 1988, Lucien Bouchard, spectacularly resigned and formed the Bloc Quebecois, later leading the Oui forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Mulroney would try again in 1992 with the Charlottetown Accord which was put to national referendum. Everyone was in favour of it, except the people. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois and Preston Manning’s Reform Party would be the 2nd and 3rd parties in the House of Commons after 1993.

Kim Campbell became the first female prime minister, and first home-grown British Columbian to be PM, and went down to a historically brutal defeat. A mere five years after its climactic victory, the PCs had virtually been wiped out, reduced to two seats. They would limp along until merging with the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance. In effect, the Canadian Alliance conducted a reverse takeover of this venerable national party.

Jean Chrétien won the first of three successive majority governments, based largely on an Ontario vote split caused by Meech Lake and the GST.

The aftermath of 1988 also had a huge impact on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Meech Lake reached its final moment, Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper blocked approval in the Manitoba legislature.  Harper’s act of defiance put aboriginal issues front and centre on the constitutional agenda.

What If?

What would have happened if John Turner had won in 1988? He would have had a huge challenge holding his government together on Meech Lake.   Is it possible that Turner could have resolved the impasse with Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Unlikely, but it’s possible. Mulroney was unsuccessful, but Turner would have had a shot.

Turner would have had a very difficult road ahead in re-negotiating or walking away from the Free Trade deal. He would have faced blistering opposition from the Canadian business community.

It’s unlikely the Liberals, given these challenges, would have had the courage to bring forward a value added tax, like the GST on the same timetable as the Mulroney government.

The PCs would not have been decimated in 1993. Had they lost in 1988, they would have had a strong opposition. Perhaps a new leader would have taken over, or Mulroney would have stayed to fight another day.

Would we have seen Jean Chrétien as prime minister?  Probably not.  He would have been on the outside looking in while Turner governed.

Campaigns matter. They change the course of our country, provinces, and communities. And no campaign in recent times changed the course of Canada like 1988.

For further reading:

Fights of Our Lives is an outstanding (and fun) analysis of election campaigns in Canada since Confederation. John Duffy pulled off an epic volume. My only complaint is that he hasn’t updated it!

Letting the People Decide. A scholarly analysis of the 1988 election by UBC Professor Richard Johnston and other academics. It takes a deep dive into (credible) polling data.

Elusive Destiny. Paul Litt’s book on John Turner’s political career. Strong recommendation.

And finally, my Poli Sci guru Prof. Ken Carty weighs in on the reading list:

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