Contra Yglesias on Canadian Pol. System

Matthew Yglesias, who has something of a side fascination with Canadian politics (it shows periodically on his blog) has a post up today entitled the not-so-worthwhile canadian electoral system.  [I swiped the graph above from his post].

Now this is not a defense of the Canadian system, but I think Yglesias is focusing on the wrong element of what’s wrong with the system and is missing an important historical marker as to why this election (and the last one) played out the way they have.

Yglesias writes:

You’ll see that the three left of center parties (Liberals, NDP, and Greens) got between them 53 percent of the vote. Yet combined they have just 111 seats whereas the Conservatives got 145 seats with 37 percent of the vote. The Greens got 0 seats with 6.5 percent of the popular vote, while since the Bloc Québécois’ supporters are geographically concentrated they get 50 seats with just 8.5 percent of the vote. Basically, the distribution of political power has only a vague relationship to the underlying state of public opinion. If the 25 percent of the population that’s currently voting NDP or Green became more conservative and decided to vote Liberal, then political power would shift left…

The big winner from the Canadian electoral system is the Bloc Québécois. But the main problem with the system isn’t even that it’s unfair — the US Senate is horribly unfair — but that the system is incredibly unresponsive to shifts in voter sentiment or behavior.

Now I’m with him that the Bloc (and Quebec more generally) is the winner vis a vis this system.  But he’s missing a key element (structurally) as to why this is.  He almost gets it but not quite with his point about how the Bloc Queb. is “geographically concentrated.”

The way Yglesias puts it, it sounds as if any party would simply geographically concentrate, they would do similarly.  Except that the only reason this works relative to the Bloc is because of the gross over-distribution of the Parliamentary seats (given the history of the country) to Quebec and Ontario (#1) AND representation weighted towards rural over urban ridings (#2).

If there was a BC concentrated party, it wouldn’t be getting 50 seats because there aren’t 50 seats to be gotten out here.

There’s an argument to be made that with a multi-party parliamentary system, it would be preferrable to have proportional voting representation.  In which case, the kind of point Yglesias is making by using national numbers would have more valence.  But given it’s a geographic based system, then national vote totals are not per se the best indicator.  iow, I’m not sure his easy adding up of all the left parties versus the national vote total percentage of the Conservatives is particularly helpful in this regard.

I mean I could just as easily interpret the results to say that they were in fact quite responsive to the voter shift–which has been solidly towards the Conservatives for a few years now, at the expense of the Liberals.  That is, the left can’t agree–in which case it’s not really right to add them up as Yglesias has done–and the electorate is trusting the Conservatives to rule because of their party unity.  Remember when the Liberals dominated during the 90s and early 2000s, the Conservatives were split into two parties (I’ll return to that in a second).

But back to the geographic issue. The Conservatives only manage to get to where they are because they dominate in the rural areas.  Without the Bloc actually, the Conservatives would have a substantial majority currently–so the Bloc issue cuts both ways for conservatives and liberals.  Harper always has had to try to win Quebec plus rural Ontario, plus Western dominance (esp. Alberta).  See here.

If a proportional system–which would totally federalize whatever is left of any geographic/regional influence–were not the best option, then I imagine an expansion of the Parliament would be in order.

The other aspect Yglesias misses with his shot at the system is a historical one. Some background to help here.  In the 20th century, Canadian Conservatives only held power four times.  In the whole century.  List of Prime Ministers here.  [I’m fudging the numbers slightly by not counting say Joe Clark’s 10 month weird time in office].  Basically they are:  Robert Borden (1911-1921), Richard Bennett (1930-1935),  John Diefenbaker (1957-1963), and Brian Mulroney (1984-1993).  Add those years up and you get (10 +5 + 6 + 9=30).  (basically) 30 out of 100 years.  1/3 of the time roughly–during a century.

What all those scenarios have in common is that the left was fractured.  What that means is that Canada is built so that the Liberals will always rule the country minus a scenario in which they are totally corrupt and/or lose their left flank.

And guess what two scenarios are currently in play for the Liberals?  True to form:  1.  The Liberal Corruption under scandal that hit under Paul Martin  and 2. Splitting the left with a Carbon Tax and the Afghanistan War.

So maybe the system isn’t to blame at all, but just simply a fact that the Grits have fallen into the only trap in which they can lose in this country.

And if there is a systemic issue, it isn’t that the system is unresponsive per se–argued for via the in some ways (given the current context) arbitrary addition of all the left, e.g. The Greens for example are fiscally conservative–so should they be counted on the right?  The issue is the split between the rural/urban reality with the Liberals becoming the party of the urbs and the Conservatives the party of rural (and some suburban areas).  Two monkey wrenchs with regard to that system.  1. Quebec (Yglesias is right on that one)  and 2. The over-representation of rural ridings–in my mind the more important of the two.

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Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 9:51 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Liberal Party Here’s what I wrote yesterday regarding the Liberals in Canada time out of power: What all those scenarios have in common is that […]


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