First-past-the-post brought the change that voters were looking for

I write in the aftermath of the May 2 federal election, amid a wide-eyed and surprised electorate. From that surprise I draw some thoughts on voting systems and behaviour, and make some predictions about agenda-setting.

The surprise, of course, is the product of an election that, at its outset, was quite emphatically an election about nothing – one which brought to the surface very few significant policy distinctions among parties and where no scandalous behaviour seized or held public attention. Political leaders and their spokespersons made mistakes, but there was no single vote-polarizing issue evident at the outset, and no single game-changer as the election wore on.

And yet this election-about-nothing drove a meaningful increase in voter turnout, delivered a clear majority mandate to Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada, dealt a crushing blow to the near-term hopes of the Liberal Party, removed the Bloc Québécois as a political force in Quebec or anywhere else, and firmly installed the New Democratic Party as the official opposition. This unexpectedly clear outcome, this sharp delivery of change to the political landscape, reflects a system that worked. Our archaic first-past-the-post election machinery produced the sort of change that many voters seemed to want and expect.

This rehearsal of numbers pitches actual results against those that would flow from a purely hypothetical proportional norm, fully recognizing that if our system was in fact proportional then parties and voters might have behaved differently. My message, however, is that the existing first-past-the-post mechanism delivered profound change, when so many observers argued that it could or would not.

To be clear, the regional dimension to Canadian voting, and likewise the distinction between Quebecers and voters elsewhere, is hardly new. Nor is it new that vote splits should matter. The regional results of the actual vote, however, do matter in interpreting the political message. One key point is the newly gained, or regained, confluence of political interests between Ontario and the western provinces. As distinct from a generation ago, the Conservative Party’s voting strength, its majority, derives from seats in the west and Ontario, not the west plus Quebec. And this is a result not of change in the west or Quebec, but of Ontario voters’ at least temporary rejection of the federal Liberal Party’s agenda. Things are different in Quebec, where all the usual parties were rejected but the NDP resonated as a resting place for discouraged voters. Hence Quebecers will now be represented by a party mostly lacking operational infrastructure within the province and, for the near term, the ability to operate in French. An odd state of affairs, but one chosen resoundingly by those same voters.

While claiming success for the first-past-the-post electoral mechanism, owing to its demonstrated ability to capture regional dynamics, I hasten to add that mixed-member or multimember proportional systems, a common mechanism for implementing proportional representation, are capable of capturing some of these elements. But in doing so, they are simply capturing what first-past-the-post already does well. The bottom line for this election is that Canada’s creaky old mechanism delivered change where little might have been expected. And lest the point be missed, the new configuration reflects a regional division that again leaves Quebec with a limited role within government. That will matter on some important agenda items that the Conservative majority may wish to address:

  • On corporation income tax relief, the Conservatives’ program clearly has the approval of voters. However, it is one of the few economic areas where the cleavage among parties is abundantly clear, and Quebec’s views will be represented through the NDP’s opposition to the government and to the tax relief agenda. Yet it seems likely that this is one area where the government’s view will dominate easily, and one unlikely to generate significant public unrest in Quebec.
  • The Conservative government’s agenda also contains a commitment to a national regulator for securities markets. The issue is before the Supreme Court at the time of writing; if the Court sides with the government, the Conservatives will be emboldened to push forward their plan, which will be supported in Ontario. However, the push for federal paramountcy runs headlong into a traditional area (property) where provinces’ constitutional primacy has historically been recognized. It is an understatement to say that such a push will not be well received in Quebec, and it may achieve some resonance among the public for that reason.
  • Agricultural supply management, particularly with respect to dairy and poultry farming, holds back the development of Canada’s food processing segment, raises prices to consumers and presents a barrier to international trade liberalization. The Conservatives have committed themselves to defending the dairy cartel, but this is one area where economics may successfully militate for a change to the political agenda. It is a mercantile issue for Quebec farmers, and they represent a powerful political constituency; proposals for change, however incremental, will attract fiery opposition. That said, if there was a time and opportunity for a government to implement change in this realm, it is now.

Taken together, Canadians’ voting choices have delivered extremely interesting change to the political landscape. This fact, I believe, will defuse the calls for electoral reform that might otherwise arise from unusual vote splits. Whether important policy changes will arise from the current configuration of government is another question, which only the passage of time will answer.