By Bob Chodos, Henry Milner, and John Richards

The sun is shining still

Layton has been more guilty of tax waffle than his predecessors. In the 2008 election, Stéphane Dion attempted to persuade Canadians to “do something” about climate change through a carbon tax. Layton opposed this “Green Shift” and argued for a nebulous cap-and-trade alternative. He also opposed the pioneering British Columbia carbon tax introduced that year. In addition, every European government – including every European social democratic party – has endorsed consumption taxation based on the principle of taxing “value added” at each stage of business. Not the NDP. Layton ran television ads against the Ontario valueadded tax (the HST) and verbally damned the B.C. equivalent. Beyond the uncertainties of their respective agendas, Harper and Layton are Americanizing our politics – creating the Canadian equivalent of blue and red states. Canadian Conservatives insist on a “low tax advantage” that implicitly sets U.S. taxing effort as the ideal; they have become geographically concentrated in traditional “have” provinces. Of their 167 seats, 133 are in the resource-rich provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan plus Ontario.

The Canadian left looks set to be the voice of “have not” provinces interested in greater interpersonal and interregional income redistribution: 64 of the NDP’s 102 seats lie in Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Maybe I’m wrong about the failings of our leaders and the polarizing potential of the election. Admittedly, not all ridings in “have” provinces are wealthy, nor are all ridings in “have not” provinces poor. The morning after a night of counting Canadians’ ballot choices, the spring sun is shining on my corner of this very privileged country. Maybe it will continue to shine on us in the coming Parliament.

— John Richards

Two elections in one

A Canadian federal election is best seen as being made up of two subelections, one in Quebec and one in the rest of the country. Most of the time the two subelections have very different outcomes, and May 2 was no exception. The Quebec subelection was won handily by Jack Layton’s NDP, while the Harper Conservatives lost ground in terms of both seats and the popular vote. The ROC subelection was a solid victory for the Conservatives. For the New Democrats, it was a successful election but not a breakthrough: the 44 seats they took outside Quebec was an improvement of one over their previous high of 43 in a smaller House in 1988 (an election in which they won no Quebec seats).

What the two subelections have in common is that both were disastrous for the Liberals. That Quebec and the rest of the country follow different political paths has consequences. These consequences are as real when Quebec gives its support to an ostensibly federalist party such as the NDP as they were when it was dominated by the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois.

While the differences may turn there are two obvious winners in this election – Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. Harper has his long-sought majority. It will allow him, he says, to implement his agenda unimpeded by the messy compromises imposed by a minority Parliament. What agenda? He may, for example, rein in the family unification component of immigration. While this is controversial, there is a case for doing so in order to reduce the risk of ethnic “ghettos” that fracture the national community. He may insist that the Department of Indian Affairs finally get serious about the low quality of federally funded on-reserve schools. Again controversial but also justifiable.

On the other hand, Harper may pursue the least attractive features of his reign: foot dragging and obfuscation on the climate change file, accelerating tar sands development in his home province, wielding arbitrary control via the PMO over far too many dimensions of the federal bureaucracy. Layton deserves credit for overcoming an obstacle that has frustrated every leader of the Canadian left since J.S. Woodsworth led the CCF in the depths of the Great Depression.

Finally, Quebec social democrats have voted for the same party as their anglophone comrades. The Achilles heel of the federal NDP has always been a chronic inability to undertake an adult conversation with supporters on how to pay for an expanded public sector. The NDP makes the case for better pensions, more generous medicare, universal child care and so on, but degenerates into waffle on the subject of taxes. Layton has been more guilty of tax waffle than his predecessors. More on social issues than on the national question, the fact remains that Stephen Harper built a majority without Quebec, and is likely to pursue an agenda to which most Quebecers, and almost all of their representatives in Parliament, are opposed. Nor should the turn from the Bloc to the NDP be interpreted as a turn away from Quebec nationalism. While much remains to be discovered about the NDP’s Quebec caucus – which represents a majority of the whole NDP caucus – it is clear that it contains many Quebec nationalists within its ranks. Quebecers will expect their new NDP MPs, like the Bloc MPs who preceded them, to represent the interests of Quebec in Ottawa. Those MPs will face additional pressure if, as expected, the Quebec election that will take place within the next two years results in a victory for Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois.

Whether a rejection of the Bloc was a primary reason for the NDP wave can also be questioned. Although reduced to four seats, at 23 per cent the Bloc remains a solid second in the popular vote, well ahead of the Conservatives and Liberals. In his blog on the day after the election, columnist Jean-François Lisée suggested that while Quebecers wanted to “escape” from the status quo and the Bloc offered them nothing new, they weren’t angry with the Bloc. Their anger was directed at the Conservatives and Liberals and the Bloc was more a “collateral victim” than a target. In short, the declaration heard from many commentators after the election that this was a great victory for federalism may be a little premature.

— Bob Chodos

Polls, young voters and Vote Compass

We all expected a cliffhanger. But we were disappointed. With the last polls showing the Tories at 35 per cent and the NDP at 30, a Tory majority appeared less likely than the NDP and Liberals combined winning more seats than the Conservatives and in a position to govern together. But a Conservative majority was evident a short time after the polls closed. With the largest party garnering close to 40 per cent, the result was much the same as during the 1990s, except that our electoral system rewarded Harper rather than Chrétien.

Why did the polls get it wrong? The answer is actually quite simple. The polls showed Tory voters generally to be more enthusiastic about their choice and less likely to change their minds, more positive about the way the country was moving than the other parties’ supporters were negative, and more certain to vote. While the pollsters tried to take these factors into consideration, they did not account for the other crucial factor. Table 1 shows how intention to vote for the Conservatives broke down by age groups. In 2008, according to Elections Canada’s estimates, 18-to-25-year-olds turned out at 37 per cent while turnout of over-55s was 67 per cent. If, as is likely, something similar happened this time, then we need look no further to explain the gap between the polls and the actual results. We won’t know for sure until we get the breakdown in turnout by age, which takes Elections Canada months to complete.

Admittedly, there was more of a concerted effort to get young citizens to the polls, but having investigated the phenomenon of young political dropouts in Canada and elsewhere, I suspect that the effect was marginal. Observers agree that this was the nastiest election in living memory, and all the attack ads certainly couldn’t have helped generate interest among politically apathetic young people. It was not only the Tories – though they started it with their repeated refrain that Michael Ignatieff “did not come back to Canada for you.” Apparently it was a Conservative-backed website alleging that his father wasn’t the poor immigrant Ignatieff made him out to be that drove the Liberal leader to release attack ads with a parallel message. After telling us that “the Prime Minister acts like he’s above the law,” they asked, “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s Canada?” Some potential young voters may have been driven to vote for the NDP by this kind of campaigning by the other two.

But some others were surely turned off voting altogether, or rather not turned on. Getting them to vote will take a more systematic effort, starting with what goes on in school – in civic education. Here a new wrinkle in this election could prove useful: the CBC’s Vote Compass. There is no indication that it brought young citizens out to vote this time, but the potential is there. In this election Vote Compass served especially to illustrate graphically to anyone who used it that we have four centre-left parties and one centre-right party – that the distance between the Conservatives and the other four parties on 30 campaign-related issues is notably greater than the distance among those four.

This makes it plain for all to see that we elected a majority government opposed not only at the ballot box but on underlying issues by 60 per cent of voters – something that should be disturbing even to defenders of our electoral system. The right-wing media were convinced of a pro-Liberal bias in Vote Compass, as a creature of the CBC and left-leaning academics. In reality there was no intended bias, but the methodology tends to favour the more moderate party in that the way it is set up, for most users it does not take intensity into account. A Conservative supporter who takes a conservative position on that minority of the 30 questions that really matter to him or her, but a more moderate position on the remaining questions, can end up being placed in the Liberal camp.

In the end, though, given the very poor showing of the Liberals, Vote Compass could not have changed many minds. Nor does it seem to have affected overall turnout, which stood at 61.4 per cent, a small increase over the 2008 turnout of 58.8 per cent, the lowest ever recorded. Yet Internet user–friendly innovations like Vote Compass do have a potential for bolstering youth participation if used effectively. Similar systems in other countries allow users not only to find out more readily where each party stands on each question, but also to view the arguments underlying those positions, as well as relevant facts and figures, as they make their decision. And in some countries they are incorporated into civic education classes and other activities aimed at young people.

— Henry Milner