Canada's early elections

By Grant Wyeth
Writer and researcher

Canada is heading to an election on 20 September. Called two years before necessary, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party had hoped to capitalise on the power of pandemic incumbency to upgrade its minority government to a majority.

Yet current polling suggests that no party will receive a majority in the House of Commons. This will be the fifth minority government from seven elections this century, an outcome that can now be considered the norm in Canadian politics.

Canada has long been held up as an outlier to Duverger's Law; a thesis that single member districts voting by a first-past-the-post system (FPTP) will lend itself towards a two-party system (a law that admittedly has many outliers). Although several Canadian provinces have succumbed to Duverger's Law, the federal political arena has remained complex, veering between a three to five party system for most of the country’s existence.

The contenders

Canada's current political terrain has its origins in the 1993 election. Here the stable party system that had (eventually) formed in the previous decade, built around conventional conservative, liberal, and social-democratic parties, was smashed by a strengthening of the defining feature of Canadian society: its regionalism.

Heading into the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservative Party held a handsome majority of the then-295 seat House of Commons. Yet in an astonishing collapse of an incumbent government, the party was subsequently reduced to just 2 seats.

What emerged in its place was a fracturing of the political system along regional lines. With the separatist Bloc Québécois winning two-thirds of the seats in Quebec, the Reform Party doing likewise in the West, and the Liberal Party winning all but one seat in populous Ontario.

This new fragmented party system persisted for the next decade. With no national competitor, the Liberal Party was guaranteed to form comfortable governments. The Progressive Conservatives recovered slightly to become a party of the Atlantic provinces – where its style of “Red Toryism” remains dominant – however, its viability remained weak.

In order to give itself a pan-Canadian reach, the Reform Party (renamed the Canadian Alliance) instigated a takeover of the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. This brought into existence the Conservative Party.

The Conservative Party is another odd feature of the Canadian political system. It has no affiliation with any provincial party, and provincial conservative parties often seek to distance themselves from it. Despite now having an organisational presence across Canada, it remains a party perceived to be of and for the western provinces (it won every seat but 1 in Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2019). Its path to electoral victory depends on convincing enough of Ontario that its interests are tied to the resource-extracting provinces to its west.

For three terms - two in minority - from 2006 to 2015 the party, led by Stephen Harper, was able to achieve this feat. Harper believed that if he could find a way to sideline the Liberal Party then Duverger's Law would kick in and federal Canadian politics would reorganise itself on a neater left-right axis. Something he felt would naturally favour the Conservative Party.

Harper seemed to have got his wish when the Liberal Party was reduced to third party status at the 2011 election, with the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) rising from its status as the country's perennial third (or fourth) party to form the official opposition. Although this would prove only temporary.

The NDP forms another complex feature to Canada's party system. Unlike its close political cousins in Australia and the United Kingdom, Canada's party of labour has never become a party of government. At least not federally. At provincial level the NDP is able to consistently win elections.

Due to its strength in British Columbia and Saskatchawan, Duverger's Law has worked, leading to the amalgamation of liberal and conservative forces in opposition to it (Alberta, where the party was recently in power, has a more unique ideological terrain).

The most compelling explanation for the NDP's lack of federal strength is that Canada's highly decentralised federation provides a more favourable environment for a social-democratic party at provincial level, where most services are delivered. Voters have developed the sophistication to allocate their votes based on these divisions of powers.

The Liberal edge

This decentralisation has also enabled the Liberal Party to maintain itself as the country's dominant political party, having been in power for 70 of the last 100 years. The Liberals serve a unique purpose as the bridge between the country's regional, linguistic, and social divides. Although it is not always successful, this broad mission aligns the broad powers of the federal government.

Lacking ideological rigidity, the Liberal Party has proved highly malleable to shifting local and international developments, reinventing itself multiple times, and always demonstrating an ability to learn from its election losses.

The Liberals also benefit from the Conservative Party’s highly inefficient vote, which, reflective of its history, is heavily concentrated in the West where it has no real competitor. This boosts the party’s overall percentage of the popular vote, but doesn’t translate to seats. At the 2019 election the Conservatives won 1.3% more votes than the Liberals, but 36 less seats.

The Liberal Party is able to win with smaller pluralities in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, while also being stronger in the four small Atlantic provinces, who all have constitutionally guaranteed seats that do not reflect their populations. Prince Edward Island, for example, has four guaranteed seats, despite only having a population worthy of just over one. The Liberals consistently win all four.

The party took a promise of electoral reform to the 2015 election, but it quickly abandoned it after winning a decisive majority. While the current FPTP system may provide structural advantage for the Liberal Party, it creates a distinct disadvantage for the country's emerging fifth party, The Greens. Although the party was able to secure 3 seats at the last election (and has made significant provincial inroads), under a system of proportional representation its seat-count would be up to 7 times greater.

Although given the nature of proportional representation, if implemented it would undoubtedly lead to a further fracturing of the Canadian party system. This would include giving space to the radical-reactionary People's Party, formed by disgruntled former Conservative minister, Maxime Bernier, and embodying the nativism, conspiracy-mongering, and fondness for offence that has infected the Republican Party.

This is something Conservative Party leader, Erin O'Toole, has been trying to keep out of his party.

Canada doesn’t need this kind of social division compounding its regional divisions, with the rise of western separatism becoming Ottawa's latest headache. While the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum was narrowly defeated, and the issue now lies dormant, the Bloc Québécois has been able to maintain its presence in the parliament by reinventing itself as a Quebec interests party.

Given Quebec's large number of seats, this makes the electoral maths for winning a majority government incredibly difficult. Next week's election is likely to once again provide Canada with a regionally divided vote, and another minority government attempting to juggle these competing interests.

Grant Wyeth is a Melbourne-based researcher and writer with speciality interests in Canada and India. He is a columnist for the Asia-Pacific affairs publication, The Diplomat.

Banner image: Canada's incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Source: Flickr/European Parliament.


politics; policy Politics; Policy americas; canada The Americas; Canada

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