Canada Hits Political Breaking Point and What it Means for Us

Written by Greg Kamin. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on June 02, 2011 with 5 Comments

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. Photo by Donald Weber.

By Greg Kamin

June 2, 2011

The effect of third parties in America has been the subject of considerable debate. There are those who say that third parties have no place in a winner-take-all system. Maybe if we had proportional representation, they always say, but not here… not now… not this time. Of course those same people always seem to oppose any reforms to the winner-take-all system, like Ranked Choice Voting. I say, if we can’t have proportional representation, then at least we should allow Ranked Choice Voting, which allows for a more accurate expression of voter intent under a winner-take-all system. But even under the worst of systems, third parties can have a dramatic effect on the political system, as Canada just proved in last month’s general election.

Imagine for a minute a day when the tattered remnants of the Democratic Party can do no better than play spoiler to the Greens. Imagine that ordinary citizens get elected to congress who run no campaign, and themselves never imagined that they could win. Imagine waitresses, teachers, and undergraduate college students suddenly finding they’d been elected to Congress. Hard to imagine, eh? Well, this is not some wild-eyed fantasy. This is the scale of the tsunami that just happened in Canada. And those who demonize progressives for not being sufficiently loyal to the duopoly would do well to pay attention. And the most amazing thing? Nobody saw it coming.

Unlike the US, Canada has a parliamentary system. But for those who don’t know too much about the way our northern neighbor runs elections, they actually elect their Parliament in exactly the same way we elect our House of Representatives. In other words, in the most absurd manner possible -winner-take-all, first past the post, with geographically delineated districts by province.

Canadians are a little bit more open-minded than we are, and they do have a stronger tradition of minor and regional parties getting elected here and there. But basically, it’s a two-party system. They have the conservative party, the Conservatives (or Tories), and the liberal party, the Liberals. And since they’re not quite as far to the right as we are, the party that usually wins is the Liberal Party. The liberals have had a governing majority for some 69 years of the last century, leading one recent Liberal Party leader to declare that the Liberals are “Canada’s natural governing party.” They’re kind of like our Democrats, except they actually believe in a welfare state. The problem is that somewhere along the line, it seems like the Liberals stopped believing in anything at all, much like our own Democrats. Lately, their main argument for staying in power has been that they’re basically better than the conservatives. The problem is, when you argue that you’re better than the conservatives, and then you take the country into Iraq and Afghanistan alongside George Bush, start cutting healthcare and welfare, and get mired in scandal after scandal, the old “vote for us because we suck ever so slightly less than the other guys” schtick starts getting a little tiresome.

That opened up a window of opportunity for a truly social democratic party on the left to emerge, the New Democrats. The NDP and its precursors actually have a long history in Canada, as do our Greens and their left-wing predecessors. And although they’ve won seats in the past, they’ve usually never gotten more than 15% of the national vote, and sometimes much less. And when the Tories did win, it was usually due to the NDP taking a larger share of the vote. The unfairness of it all hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the NDP has tried to push for reforms, among them a version of ranked choice voting (RCV). But with the two-party duopoly setting up a brick wall of opposition, they never had the clout to push an electoral reform agenda through Parliament. Still, they didn’t fold their tents, and soldiered on under the current system, lousy as it is.

And under their new, charismatic leader Jack Layton, the NDP went from 13 seats out of 308 (and 8.5% of the national vote) in 2000, to 19 seats, to 29, to 37 in 2008, capturing 18% of the vote that year. Meanwhile, the Liberals continued to use all the same arguments that our Democrats use against the Greens in order to try to maintain their increasingly tenuous grip on power… you’re wasting your vote, voting NDP will lead to a Tory majority in parliament, etc. And to an extent they were right. As the NDP siphoned off more votes in every successive election, a united Tory party managed to capture parliament with a minority vote share and divided left (between Liberals, NDP, Canada’s own Greens, and the regional Bloc Quebec).

But at some point, it’s just not enough to ask people to vote against something. You have to actually stand for something, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the Liberal Party of Canada no longer stands for anything.

And then in last month’s election, support for the Liberal Party finally collapsed. The NDP went from 18% of the vote to 31%. The Liberals’ vote share went down to 19%, and Canada’s “natural governing party” lost all but 34 seats, including the party leader’s seat. Meanwhile, the NDP rode Layton’s popularity to a stunning 103 seats. So thorough and so sudden was the collapse of the Liberals (and the Bloc in Quebec), that many NDP candidates weren’t even prepared for victory, in districts they never thought they’d win in a million years.

Ruth Ellen Brosseu, a 27-year old single mother and bartender who went on vacation to Vegas during the final days of the campaign, came back to find that she’d defeated a long-time entrenched incumbent in Quebec. She’d never set foot in the district before she won her seat, and couldn’t even hold a press conference because she didn’t speak French in a district that’s virtually entirely francophone.

Against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Foreign Minister, the NDP put up Mathieu Ravignat, a karate instructor who previously ran for mayor in a small town… as a Communist. The ex-Communist karate instructor defeated the Tory Foreign Minister by 16 percentage points.

And five McGill University students are now members of Parliament (MPs), the youngest just 19. One of them had no idea she was elected until a friend texted her that returns were showing her winning by 30 points. Two others were co-presidents of the NDP club at McGill University. The never imagined that they’d win their own seats, so they spent the days before the election working on the re-election campaign of Quebec’s lone MP from the NDP.

On May 2nd, the NDP went from one seat in Quebec, to 59. And you know what? Something tells me that these ordinary folks will somehow make better MPs than the incumbent politicians they replaced.

On one of the blogs, an NDP supporter wrote wistfully a couple years ago, “someday Jack Layton will be Prime Minister.” The day before this election, as some polls began to show the NDP at near parity with the Tories, someone else answered, “Someday might be tomorrow.”

Unfortunately it was not to be… this time. Although the Tories, unpopular as ever, still failed to break 40% of the vote, in an ironic reversal of fortune the remnants of the Liberal vote played spoiler to the NDP. So Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, for now. It’s a maddening situation, but even as the NDP surged in the final days of the campaign, Jack Layton never once used the argument that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Stephen Harper. The argument that Layton put forth, the one that won them the lion’s share of the opposition vote, was that after the Liberals voted for the Tory budget, the people could no longer trust the Liberals to provide an effective opposition.


So complete was the collapse of the Liberals, that there is now talk of the party closing up shop and merging with the NDP, the social democratic party that once occupied the left wing fringe. And what’s most incredible, is that none of the polls were showing it even one week before the election. It’s as if Canadians went home the weekend before the election, reflected on the state of politics in their country, and suddenly decided that they could vote their hopes and not their fears. While “Someday” may not be today, tomorrow is now clear on the horizon. Something just “snapped” in the national psyche, and Canadians suddenly lost their fear.

Here in America, we still haven’t reached that point. But if the Democrats continue to stand for nothing, we may reach it sooner than anyone can imagine.

Greg Kamin

Greg Kamin

San Franciscan by choice, not birth, Greg Kamin is an activist with a passion for civil liberties and issues of social and economic justice. He is a world traveler, foodie, and all-around experience-seeker, who chronicles his life with a point-and-shoot camera and occasionally writes when feeling particularly inspired.

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  • Greg,

    I shook my head when I saw the length of this piece with no pictures like we shallow minded prefer. So, I put off reading it and when I did? Great piece!

    Not a slog at all. I learned one hell of a lot about something I knew nothing about (the Canadian political system) and that’s what I demand of all content.

    thank you,

    Go Giants!


  • Wilf Day

    One important error: you say “the NDP has tried to push for reforms, among them a version of ranked choice voting (RCV).” Not at all; the NDP has since 2003 advocated the Mixed Member Proportional system used in Scotland, Wales, Germany and New Zealand. RCV would have hurt the NDP, not helped them.

    Two minor errors: the polls showed the NDP rise earlier than one week before voting day; and Ruth Ellen Brosseau was raised speaking French until part-way through her childhood, so her French was rusty, but after only 10 days language school her French was excellent.

  • greg kamin

    Thanks for the input Wilf.

    I do recall, however, that the NDP pushed for RCV in British Columbia. There was a complex set of hurdles they needed to overcome, so ultimately it was unsuccessful. That said, you’re right that they also advocate MMP. Note that I said RCV was only one of the reforms they’ve tried to push for. I singled it out because it’s the one we’re most familiar with in San Francisco. BTW, I love MMP. I don’t think a more fair electoral system than MMP has ever been designed, and that includes RCV.

    As for Ruth Ellen Brosseau, I didn’t know that. The media said that she was unable to hold a press conference in French. I guess I interpreted that to mean she couldn’t speak it, but it turns out that she merely couldn’t speak *enough* French to hold a press conference. Anyway, good for her for taking a crash course. I’m sure she’ll be great. And she’s not hard on the eyes either. Speaking of…. h wanted pictures, so here you go:

    Another picture… this one is just classic – another young MP who just graduated college, wearing a T-shirt saying “I still hate George Bush.” You gotta love that!

    And as far as the polling, you’re right that the NDP has been steadily rising since the debate. Some polls actually began to show parity with the Liberals as early as April 20th. But I don’t think anyone quite believed it. I didn’t believe it. I remember thinking, wow, wouldn’t it be something if it were really true!

    Personally, my own preference in terms of Canadian pollsters is Nick Nanos, who seems to be the most accurate. And he wasn’t showing it until after the Easter weekend. I think at that point people really started to believe it was possible. Some of those long shot candidates still didn’t believe it would translate into votes in their own ridings. A couple of the McGill students said they didn’t think they’d win right up until the election. What happened was a tsunami of epic proportions.

    If this happened in the US, it would be like minor candidates with no campaign defeating luminaries like Nancy Pelosi. That’s pretty much the scale of it.

    Too bad the Tories did better than the final polls predicted. Had the polling been entirely correct, I think Harper would have fallen short and Jack Layton would be PM today. Well, next time.

    And h, thanks for the compliment. I wanted to write something uplifting and inspiring. And I think it’s pretty inspiring to see ordinary working people getting elected to the highest offices in the land, not to mention a whole nation seemingly waking up and collectively deciding to vote their hopes and not their fears, damn the consequences. Well… maybe not the whole nation (yet), but once that barrier is broken, there’s no going back.

  • greg kamin

    Oops, forgot the link to that second story:

  • Wilf Day

    Greg, I’m sorry, but you’re still not correct about the BC NDP. They were never in favour of “Ranked Choice Voting under a winner-take-all system.” They were in favor of proportional representation in 2004, without specifying MMP or any other proportional model, when the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform chose to propose the Irish PR system called PR-STV, a system with multi-member districts (typically four, five, six or seven-member districts.) A BC referendum on that model gave it support from 58% of voters, but the Liberal government did not implement it since they had set 60% support as the level they would act on. The NDP was neutral on STV although the majority of NDP voters voted for it. In a second referendum STV got less support. One of the problems STV faced was confusion with the preferential ballot in single-member districts which had been used in 1952 in BC to keep the left out of power. That’s the system called the Alternative Vote (in Canada and the UK) which Americans call Ranked Choice Voting in single-member districts. Some NDP voters who remembered the 1952 election opposed STV because they thought it was AV.

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