Maybe 2015 really was “the last election to be held under first past the post.” The Liberals may never have delivered on their promise of electoral reform, but federal elections are increasingly yielding the kinds of parliaments that might have resulted if they had: with multiple parties represented in the House, the government depending for its majority not on the support of a single party, but a loose-knit alliance of progressive parties.
Combing through the wreckage of this week’s election, many have been struck by the new Parliament’s similarities to the one it was supposed to replace: Not only were all of the parties within a seat or two of their totals in 2019, but most were within a percentage point or two of their share of the popular vote.
Canada 2021 federal election results by riding
And for the second election in a row, the winning Liberals obtained fewer votes than the party they defeated. With 32.5 per cent of the vote at time of writing, the Liberals have the weakest mandate of any government in our history, breaking the record set … in 2019. Coupled with near-record low turnout – at 60 per cent, second only to 2008′s dismal result – the governing party can claim the support of fewer than one in five eligible voters.
Once again, the country is sharply divided on regional lines. The Liberals again led the vote in Ontario and every province east of it; they were third in all but one province to the west. In Saskatchewan, the Liberals were restricted, incredibly, to just 10 per cent of the vote – the lowest popular vote share for any governing party in any province in our history.
But the key to understanding this result is that it is not, in fact, unusual. It is the continuation of trends observable for several elections, even several decades.
The Liberals did not just lose to the Conservatives in the popular vote the past two elections: they have done so in five of the past six. Their share of the vote in this election was just about exactly their average since 2000. Not that the Conservatives have been setting the country on fire: since unification, the Conservative Party has averaged less than 35 per cent of the vote, two points less than the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties used to take between them.
Indeed, the story of our time is of the declining relevance of both of the two main parties. Neither party has exceeded 40 per cent in the popular vote, the traditional threshold for a majority government, since 2000. Between them their share of the popular vote, once near 100 per cent, has fallen to two-thirds. The remainder have been dispersed among a number of smaller parties: not just the NDP, but the Bloc Québécois, the Green Party, and now the People’s Party.
This is not supposed to happen. A well-known axiom of political science, known as Duverger’s Law, holds that voting systems such as ours, popularly known as “first past the post” – where each riding is represented by one member, elected by a simple plurality of the vote – converge inexorably on two parties. New parties, when they can build any kind of following, tend to be dispersed evenly across the country, rather than concentrated geographically in the way that first past the post rewards.
But in Canada, for one reason or another, the grip of two-party politics has been broken – irrevocably, it seems. As a result, something else that is not supposed to happen under first past the post has been happening, with remarkable frequency: minority governments. This is not just the second straight federal election to produce a Parliament without a majority party: it is the fifth in the past seven, 11th in the past 22.
To be sure, the dispersal of the vote among so many parties has also lowered the bar to winning a majority, provided the vote splits in just the right way: the Conservatives, in 2011, and the Liberals in 2015, were able to manage it with less than 40 per cent of the vote, for the second and third time ever.
Indeed, what we call minority and majority governments are very much the inverse of reality: It is under “minority” governments that the majority really rules, in as much as the government must depend on the support of MPs representing the majority of the population – as opposed to the institutionalized minority rule of most “majority” governments.
If that is the case – if first past the post cannot even deliver the stable “majority” governments that were one of its few remaining defences – if the system is delivering all of the “instability” associated with proportional representation with none of the representativeness, then the question becomes: why not codify the new reality in law?
Why not adapt the voting system to the way people are actually voting, rather than attempting to force them, via late-campaign appeals to strategic voting, back into the two-party mould? We are trying to run six-party politics on a system built for two, and it’s not working.
Single-member plurality voting works tolerably well when there are only two parties contesting elections. But the greater the number of parties, the greater the distortions to which it gives rise. It isn’t just the increasingly amusing fiction of “majority” government, or the ever more slender mandates on which governments rest their claims to legitimacy.
It’s the bizarre departures from the bedrock principle of one person, one vote: when it takes nearly four times as many votes to elect an NDP MP as a Liberal (114,000, to 33,000), no such equality exists. It’s the exacerbation of existing national divisions, the demise of truly national parties, under a system that encourages parties to cluster their support in regional power bases.
It’s the strangely uncontroversial phenomenon of what the media like to call “battleground” ridings, the ones where the parties actually bother to campaign, versus the “safe” ridings, or even regions, where no leader has visited in 50 years. Party strategists openly boast of how “efficient” their campaigns are, meaning how few voters they must persuade, in as few seats, to claim the margin of victory – while ignoring the rest.
With each election, electoral reform looks less like an idealistic vision, and more like a pragmatic recognition of reality. We have not been living in a two-party system since 1921, the year of the Progressive Party’s breakthrough. Isn’t it time we stopped pretending we did?
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Editor’s note: (Sept. 23, 2021): A previous version of this column said that the Conservatives' 2011 election victory produced Canada's first elected majority with less than 40 per cent of the vote. In fact, the first time this occurred was when the Liberals won a majority in 1997.