High Reward, High Risk? Shelving Electoral Reform Plans is Risky for the Liberals

On the anniversary of his election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an interview to Le Devoir in which he appeared to walk back his promise to make 2015 the last election under first past the post. Though he has since stated that he remains committed to electoral reform, in the interview he suggested that because Canadians are happy with the new government that support for reform has weakened.  He is probably correct in saying this. Trudeau, and progressive voters, would be wise not to put too much stock in the last election when considering electoral reform. In 2015 the weak Conservative performance and the extent to which anti-Harper voters lined up behind the Liberals minimized the impact of vote splitting. There is no guarantee that either of these factors persist over time. A failure to enact electoral reform may lead Canada back to the kinds of outcomes that we saw in the 2000s, with the Conservatives winning government on 35%-40% of the vote.

It is striking how poorly the Conservatives did in 2015. The party won fewer votes than in any of the elections that they contested as a united party except for the 2004 election, and did worse than the combined vote of the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Part at any point during the 1990s. This poor performance was, in part, a result of fatigue with the Harper government. After long enough in power the unpopular decisions that governments have to make and the scandals that arise will eventually make governments unpopular. This unpopularity is unlikely to persist. Out of government, the Conservatives should be able to rebuild get back to the 35%-40% of the vote that they won throughout the 2000s. The fact that the Conservatives hit a historical low in 2015 suggests that their support should rebound in future elections.

The Liberals also likely benefited from a great deal of strategic voting in 2015. When the Liberals established a polling advantage over the NDP in the late stages of the campaign, they were able to make the case that strategically voting Liberal was the only way for voters tired of over a decade of Conservative government to see a change in power. This helped to win the Liberals progressive voters who might have been either undecided between the Liberals and NDP, or even supporters of the NDP. In future elections this advantage will weaken. The appeal of strategic voting to keep a party out of office gets weaker as more time passes between elections and when the disliked party was in office. In future elections, it is likely that voters will be less likely to vote for the Liberals simply to keep the Conservatives out of office. This is a second advantage that the Liberals hd in 2015 that is likely to diminish in the future.

Despite all of this the Liberals are currently polling very well. Justin Trudeau has high approval ratings and the Conservatives, NDP, and even the Bloc Quebecois are leaderless and often look like they are in disarray. Importantly though, neither of these things is likely to last either. As leaders are in office for longer periods of time they are faced with more and more difficult decisions and scandals. Over time this weakens the popularity of even the most charismatic leaders. It is worth keeping mind that this was experienced by Pierre Trudeau. In spite of the Trudeau-mania that led to his successful 1968 campaign, Pierre Trudeau was not highly popular in either the 1979 or 1984 campaigns (even though he had retired by 1984, his unpopularity likely hurt John Turner’s campaign). The need to make difficult and often unpopular decisions on the economy and constitution significantly dampened Pierre Trudeau’s appeal. At some point, Justin Trudeau is going to have to spend some of the political capital he has earned over the past year to make difficult decisions that will inevitably leave some Canadians unhappy with him. He may not end up as unpopular as Harper was at the end of his time in government, but Trudeau is unlikely to remain as popular as he is now.

The Conservatives and NDP are also likely to recover from their current difficulties (though it is less clear if the Bloc Quebecois will). These are still parties with significant electorates, numbers of seats, and resources. They will, eventually, choose leaders and are likely to rebuild the organizations that allowed them to run the kinds of successful campaigns that they did through most of the 2000s. There is a great deal of electoral, legislative, and policy expertise in both parties that did not vanish with their poor results in the 2015 election. This is not to say that the parties are necessarily going to draw even with the Liberals by 2019, but the opposition parties the Liberals will be facing in 2019 will almost certainly be stronger than the opposition parties they faced over the past year.

All of the factors discussed above make it likely that the competitive dynamics the Liberals face in future elections will be closer to those of the 2000s than those of 2015. This means that Liberals will face a united Conservative on their right while fighting with the NDP to win progressive votes on the left. This dynamic is problematic for both Liberals and progressive voters. The fact that the Conservatives can move to the centre without having to worry about losing votes to a more conservative challenger puts the Conservatives in a good position to win back moderate voters they lost to the Liberals in 2015. That the Liberals will have to compete with the NDP for progressive votes makes it likely that vote splitting will again become a problem on the left of the Canadian political spectrum. Absent electoral reform, both of these factors will make it more difficult for the Liberals to win future elections. They will also make it likely that the Conservatives will be able to win government, probably even majority governments, with the 35%-40% of the vote that they were able to win through most of the 2000s.

Electoral reform can help the Liberals get out of this situation. An alternative vote system would allow the Liberals to take advantage of Conservative and NDP second choice votes to protect itself against challenges from either party. A proportional system would create minority parliaments in which the Liberals and NDP could work as allies to limit the Conservative’s ability to win government. Both systems protect the Liberals from the danger that they face in first past the post; that a resurgent Conservative party is able to take advantage of vote splitting on the left to win government on small proportions of the vote. It is reasonable for Justin Trudeau to speculate that Canadian’s desire for electoral reform has weakened with the election of Liberal government that is more popular than most of the Harper governments were. The conditions that led that outcome, however, are unlikely to persist over time. Both Trudeau, and progressive voters as a whole, would benefit from taking this opportunity to push forward electoral reform that would leave them less vulnerable to a resurgent Conservative party.

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