Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Primer for the 42nd Canadian General Election

On Sunday August 2nd Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Governor General David Johnston and asked him to dissolve parliament triggering the forty-second general election in Canadian history.  For the next two months, until October 19th, the country will be in an election period. For most Canadians this will impact their lives very little, especially for the first 40 days or so. In recent past elections have only lasted about 37 days, however after World War Two many were 60+ days in length. So while this campaign is the longest one in Canada since 1874 it is not particularly freakish in our history.

In this post I hope to lay some of the basic foundations for citizens as we move into the campaign season.


There is not one election going on in Canada at the moment. As a parliamentary democracy Canadians will elect 338 Members of Parliament to form the 42nd House of Commons. The way the media and voters often describe the election is through the selection of who they want to become Prime Minister. This is a fair way of weighing one's vote, but it does not actually fit with how our system works. If a party receives 170 seats they will control a majority of the seats in the House of Commons and that leader will become Prime Minister. Any outcome other than that is less clear, and will be discussed at a later date.

During the election Stephen Harper (Conservative) remains the Prime Minister, and his cabinet remained government ministers. However, by convention their powers are curtailed. This is called the caretaker convention. No major policy should be carried out during the campaign. The media will be watching carefully for the government to abuse their powers. Impressively the government released its caretaker convention to the public. Tom Mulcair, leader of the NDP and Leader of the Opposition will be fighting to unseat the current government and become the first federal NDP government in history. The Liberals under Justin Trudeau will attempt to restore their fortunes from third place and vault back into government.

Where the Parties Stand

When the House of Commons was dissolved there were 159 Conservatives (CPC), 95 New Democrats (NDP), 36 Liberals (LPC), 2 Bloc Quebecois (BQ), 2 Greens (GPC), 2 Strength in Democracy, 8 independents and 4 vacancies. Thirty seats were added to help balance the population changes in the country. A significant number of MPs have decided to retire heading into this election. Together this means that incumbency will be much weaker in many seats than in previous elections. A number of organizations have calculated the results if Canadians voted exactly the same in the new boundaries. Not only were new seats added but others were adjusted to help balance populations. These are the numbers I am using below.

Tip: Ignore the national polling numbers. They are an average of Canadian opinions across the country, but voting trends are easier to interpret at a regional/provincial level. For example, two polls could show the Conservatives at 30%, but it include a 10% boost in Alberta and a 10% decline in British Columbia hidden in the average. Despite a stable popular support this would likely result in a drop of several seats for the Conservatives. Where the votes are matter a great deal.

Atlantic Canada

CPC - 15, NDP - 6, LPC - 11

Atlantic Canada is normally a rock for the Liberal Party. In July the Liberals were polling at ~40%, over 10 points higher than the second place NDP. It's possible the Conservative Party could be routed from the region, New Brunswick is the only province in which they have significant strength. The NDP will be hoping to hold on to what they currently have in Atlantic Canada, and possibly expand with a couple of additional seats in Nova Scotia (South Shore-St. Margaret's, Central Nova, or Cumberland-Colchester), one in New Brunswick. The Liberals play well in all ridings in this region and are hoping to pick off NDP and Conservative seats in every province. They have a particularly good shot in urban ridings in New Brunswick.

If the election seat counts are close all of these Atlantic battlegrounds will matter. Even though Atlantic Canada has fewer seats than Alberta they are all much more likely to flip.


CPC - 5, NDP - 61, LPC - 8, BQ - 4

The major question after the 2011 election was whether or not the Orange Wave that swept Quebec was permanent of a strange fluke. Polling since the election would suggest that NDP are firmly in place as the favourite party of Quebec voters. Though the 2011 election should remind us how quickly things can change. The return of Gilles Duceppe as leader of the BQ might boost their prospects. Both the Liberal and NDP leaders hail from Quebec, which certainly wins them additional support. The NDP won 59 seats in 2011. For a long while I assumed that this must represent a high-water mark and that in 2015 it would only be sensible to expect the number of seats to decline, even if only slightly. However, it looks possible the NDP will hold on. The Conservatives have two major areas they are hoping to play for. The area around Quebec City tends to be more favourable to them and they are targeting Mont Royal in Montreal. Mr. Harper is unlikely to do well in Quebec, but getting his total into double digits would help secure his government a great deal. The Liberals will focus their energies in Montreal trying to retake the seats lost to them in 2011.


CPC - 83, NDP - 24, LPC - 14

Ontario is the biggest prize in any federal election. It has the most seats by a wide margin and offers a number of contests between the parties. It is a bit silly to talk of the province as a whole because its own internal regions behave differently. The Liberals used to own the whole province of Ontario in the 1990s. The Conservative surge through rural and suburban (and even urban) Ontario helped to secure their majority government. If the Liberals hope to form government or the Conservatives hope to keep power it will be decided here.

In the province's capital city the Tory incumbents will try to hold on as many voters find their way back to the Liberal Party. Vote splitting, if the NDP rise again in Toronto, may be the only thing that protects them. In downtown Toronto it will be a knockdown, drag-out fight between the NDP and the Liberals. NDP candidates have been aggressively campaigning there for weeks already. In the 905, suburbs around Toronto, the fight will generally be between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Winning these seats pushed the Harper Conservatives into majority government. The NDP may be able to gain seats in Oshawa, Brampton, and around Hamilton, but unless numbers swing dramatically it will mostly be a red-blue fight in the 905. In the rest of the province the NDP have a strong shot at gaining in the North and in Southwestern Ontario where its provincial cousins have fared well. Rural seats should be safe for the Conservatives, but if the Liberals start to go up many seats beyond the suburbs could start to flip.


CPC - 22, NDP - 5, LPC - 1

It should hardly be surprising that the Conservatives do well in the Prairies. This is their home turf and base (with Alberta). Both opposition parties are polling up though and boundary changes in Saskatchewan make it much friendlier to the NDP. Urban seats in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina will likely swap Conservatives for Liberals and New Democrats in this election, unless Conservative popularity goes up. Currently the NDP have no seats in Saskatchewan, but the 308 Blog by Eric Grenier is projecting as many as six seats could go to them. Saskatchewan and Manitoba are real battlegrounds in this election.


CPC - 33, NDP - 1

Alberta probably isn't the province you think it is. The recent election of a NDP provincial government should reaffirm that. The fact that Edmonton and Calgary are led by progressive mayors should also shatter some illusions people hold about that province. The opposition parties have been growing in strength in Alberta. The redistribution of seats created some more urban seats in Edmonton and Calgary that both the NDP and Liberals hope to pick up. From their base in Edmonton-Strathcona the NDP hopes to push out into other Edmonton seats. The NDP have the win in their sails in that province coming off an amazing win. Most seats will remain firmly Conservative but the cities will be places to watch.

British Columbia

CPC - 28, NDP - 11, LPC - 2, GPC - 1

BC might be the ultimate battleground province. The polls often show a three-way race in the westernmost province. All parties have a reasonable hope of picking up additional seats, including the Greens who will be fighting to maintain Elizabeth May's seat and gain Victoria. The city of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of the province will see competitive races for all the parties. If the NDP hope to form government they will have to perform very well in British Columbia.

The North

With only three ridings it is difficult to generalize for the North. Incumbency will help a great deal, but given the comparatively small size of the electorate the swing of a few thousand votes can completely upend the election. The Conservatives are aggressively seeking to take the Northwest Territories riding from incumbent Dennis Bevington of the NDP, but Conservatives have to watch out in Nunavut and Yukon as their own incumbents fend off the Liberals, NDP and Greens. If the Liberals begin gaining momentum they might sweep the North completely.

What's Next?

I was going to discuss possible outcomes but this post is already long. Right now parties are scrambling to complete their nomination process for candidates. Given that this election was foreseen for a long time many ridings already have candidates. The Conservatives have nominated 294/338, NDP 263/338, Liberals 303/338, Greens 172/338 and the Bloc 41/78. Since the election isn't until October 19th there isn't quite the panic as if this was a 37-day campaign. My own riding's NDP association (which I am involved in) is getting ready to host our meeting.

For voters I would recommend checking to see if you're registered to vote in the election. After doing that you may want to find out your riding. Other than that voters can afford to enjoy a little more of the summer before the election takes shape. Keep reading here for more information!

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