The Road to 170

It may not be as widely maligned as the Electoral College south of the border, but Canada’s system of first-past-the-post representation can be equally unrepresentative of the national vote. As Dalhousie University’s Lori Turnbull points out, the key numbers to watch in the run-up to the election are not the national polling spreads but the provincial breakdowns.

Lori Turnbull

In the lead-up to the 2019 general election, public opinion polls remained inconclusive as to which party will form a government and how. The Liberals and the Conservatives were in a statistical tie in terms of national support at 32 vs. 33 per cent, according to polling published by Abacus on August 19. As we know, however, national support does not determine the outcome of an election. Election results are defined by political parties’ shares of the seats in the House of Commons; the popular vote doesn’t elect anybody. Of course, there is a connection between vote share and seat share, but the first-past-the-post electoral system has the effect of carving up the national vote into 338 constituencies, each with its own election. Whichever candidate comes first in each riding wins and parties are not compensated for any discrepancy between their share of seats and their portion of the national vote. The legitimacy of this system is a continual source of debate in Canada, and is a topic that is sure to come up in the 2019 campaign.

In the public opinion polls published frequently during the pre-election period, national support numbers give us a sense of where voters are leaning and whether parties are growing or declining in popularity relative to one another. These polls can be fun to read, and are indispensable tools for those of us prone to entering office election pools, but they must also be understood as generalizations that can obscure important realities regarding how the vote will break down regionally and locally. Again, it’s the seats rather than the votes themselves that determine government formation, and regional numbers paint a more accurate picture than national ones.

For political parties vying for power in a parliamentary system such as ours, a majority government is the holy grail. Equipped with most of the seats in the House and Canada’s strong tradition of party discipline, a majority government prime minister can govern almost unilaterally and decisively, without too many obstacles to pursuing the party’s agenda.

The magic number for a majority these days is 170 seats. The House is populated according to the constitutional principle of representation by population; so, when the parties are looking at the country’s regions and provinces to find their prospective path to a majority government, size matters. Winning the most seats in Ontario is more politically lucrative than winning the most seats in Atlantic Canada. That said, every seat counts and a small region can be key to giving a party what it needs to meet the threshold for a majority. 

The regional breakdown of the House of Commons looks like this: Ontario is the most populous “region” with 121 seats; Quebec is second-largest with 78 seats; British Columbia elects 42 members of Parliament, Alberta 34, the Prairies 28, Atlantic Canada 32, and each territory has one MP. Historically, the Liberals have dominated in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, often picking up the majority of Ontario seats or even all of the seats in the Atlantic region. In 2015, it took broadcasters virtually no time at all to announce that the Liberals had won all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada (for those of us watching from that side of the country, the whole thing was a bit anticlimactic—no matter which party you were supporting.)  The previous elections had gone nowhere near as well for the Liberals, as the Conservatives and the NDP elected 14 and six MPs respectively and the Liberals elected 12. 

The likelihood of the Liberals sweeping Atlantic Canada again is low, particularly since the Conservatives and the NDP both have strong roots in the area and will reclaim some of the seats that had been deemed “safe” for them in previous elections. Also, given the success that the Greens have had in provincial elections in Atlantic Canada, it is possible that their results could penetrate the federal/provincial divide. 

The Green Chamber in the West Block, where majorities are now made, or not, at 170. House of Commons photo

As for Ontario, the Liberals blew it in 2011, winning a previously unthinkable 11 seats. But this requires some explanation. All three times that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives formed government (2006, 2008, and 2011), it was with significant support in Ontario after having merged the federal right-wing parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, into one Conservative Party. In the federal election in 2000, by comparison, the Liberals elected MPs in 100 of the province’s then 103 ridings; in 2004, the number dropped to 75 out of 106.  Harper’s Conservatives took 40 Ontario seats to the Liberals’ 54 in 2006, and took the lead in 2008 with 51 Ontario seats compared to the Liberal’s 38. In 2011, Harper’s only majority government came with its strongest showing in Ontario—73 of what was then 108 seats in the province. In 2015, the Liberals took the lead in the province again with 80 of 121 seats. It’s possible that many Ontario voters will see a Liberal vote as an effective way to hold Premier Doug Ford in check; this would help the Liberals maintain their stronghold in the province, which will be essential to their forming a second government. Summer polling data favours a first-place finish for the Liberals in Ontario.

Quebec has been key to the success of the NDP in recent years, with the party taking 59 of the province’s 75 seats in 2011. But that was an historical exception that can be attributed to a number of factors, including the unprecedented popularity of the late NDP leader Jack Layton and the collapse of both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois in the province. The Liberals claimed 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in 2015, the NDP were reduced to 16 and the Conservatives took 12.

Historically, the Conservatives have dominated in the prairie provinces and are expected to do so in 2019. Some of the Liberal MPs elected in the region in 2015—four in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan and seven in Manitoba—could be vulnerable, including in areas like Edmonton and Calgary, from which the Prime Minister drew cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. B.C. is often the most difficult region in the country for which to make political predictions. With 42 seats, it is treated as a rich area for growth potential for virtually all parties. In 2015, the Liberals elected 17 MPs, the NDP 14, the Conservatives 10 and the Greens 1. All of them will be looking to make gains. Summer polling showed the Conservatives in the lead at just over 30 per cent of the popular vote in B.C., a few points ahead of the Liberals, with the NDP and the Greens trailing in the high teens. The results will depend on how the votes break down on a constituency basis. 

Perhaps you have noticed that there are no seat projections here. That is intentional. There are pollsters and data analysts who are better equipped to give you those numbers. I rely on their findings, again, for that office election pool and to get a sense of where voters’ heads are. It is worth looking into the regional numbers to get a clearer sense of how things will shake out in October. The parties can take nothing for granted, not even voter turnout. There are fewer committed voters with every election, which means that parties are actively competing for a greater share of the votes and have relatively fewer loyalists who show up for them every time. This makes for frantic, compulsive campaigning. Judging by the numbers over the summer, it’s possible that no party will get to 170 seats. In which case, welcome to a minority House.  

Dr. Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.