Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Why the Tory majority is good news for the NDP

It was a quite a night on Monday, as Canada settled into their couches to watch the results of the forty-first federal election unfold on their TVs. Or, in my case, tune in to hear the news that the Tories had already won a government, and were well on their way to a majority. Welcome to the four time-zone reality that is Canada.

I had been able to follow some of the results ahead of the polls closing here in BC, thanks to Twitter and the determination of some people to bypass Canada's blackout laws about results being transmitted to other provinces. But it's one of those issues that only really affects a few of us out here in the west - not the folks back in Ottawa, so I'm not sure it's going to get a lot of attention now that the election is over.

What has grabbed our attention is the dramatic realignment of politics that has given us a Tory majority and the NDP as official opposition for the first time in its history. My wife snapped a picture of the results as they flashed up on our TV screen, when the NDP moved past the 100 mark in seats leading or elected. Neither of us really believed that we'd ever see those numbers in an election.

Jack Layton and his newly-minted pack of rookie MPs - almost half of them from Quebec - now have a lot of work ahead of them to prove that they deserve to be the government in waiting. And that's why the Tory majority, which means the next election is four years away, is the best thing that could have happened for the NDP. They're not ready to govern yet - not by a long shot - but they have a lot of talented people and now they have a well-defined goal. They're ready to step into the big leagues and bring true social democracy to Canada.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, my view of the NDP has always been influenced by the fact that it formed the provincial government for a good chunk of the time I lived there. And under folks like Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow, the governments were stable and good for the province. We didn't think of them as wild-eyed socialists. No, the crazies in Saskatchewan tended to come out of the other end of the spectrum - especially during the Grant Devine years.

But ironically, Saskatchewan voters always hedged their bets at the federal level and did not elect that many NDP MPs. And never was this more true than last Monday, when despite an Orange Crush that swept the country, the birthplace of the NDP did not elect a single NDP MP (although they did get almost a third of the popular vote.)

But despite the historic triumph of attaining Official Opposition status, a lot of the talk I heard on election night and since, has been disappointment about how the Tories achieved a majority despite receiving a minority of the votes cast. You'd think this was the first time in our history that this has ever happened, which is, of course, ridiculous.

Majority governments in this country are generally - if not always - won with fewer than a majority of votes cast. That's the reality of the first past the post voting structure, and the presence of multiple parties.

If people really are offended by the results, why don't they support measures to reform Canada's electoral laws and adopt some form of proportional representation, which would ensure that the number of seats filled in the House of Commons was a little closer to the way the votes were cast? Sure, it would take some doing, but it's definitely a possibility. If you want to know more about how that might happen, visit fair For example:

The (unofficial) results from the election were:
CON 167, NDP 102, LIB 34, BQ 4, GREEN

But if those same results were calculated as a percentage of the popular vote, the result would be:
CON 122, NDP 95, LIB 59, BQ 19, GREEN 13

source - fair

Of course, that's not going to happen. We saw that last year here in BC, where voters soundly rejected the idea in a provincial referendum, just as the idea has been rejected in Ontario and PEI (and an earlier attempt in BC). The bottom line is that as long as the people in power have to be the ones that decide to change the way they are elected, the chance of any true reform is unlikely. We're stuck with the system we have.

But, as we saw on Monday night, that can still be exciting and shake up the system. The Tory majority is the best thing that could have happened to Jack Layton and his rookie MPs. Now that they don't have to worry about the next election, they can settle in and prove to everyone that they've got the smarts and the skills and the savvy to turn their somewhat vague policy ideas into real programs that Canadians can be comfortable with. They've got a chance to show that they're a true alternative and cement the social democrat option for Canada.

That's the real breakthrough in this election.

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