Canada’s national election takes place today, and it appears Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has the odds stacked against it as it seeks a fourth term in the face of a resurgent Liberal Party. Polls will close progressively from the east of the country to the west between 10am and 1pm Sydney and Melbourne time. Bowing to modern realities, Canada has repealed a law that banned reporting of results on provinces where voting was still under way, so the count will fold in a manner broadly familiar in Australia, with the earliest results to be reported from the eastern provinces and the thickest flow coming about an hour or two later on.
The opinion poll industry in Canada hasn’t been in particularly good form in recent years, having seriously underestimated the Conservative vote at the last federal election in 2011, and badly miscalled provincial elections in British Columbia in 2013 and Alberta in 2012. For what it’s worth though, poll aggregators suggest the most likely outcome is that Harper will make way for a minority government under Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who bears the most famous name in Canadian politics as the son of Pierre Trudeau, the longest-serving prime minister of the modern era. The Liberals are of the left to the extent that they are the traditional party of government that’s not the Conservatives, but they also have to reckon with the rivalry of the trade union-backed New Democratic Party, whose breakthrough performance in 2011 reduced the Liberals to third place. The picture has also been complicated in recent decades by the notional separatists of the Bloc Québécois, although they appear not to have recovered from the drubbing they copped on their home turf of Quebec at the hands of the NDP in 2011.
The projections of CBC News and the Toronto Star suggest the Liberals stand to win around 145 seats, leaving them about 20 short of an absolute majority in a chamber that is growing from 308 to 338 seats. The Conservatives are well behind on around 120, while the NDP appears set to return to its traditional third party status with about 70 seats. So far as vote shares go, the Conservatives have spent the two-month campaign stuck in the low thirties, putting them well below the 39.6% that secured them a bare majority in 2011. The big story has been the consolidation of the anti-Conservative vote behind the Liberal Party a remarkable achievement, given that they started about 10% behind the NDP. The Liberals gained steadily from the beginning of the official campaign period in August and moved ahead of the NDP around the time of the final debate on October 2, which triggered a snowball effect as tactical voters sided with the party best placed to defeat the Conservatives.
This points to the fact that Canada retains a British-style single-member first-past-the-post electoral system, tailored to fit a two-party system that neither country still possesses. In the absence of preferential voting, the hopes of the struggling Conservatives rest on Liberal-NDP vote-splitting enabling them to secure victories from a low share of the vote. Not surprisingly, the Liberals are making an issue out of electoral reform, promising an all-party committee to review alternatives to first-past-the-post. Prominently featured in the discussion are the alternative vote, otherwise known as optional preferential voting, and proportional representation by single transferable vote, the electoral system of choice for Australia’s upper houses.