Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Harper's Electioneering Backfired

In the days, months, and years to come, we'll hear a lot about yesterday's election - what each party did right and wrong to end up where they were.

How the Liberals came back from their catastrophic defeats in 2008 and 2011 to earn more seats than any Liberal government since Louis St-Laurent, getting more votes cast for them of any political party in Canadian history.  (That's 'raw numbers' of votes, not percentage of popular vote.  But seeing as this particular record was held by Mulroney from 1984, and survived 8 general elections over the past 30 years, that's still striking.)

How the NDP, rising to historic highs and official opposition status under Jack Layton in 2011, leading in the polls during the early campaign, only to collapse back to their earlier 'third party' status, being reduced to 44 seats, with only 8 in Ontario, and none in Toronto.

And how the governing Conservatives were finally returned to opposition status, after nearly ten years in power in a series of minority and majority governments.

There are countless complex dynamics explaining these events.  There's a lot to debate and discuss, and no single factor was determinative.

But I propose to narrowly discuss one factor, which I believe may have made the difference between a Liberal minority and a Liberal majority, likely having lost several seats for the Conservatives and NDP:  Per-vote subsidies.


In 2004, Jean Chretien ended corporate contributions to political campaigns, and replaced that with direct government subsidies, based on the votes the party received in the previous general election - an annual payment of $1.75 per year for each vote.  This ultimately came to account for over a third of overall political financing in Canada.  But it's less significant to the Conservatives, who are far more effective at private fundraising than the opposition.

In 2008, immediately after winning his second minority government, Harper introduced a mini-budget to address the financial crisis...and tacked on a provision scrapping the per-vote subsidy.  It was sly.  The Liberals were in shambles.  They had just had their most significant defeat ever, had their war chest totally drained by 3 elections in 4 years...and if they could be kept broke, they wouldn't be able to afford to be able to bring down the government.  It was truly Machiavellian politics - kicking the opposition, hard, when they were already down.

This prompted the 2008 'coalition' crisis which forced Harper to prorogue Parliament to save his job.  The mini-budget was killed, and the subsidy remained intact.  For a time.

After he won a majority government in 2011, however, Harper phased out the subsidy.  So in this election, there was, for the first time, no subsidy.  The opposition needed the money, and wasn't getting it.  Advantage: Tories, right?  Maybe not.

How the Subsidy Helped the CPC

The per vote subsidy, while not a significant amount of money per vote, turned out to be a significant driver against strategic voting.

I've always had mixed feelings about strategic voting.  It always seemed to me that strategic voting tends toward a two-party system, limiting the range of discourse in the body politic, and preventing new and different voices from being heard.  Anywhere outside Saanich-Gulf Islands, a vote for the Greens is really wasted, so people who vote strategically won't vote Green...and the actual grassroots support for the Greens will be understated, and they'll never be seen as a real alternative.  Self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the truth is that the problem isn't strategic voting.  It's the concept of a 'wasted' vote.  (To be clear, I don't really believe that votes are ever totally 'wasted', but that's another matter.)  In our First-Past-the-Post system, each seat is winner-takes-all on a plurality basis.  If 3/4 of a demographic is left-leaning, then it's natural for the left to develop a broader range of philosophies on the left.  So maybe you'll have a few candidates with slightly different approaches, but fundamentally similar political philosophies.  Then you get one right-wing candidate with *very* different philosophies, who wins because his limited support base isn't split.

That is the problem with FPP democracy.

Strategic voting is driven by the desire to make your vote count for something - to not be wasted.

And the subsidy gave votes a significance that was not limited to the First-Past-the-Post electoral consequences.  If you vote Green, even if the local Greens don't have a chance of winning the riding, you're giving that party money.  Not much, surely, but a little.  And strategic voting means that that cash goes to a party you don't like as much.

This was a persuasive moral argument:  The Greens aren't going to win seats this election, but getting a million dollars per year in subsidies means that they might have better resources to take seats in the next one.  It's about the long game.

So strategic voting was something of a bad word:  Voting for someone other than your preferred party was really a betrayal of your party and your values - sacrificing your party's long-term prospects in the interests of getting a less-harmful option elected today.  And since strategic voting, on a fundamental level, is about reducing split votes, this state of affairs was bad for the 'left' parties with their votes split, and more favourable to the CPC.

Not that people didn't try to find ways around it.  In previous elections, social media campaigns popped up for 'vote exchanges' - an NDP supporter votes Liberal in a Blue/Red battleground, and in exchange a Liberal supporter agrees to support the NDP in a Blue/Orange battleground...we both win, we both get to use our votes more usefully, and it's sum-zero on the subsidy.  This had a number of problems, not the least of which is that our ballots are inherently anonymous - you cannot take pictures of your ballot; you cannot make an identifying mark on your ballot; etc.  It was too open to abuse to be useful.

With the subsidy gone, that persuasive moral argument against strategic voting...no longer exists.  And for the first time, the discussion of strategic voting was unfettered.  In the early campaign, even NDP supporters were encouraging strategic voting - thinking that they'd generally be the beneficiaries of it.  The "Anything But Conservative" discussion took on new life, with nothing holding it back.  No need for a vote exchange:  We all win by voting 'against' the party we're trying to defeat, even without the need for a quid pro quo.

There were quite a lot of ridings won by relatively small margins.  It is likely that strategic voting made a significant difference to the outcome of various ridings and to the overall election result.

It was a serious electioneering misstep by Mr. Harper:  He recognized that his party had a fundraising advantage, and thought that he would strengthen his party's advantage by starving the opposition of public cash.  Yet, instead, he compromised his party's ability to count on the split votes of the opposition.