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Liberals should walk on ethical egg-shells with their minority miracle majority

The following op-ed by Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher was published in edited form by the Globe and Mail on October 27, 2015; by on October 30, 2015; by the Waterloo Record on November 4, 2015, and by the Hill Times on November 9, 2015.

 “Last a while, you’ll have a chance to, I think, change a bit in politics, some good laws.”
Pierre Trudeau on the day he became Prime Minister

Data on how the Liberals won

You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but the federal Liberals just received the lowest percentage of votes in the federal election to win the largest percentage of seats since 1867.  As a result, the Liberals should act like they are fully aware their minority miracle majority is very unlikely to happen again.

Jean Chretien’s Liberals were close in 1997 winning 51.5% of the seats with 38.46% of the popular vote, and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives even closer in 2011 winning 53.9% of the seats with 39.62% of the vote, but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals set the record by winning 54.4% of the seats with just 39.5% voter support.

And while it may seem like they have a comfortable 14-seat majority, with 14 seats won by a margin of 2.5% of total votes cast or less, and another 18 seats won by 2.6% to 5%, the Liberals should walk on egg-shells over the next four years.

Even a small percentage of NDP supporters who may have voted Liberal to stop the Conservatives switching back to the NDP, or Conservative voters who may have stayed home voting again, will change the results of the next election significantly.  The Conservatives still received 31.9% of the popular vote, and given the Liberals moved left in most policies in their platform, the NDP is likely to benefit from any erosion of support for the Liberals over the next four years.

The Liberals can take comfort in knowing they came second in 13 of the 22 closest races (all of which were won by 1.5% or fewer of votes cast), but a counterpoint is that the Conservatives came second in 6, and the NDP in 3, of those 22 ridings.  In those 13 ridings they came in second, the Liberals lost to the NDP in 8 ridings, the Conservatives in 4 ridings, and the Bloc in one riding.

The news is better for the Liberals in 20 other close races won by other parties by 1.5% to 5% of votes cast, as the Liberals came second in 19 of those races (and the NDP in 2).  In those 19 ridings, the Liberals lost to the Conservatives in 11, the NDP in 5, and the Bloc in 3 ridings.

Of the 71 races won by 5% or less of votes cast, the Liberals won 32 and came second in 32.  While it could happen, they would be bold to a fault to assume they will definitely offset losses in those 32 ridings in the next election with gains in those other 32 ridings.

According to Elections Canada, voter turnout increased 8% compared to 2011 – from 61.1% to 69.1% (the highest turnout since 1993).  That’s the largest change in voter turnout from federal election to federal election (positive or negative) since Canada became a country in 1867 (the next largest change was the 1917 to 1921 elections when voter turnout decreased 7.3% from 75% to 67.7%; the next largest positive change was the 1953 to 1957 elections when turnout increased 6.6% from 67.5% to 74.1%).

While the Liberals received many more votes than in 2011 – up from 18.9% of the popular vote to 39.5% — and seats, it will likely remain unknown exactly why.  Elections Canada should be able to provide an exact number of how many people registered to vote for the first time, but even if first-time registrants added up to 8% of all registered voters (the percentage that voter turnout increased) it would not mean they all voted.  Determining how many people voted for the first time would involve comparing all polling station registration sheets to sheets from past elections (as those sheets (along with mail-in ballots) are the only record of who actually voted) to figure out how many of the 8% were people voting again after not voting in the past few elections vs. people voting for the first time.

It would be great if Elections Canada examined these records as it is key to knowing whether youth voter turnout initiatives had any effect in the recent election.  If it determines the list of how many and who voted for the first time, Elections Canada could then survey those people to determine which new voters voted for which parties (although the results of that survey would still be questionable as some respondents would likely say they voted Liberal even if they didn’t in order to be seen to have supported the winning party).

In any case, no survey will accurately show how many NDP or Bloc or Green supporters voted for the Liberals strategically only (or mainly) to ensure the Conservatives lost vs. how many are now solid Liberal supporters.  Nor will any survey accurately reveal how many Conservative supporters voted for the Liberals (or didn’t vote) to ensure Stephen Harper would be pushed out as party leader vs. how many have switched to being Liberal supporters.

What is known is that given how slim the Liberals’ victory was, even a small percentage swinging back to those parties (or to one of those parties) or Liberal supporters staying home, will change the results of the next election significantly.

Where are the Liberals most vulnerable?  Of the 21 ridings the Liberals won by less than 3% of the popular vote, 10 are in Ontario, 4 in Quebec, 3 in Alberta, 2 in B.C., and 1 each in Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador.  Of the 11 ridings the Liberals won by 3%-5% of the popular vote, 7 are in Ontario, 2 in Quebec, 1 in B.C., and 1 in New Brunswick.

While those 32 ridings are clearly vulnerable, some provincial vote-split totals also indicate areas where the Liberals could lose even more seats from relatively small shifts in voting patterns.  In B.C. where the Liberals won 17 seats, they received 35.3% of the popular vote compared to the Conservatives 30% and the NDP’s 26%.  In Ontario where the Liberals won 80 seats, and in Manitoba where they won 7 seats, they received about 44.5% of the popular vote compared to 35-37% for the Conservatives and 14-16.5% for the NDP.  And in Quebec where they won 40 seats, they received 35.7% vs. 25.4% for the NDP, 19.3% for the Bloc and 16.7% for the Conservatives.

So what should the Liberals do?

So what should the Liberals do?  First, act like they have a minority government – as happened with the Conservatives since 2011, nothing will motivate supporters of other parties more in the next election than being ignored by the Liberals for the next four years.

Second, democratize and clean up federal politics – nothing will turn off Liberal MPs and supporters more than being ignored by the Prime Minister’s office, and nothing will hurt the Liberals overall more than a series of ethics, secrecy and waste scandals.

The Liberals have promised 75 changes in 32 areas in the “Open, Honest Government” section of their platform, including changes: to decrease voter ID requirements; to strengthen the access to information system by making disclosure the priority and giving the Information Commissioner the power to order disclosure; to ensure merit-based Cabinet appointments including to the Supreme Court and Senate; to free and empower MPs and committees in a few ways; to restrict government advertising and party spending in between elections; to reform Parliament in a few ways, and; to ensure gender-based analysis of the effects of government policies.

Those promises, some of which lack key details, will make the federal government more open and democratic, but not more honest and ethical.  The Liberals made no promises in the areas in the key areas of honesty-in-politics, ethics, lobbying disclosure and restrictions, whistleblower protection or strengthening enforcement by watchdogs (such as the Ethics Commissioner and Lobbying Commissioner) or strengthening citizen group watching of government and big businesses.  And there is only a vague promise to close political financing loopholes.

The Liberal platform quotes the old saying that “sunlight is the world’s best disinfectant.”  However, the Liberals’ promised open government changes are also vague and, even if kept or strengthened, will likely not let enough light in to prevent major ethics or waste scandals.

What is currently legal is not considered by the public to be at all ethical – and trying to explain away future scandals won’t work as shown by the Liberals’ initial unsuccessful claim that it was just fine for their election campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier to send an email to TransCanada about how to position itself to lobby on pipelines after the election.

Only strong honesty, ethics and lobbying disclosure requirements and restrictions, that many surveys over the past 15 years have shown a large majority of voters want, will prevent this unethical virus that ruined the Conservatives from infecting the Liberals early and often.

Finally, the Liberals should keep one of their strongest and most significant democratic reform promises by changing the voting system – and ensure the committee that consults on the change is evenly split between Liberals and opposition party members to avoid the charge that they are trying to rig the system in their favour.

The Liberals might as well change the system now while they can control what will replace our current first-past-the-post system.  I am of course guessing the future, but the past 10 years of election results show that the current system could easily return the Conservatives to power four years from now or leave the Liberals with a minority of seats and the NDP only agreeing to support them if the voting system is changed in a way that helps the NDP.

Changing to a ranked ballot system, which Justin Trudeau said he favoured during the Liberal leadership race, likely favours the Liberals too much and could cause a strong reaction from supporters of other parties.  As a result, including some form of proportional representation in a new system would likely help Liberals, and the system overall.

If they act like they have a comfortable majority or dash the hopes they fostered and encouraged for real change, especially change in how politics is done, the Liberals will likely quickly lose the support they have finally won back after 10 years.

Duff Conacher is Co-founder of Democracy Watch and a Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa