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With the Canadian election approaching, incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears destined to remain in power, with the only question remaining being: How much power will he attain? Senior Editor Paul Jay sat down with Barry Kay, who’s own seat distribution forecast at shows Harper’s Conservative Party just two seats away from forming a majority government. This despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians support parties that campaign to the political left of Harper’s policies. Barry explains both the reasons for this phenomenon in Canadian politics, and the sort of strategy which would be required to ensure an electoral outcome more reflective of the Canadian populace.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: On October 14, Canadian voters will go to the polls to choose their next government. However, with one week to go till the election, it appears that the only real question yet to be decided at the national level is whether or not incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party will achieve a majority government. With us to discuss the Canadian elections is Dr. Barry Kay. Dr. Kay is professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University, where he specializes in public opinion and electoral systems. Thanks for joining us, Barry.


JAY: So why are we looking at a likely potential Conservative government when most Canadians actually, based on public opinion polls, seem to support what are at least called left-of-center parties?

KAY: Well, it’s the nature of our electoral system, of course, since we’ve had a multi-party system. That goes back to the ’30s. During that time, there’s really only been two elections when any government was ever elected with 50 percent of the vote. One was in 1940, and the other, I think, was the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958. So it’s in our nature; it’s the nature of the system. Many argue we should have proportional representation, but we don’t, and that’s not something that we’ll—.

JAY: But it’s relatively new to have so many parties all that get seats.

KAY: The fact that—well, I’m not sure the Green Party’s going to get seats, but that’s right: we now have five parties that were included in the leaders’ debate this past week, and that’s unprecedented in Canada.

JAY: Now, to what extend would you say my opening statement is correct? Am I right or wrong? Do most Canadians support, at least in election campaign terminology, what we consider left-of-center, social democratic values/policies?

KAY: If you put together the very—the people in Canada vote for different reasons, and not all people who, for example, support the Bloc Québécois do it because they have a social democratic agenda.

JAY: Which they do, though.

KAY: Yes, they do. But, in fact, certainly, if you add all the four parties other than the Conservatives together and characterize them as left of center, and that’s not unreasonable, that many more Canadians support that than support the Conservative agenda right now.

JAY: So a lot of people have been asking, especially people who see the Conservative Party as something they don’t want in Canada, have been saying, “Why can’t these other parties get together? Why do we keep splitting the vote and allowing a minority vote to become either a minority government, and this time maybe even a majority government?”

KAY: Well, the narrow party agenda in many minds trumps the national agenda, and that varies from party to party. But the NDP is more concerned about the sustenance of the NDP, certainly their leaders. The Greens, who are really a relatively new phenomenon in this country, they may take some conservative votes away, but they’re going to take many more Liberal and NDP votes away. They are concerned about putting their particular issue into the agenda and into the mix. And, in fairness, while you’re right about the fact that there are more Canadians supporting parties that are generally on the left, there are some Canadians who feel that the Liberal Party is not a party of the left and that historically the difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives has been Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. So not everybody—while objectively I think your analysis is appropriate, not all Canadians would necessarily agree with that.

JAY: My point wasn’t that the Liberal Party is a party left of center, necessarily. There’s a left and a right wing to the Liberal Party, and usually the right wing of the party is the one that dominates, especially when they win elections, but they campaign like they’re a left-of-center party. So when people vote for them, they’re voting for values and policies they think are left of center. And, I mean, often the Liberals completely flip and campaign against the wage and price controls, and then a Trudeau gets elected and brings in wage and price controls. But in terms of their values, people seem to support these kinds of policies.

KAY: But party trumps national policy, and I think that’s the simple answer to the question.

JAY: So if you’re a voter, then, in Canada and your parties won’t create a coalition, which I guess, practically speaking, would mean go riding by riding and say, “Okay, Libs, you can win this one. We don’t have a chance. We won’t split the vote,” and so on. But that’s not going to happen in the next week, ten days. What can voters do if they really don’t want a Conservative Party in power?

KAY: Well, talk about coalition is something a little bit different, because that in fact can frequently happen in Parliament once the election’s over.

JAY: Afterwards. But if there’s a majority government at that point, it’s not going to happen anyway.

KAY: Because what you describe fits my situation perfectly. I will vote strategically. I will not vote for the party I might most prefer and, frankly, not the party I voted for in the past, for that very reason. I will vote for a party that I think is best positioned to stop the Conservatives from winning a majority. Now, my own, one vote isn’t going to change the world, but I’ll just feel better knowing that I was on the side that was at least trying to stop a conservative majority.

JAY: And if that gets done across the country, what happens?

KAY: Oh, if enough people did it, it would have an impact. But the whole concept of strategic voting is constituency-specific. There are places in this country, and many in southern Ontario, and many in suburban Toronto, where in fact the Liberals are the best challenger for the Conservatives. And in Toronto the Conservatives don’t do very well anyway. But in Kitchener-Waterloo, where I live, in fact most of the seats tend to be Liberal-Conservative contests; in Saskatchewan they tend to be Conservative-NDP contests; in many seats in British Columbia it’s the same. And there are exceptions to that pattern even in Ontario. In Oshawa, for example, the NDP is the alternative to the Conservatives.

JAY: Well, I guess what I’m asking you is: how many ridings are decided because the non-Conservative or anti-Conservative vote gets split? ‘Cause there must be ridings where it wouldn’t matter anyway—the Conservatives win whether the vote’s split or not.

KAY: But certainly enough to affect the outcome. I don’t have a specific number for you, but I think if we looked at—and even putting the Bloc Québécois aside in the province of Quebec. But in English Canada, it’s certainly enough to stop the Conservatives from forming [inaudible]

JAY: Are there ridings in Quebec where the Liberal-Bloc split might elect a Conservative?

KAY: Not very many. There are some. But, basically, where the Liberals will win seats in Quebec basically are where there is substantial anglophone or allophone—the West Island of Montreal. Those are pretty much the only seats that the Liberals will win in Quebec. If the Liberals got together with the Bloc in other ridings, perhaps that would affect the Conservatives. But, quite frankly, what we have seen in the most recent polls, the Conservatives are actually receding in Quebec. They’re slipping. They were positioned to win about 10, 12 seats more two weeks ago than they are right now. So the real problem in Quebec—and there are other issues. In Quebec, the Bloc and the Liberals are not necessarily very comfortable with each other. So to ask a Liberal to vote Bloc to block to the Conservatives, that has implications with federalism. But that’s why I’m more comfortable talking about this phenomenon outside of Quebec.

JAY: And if the vote were held today, what would we see?

KAY: With the current system?

JAY: Yeah.

KAY: With the current system, we do a projection on our website, if I can plug it, for an acronym LISPOP. At the moment, the Conservatives we have within a seat or two of a majority, just short of 155. So, frankly, just a couple of ridings could make the difference here or there across the country at the moment. I say this about 10 days before the election’s actually being held.

JAY: And which way are things trending as we talk? More towards the Conservatives or waning?

KAY: There’s two diverse—in English Canada the momentum of public opinion has been moving toward the Conservatives in the last week or two, but in Quebec it hasn’t. So in Quebec the Conservatives are losing seats, but in Ontario and in British Columbia they’re picking up seats.

JAY: And what’s driving that? First English Canada and then Quebec.

KAY: Oh, I think the whole campaign phenomenon, because the Conservatives have had a good election campaign in English Canada. I think that’s very much related to their ability to characterize Dion and the Liberals as not quite up to it. The inability for—because Dion, despite his strengths and the fact that he has a great deal of character and integrity is not a communicator, and his program for the Green Shift just has not caught on, and the Conservatives have effectively characterized him that way. It’s not that Harper is so charismatic, but that indeed he has been able to target the Liberals as not yet ready to govern. That’s what’s happened in English Canada. In Quebec that worked perhaps for awhile, and Dion isn’t all that popular in Quebec either. But in Quebec the alternative is the Bloc Québécois. And what seems to have happened in Quebec—and I say this just the last 10 days, 2 weeks of the campaign—is that issues like cuts in cultural funding and issues relating to youth criminals have sent the wrong message, and the Quebec voters are now moving away from the Conservatives, whereas in English Canada we see an opposite trend.

JAY: In the next segment of the interview, let’s talk a little bit more about the media and the substance of the difference between the parties and the perception of voters. Thanks for joining us, and please join us for the next segment of our interview with Barry Kay.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. Barry Kay is a Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His research focuses on the topics of elections and public opinion. He is a past member of the Canadian National Election Study team, and recent publications pertain to electoral systems, public opinion polling, and the impact of single-issue interest groups. He has developed a model for projecting parliamentary seat distributions from popular vote or opinion polls, which is updated regularly and can be found at He is also a political analyst with Global Television, for their national election coverage.