An Election is not Just a Numbers Game
(August 14, 2015)

In his July 20 article “Why Harper’s Tories Remain Best Bet to Win,” Tyee columnist and former Conservative consultant Will McMartin makes the case that Harper and his gang will be returned to power based on a numerical analysis of probable voting patterns and the likely outcome of the 30 new ridings. He presents his findings with the certitude of a true believer spreading revealed truth to a benighted audience:

You’ve seen the polls putting Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats on top. Surely the ever rising fortunes of the NDP, turbo-boosted by the Alberta breakthrough, spell the end of the nine-year reign of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Right? Wrong. In fact, Harper is near-certain to be our next prime minister unless the NDP makes significant further breakthroughs in key parts of Canada. This will be frustrating news to those who are predicting Harper’s defeat. Sorry. I am just the number crunching messenger here.

McMartin’s number-crunching prophecy, though, is empty. He treats voters as anonymous abstractions that are assumed to behave in a manner set down by the statistics gods. He does hedge his conclusion with the caveat “unless the NDP makes significant further breakthroughs in key parts of Canada,” but this does more to show that McMartin’s assumptions about Harper and voter intentions from the 2011 election are obsolete.

During his minority governments, Harper did not have complete freedom to impose a dictatorship on Parliament, so the façade of his being Conservative, despite his authoritarianism, could be sold to a gullible public. Voters could believe he stood for fiscal responsibility, defence of the individual and strong leadership. After four years of a majority, this is no longer plausible.

Since 2011, politics, the art of rational decision-making and debate in the public interest, has been all but legislated out of existence, supplanted by the worship of economic determinism and corporate greed. Environmental laws, civil liberties, labour rights—anything that might make life better for Canadians but more expensive for corporations—has been removed, sabotaged or eviscerated.

One could argue that such threats to our democracy are not exactly new, but under Harper they have reached levels of cruelty, irrationalism, and lawlessness that are unlike anything this country has ever seen. The brazen politicization of the National Energy Board, the gutting of environmental laws, censoring of scientists, bullying of civil servants, international warmongering and assaults on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, (bills C-44 and C-51) are perhaps the most conspicuous examples.

By not accounting for this qualitative change in Harper’s régime, McMartin indulges a false equivalency between the government after the last election and what it is now. This error is partly the result of his inappropriate use of “Conservative” and “Tory” to describe the Harperites. These two words are part of Canada’s political tradition and carry positive connotations for some voters, but neither of them applies to Harper, especially not since 2011.

The correct term to describe Harper is fascist. The term that may upset some people and cause them to roll their eyes, but it is accurate and defines Harper’s gutting of Canada’s political institutions and his imposition of police-state repression. Had McMartin updated his vocabulary, he might not have written this empty speculation: 

[R]edistribution has made the Tories’ task much, much easier. This is because when votes from the last election are transposed onto the newly drawn electoral districts, Harper’s Tories pick up an extra 22 seats, compared to the NDP and the Liberals adding just six and two respectively. [my emphasis]

That means the Conservatives head into the election with 188 redistributed seats —18 more than the 170 they need for a majority in the expanded House of Commons. The transposed seat total for the New Democrats is 109, and for the Liberals, 36 —which means that those two parties are short of a majority by 61 and 134 seats respectively.

McMartin’s pro-Harper number-crunching is unconvincing because he treats the election only as a statistical game. His apportioning of the new ridings cannot be taken at face value because Canadians who voted for Harper in 2011 thinking he was somehow “Conservative” cannot be presumed to vote for him this time around. Even among these voters, disgust with Harper’s totalitarianism and general corruption is growing. In at least two ridings south of the Fraser River, Harperite voters, who would not be caught dead voting for the NDP or Liberals, are turning to the Green Party as their centrist alternative.

McMartin is right to state that the Harperites could still form a minority government even if they lose up to 50 seats, but he implies that this would be an extreme case. Evidence would suggest otherwise. A poll conducted by Nanos at the end of July showed that 66 per cent of voters want a change in government, and that Thomas Mulcair was seen as the best leader to manage the economy.

In January 2014, Canadian Business writer James Cowan wrote in Macleans that Harper’s time was up and that he should resign for the good of the party. In August 2014, an Ekos poll drew a sharp contrast between the 2011 election results to observe that the political landscape looked bleak for Harper: “The evidence suggests the likelihood of another Conservative majority is increasingly obscure, even at this early date.”

The key unknown in this election is not whether the NDP will make “significant further breakthroughs in key parts of Canada,” but how big that breakthrough will be. After Harper’s lame performance in the Macleans debate and his ridiculous announcements on travel bans and journalist gagging, he may be lucky to win his own riding.