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Tag: Quebec

On Quebec Favouritism and the Maverick Party

On occasion, the punditry in English Canada expresses varying degrees of shock and outrage regarding the perceived favouritism that Quebec enjoys from the various federal leaders. This is felt especially acutely in Alberta, where my fellow Albertans have collectively whined about Quebec’s special treatment for decades. This boils over into debates on nationalism and nationhood, energy, and cultural concerns, among other things.

As in the examples linked above, Quebec’s Bill 21/Loi 21 is a lightning rod for much of this recent consternation. Loi 21- An Act respecting the laicity of the State asserts that Quebec is a “lay state” based on the following principles: the equality of all citizens, the separation of state and religions, the religious neutrality of the state, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.

Loi 21 attracts controversy by preventing persons in positions of coercive authority from wearing religious symbols and invokes the notwithstanding clause to avoid a Charter challenge. The law has been opposed by civil liberty groups on the basis that “[p]eople should not be forced to make the choice between their religion, their identity and their profession. The government should not be allowed to impose their beliefs on the people of Quebec, nor should they be dictating to individuals what they can and cannot wear.”

The punditry has noted that in pluralist English Canada, a provincial government that attempted to pass such a law would receive almost universal condemnation. Globe and Mail columnist Robyn Urback pointedly noted, “I am a broken record, but if federal leaders are actually genuine about wanting to tackle Islamophobia in Canada, they might start by finding the balls to call out Quebec law that bans people wearing hijabs (and other symbols) from certain jobs…We will fight discrimination of Canadian Muslims wherever they face persecution, outside of Quebec”

For myself, there are two issues that I am personally interested in that arise from the Loi 21 debate:

  • Should a state/nation/province/society be able to pass laws that explicitly impose a pattern of values on its citizens, especially if the pattern of values is inconsistent with pluralistic liberalism?
  • Why are federal politicians so soft on Quebec?

These two questions are significant enough to warrant separate discussions. For this blog post, I will focus on the latter question, which I believe to be a product of simple electoral calculus.

What I hope to do is walk the reader through a brief overview of our electoral system, review the relative competitiveness of the individual provinces, and discuss the theoretical impact of a new western-based party (Maverick in this case), could have on Canadian politics.

In Canada, seats are apportioned by section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which uses the following formula to calculate the size of a given electoral district:

  • Divide the estimated population of a province by a determined electoral quotient (initially set at 111,166).
  • If the number of members determined is less than what a province had in 1985, increase its seat count to that number.
  • If a province’s population was overrepresented in the House of Commons at the completion of the last redistribution process and would now be under-represented based on the calculations above, it will be given extra seats so that its share of House of Commons seats is proportional to its share of the population.
  • Add one seat for each of the territories.
  • No province can have fewer MPs than it has Senators; otherwise, the calculation will determine the number of seats.

As a result, the population per seat within a province is roughly the same between seats. However, provinces other than Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia get extra seats beyond what they would otherwise be allocated based on the quotient alone because of the various clauses listed above.

When considering the federal political landscape, the obvious difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada is the Bloc Québécois (BQ) presence. The BQ’s stated purpose is to create the conditions necessary to establish a sovereign Quebec nation. It is extremely doubtful that the BQ will ever form a government due to the party only fielding candidates in Quebec. However, the BQ should be understood as the most transactional of the major federal parties. Despite being notionally environmentalist and socially democratic, the BQ will support any legislation it sees as being in the interests of Quebec and has historically worked with both the Liberals and Conservatives as a result.

Canadians elect members to the House of Commons via an electoral system called single member district plurality, commonly known as first past the post. The candidate that wins the most votes in any given electoral district is elected: it does not matter if the candidate wins by one vote or 10,000.

Considering this, if I am strategizing where to devote my limited campaign resources, one of my primary considerations would be to focus on electoral districts or regions where the threshold for winning a seat is lowest. In theory, it takes less effort to win over a few hundred votes than several thousand. Since we know that to win a seat, one only needs to have one more vote than the second-place party; we can generalize this into the following formula based on historical election results:

A riding splits into three pools leader, target, and others. Others consist of all other parties. A party’s swing-to-win is the swing, taken proportionally, resulting in the target overcoming the leader.

A target party’s vote to win is defined as P + Δ. Δ comes from the Leader at L/(L+O) and the Others at O/(L+O). Therefore, the necessary percentage swing proportionately can be defined as the inequality: Δ > ((L+O)(L–P))/(2L+O)

While this is an abstraction that produces some unusual and unlikely behaviours, (for example, it assumes that the party you are modelling will draw from all other parties proportionally), it illustrates the relative “difficulty” of winning a seat in terms of proportion of the vote required to overcome the leader.

Putting this into practice, we know that there are areas within Quebec where the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and BQ are competitive. For the purpose of illustration, let us consider the riding of Beauport—Limoilou, which was a three-way race between the BQ, Liberals, and Conservatives back in 2019. The below chart is taken from Wikipedia:

Using the above formula, we obtain the percentages necessary to win a riding assuming the target party draws from the others proportionately. For P + Δ we generate the following values (note that the BQ percentage is the same as their vote share obtained above):

  • 29.1 for the Conservatives (Δ 2.8)
  • 29.0 for the Liberals (Δ 3.1)
  • 30.2 for the BQ (Δ 0, since the BQ already won, the proportion of the vote needed to win does not change to win again)

Dividing by the percentage received gives the following competitiveness scores:

  • 0.90 for the Conservatives
  • 0.89 for the Liberals
  • 1 for the BQ

Let us then consider then a very uncompetitive riding:

Calculating for P + Δ we generate the following values:

  • 85.5 for the Conservatives (Δ 0)
  • 47.1 for the Liberals (Δ 43)
  • 47.4 for the NDP (Δ 42.3)

Dividing by the percentage received gives the following competitiveness scores:

  • 1 for the Conservatives
  • 0.09 for the Liberals
  • 0.11 for the NDP

As we can see, the closer the above coefficients are to one, the more competitive a party is in a given riding. It then follows that if the average competitiveness within a riding is closer to one, the more competitive the riding. Therefore, the threshold for a new party to win a particular riding is lower. A score of 1 indicates that a party is perfectly competitive (i.e., obtains the most votes). In contrast, a score of 0 indicates that the party is incapable of receiving any votes in the riding.

Taking the average competitive score for each riding for the major five parties in Quebec returns a score of 0.49, while Alberta is less competitive with an average score of 0.41.

The conclusion is obvious: parties are soft on Quebec because Quebec is electorally competitive, and parties have an incentive to appeal to Quebec voters, as it takes comparatively less effort to win a seat there than in Alberta.

Before I move on, I want to strongly qualify my comments on the lack of competitiveness in Quebec. Quebec has stark regional political preferences compared to other provinces. Conservatives enjoy significant strength in the area around Quebec City but can often finish in fourth place in Montreal. The Liberals, on the other hand, dominate Montreal and the Ontario border and do well in cities. The Bloc is competitive everywhere except Montreal proper and the Ontario border.

Noting the difficulty in operationalizing “competitiveness,” which is a subjective measure, we have established on an internally consistent basis that Quebec has a more competitive political environment than Alberta.

Considering the competition gap, it is reasonable to assume that Conservatives (electorally speaking) can afford to take the province for granted. As the Liberals or NDP have no chance of winning more than a handful of seats each in the province, the incentive to appeal to Alberta instead of Quebec is limited.

Given the state of politics in this province, it is highly unlikely that there will be any mass movement towards the Liberals or NDP regardless of what the situation is provincially. Recall that in 2015 when the NDP won a majority government in Alberta, Albertans turned around a half year later, and 60% of them cast their votes for the federal Conservatives.

So, how can Maverick change the equation?

Interim leader Jay Hill stated in an interview with Global, that “the anger is so deep-seated and the frustration with a failed Confederation is so widespread now in western Canada that we are taking this extraordinary step, I believe, to organize federally … and elect members to Parliament similar to what the Bloc Quebecois has done.”

The Maverick Party website offers a few more hints regarding their goals and objectives. Like the Bloc, they want to advance the west’s interests and pursuing that objective via pushing for constitutional reform contemporaneously with organizing for an independence referendum. Maverick MPs, like the BQ, would vote for legislation they believe to be in the west’s interests.

Regarding where Maverick MPs would run, Jay Hill indicated that Maverick MPs would run in ridings where a perfect split of the existing Conservative vote would not result in a Liberal or NDP victory.

This exercise is moot because since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, serious discussion of Alberta separatism has fallen off a cliff with respect to media airtime, and Maverick has failed to establish any notable or consistent presence in the western provinces in opinion polling. But if Maverick were to take half of the Conservative vote in the seats where they run candidates, some interesting changes could emerge.

Hill has indicated that Maverick will only consider running candidates in the 107 ridings west of Ontario, and that too only in safe Conservative seats. Suppose we define a potential Maverick seat as a riding where the existing Conservative vote divided by two is still larger than the next largest party. In that case, there are forty-nine potential seats where Maverick could run.

Comparing average competitiveness scores before and after the addition of Maverick under these rules sees the average competitiveness score of Alberta increase from 0.41 to 0.58, therefore making Alberta now more competitive than Quebec. The Liberal and NDP competitiveness scores across the province increase from 0.33 to 0.47 and 0.27 to 0.40, respectively. What this would indicate is that even though the Liberals or NDP do not stand to gain any additional seats under a perfect execution of Jay Hill’s plan, the increase in their relative competitiveness scores would indicate that it would require less marginal effort to flip a given seat.

Therefore, even if Maverick’s plan resulted in zero extra seat gains for the Liberals or NDP, what it would encourage is Liberal and NDP strategists to target the Edmonton and Calgary exurbs. The hope would then be, if the Liberals or NDP deem Alberta as a potential location to make gains, then Alberta would receive increased attention, and therefore more Alberta-friendly electoral commitments from self-interested parties.

That said, this presupposes the underlying assumption that Alberta has a distinct political culture that is primarily coloured by the debate around the energy sector. Considering our political history, it is easy to take this assumption for granted. I am, however, not convinced that the demographics that support this trend will hold. Alberta is becoming increasingly diverse and is moving away from energy as its primary economic driver. As Alberta’s economy changes, I suspect so will its political identity.

Accordingly, I am not convinced that Maverick’s brand of grievance politics is unlikely to garner significant attention. That said, Jay Hill’s calculation does have the potential to achieve what he is setting out to achieve, and Maverick should not be dismissed as a bad faith movement as a result.