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                    The Ghosts Of Canadian Elections Past 

                        And The Mystery Of Election 2015



By Randall White

When the politics of the present become too mysterious it's often instructive to turn to the past.

With less than a week to go, the Canadian federal election of 2015 seems to be getting less mysterious. But a few big elections past — producing minority governments — may still be interesting and offer important insights.

To start with, the 1921 federal election, which arguably began the modern political drama still in progress.  

The majority of Canadian adult women voted federally for the first time in 1921. They helped elect a strong Liberal minority government — with 116 seats at a time when 118 was a bare majority. 

The new government was led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, at the start of what remains the longest Canadian prime ministerial career on record (1921–1926, 1926–1930, 1935–1948).

It was sustained in office until 1925, with support from the 64 members of a new federal Progressive Party, hailing from the Prairie provinces and rural Ontario. 

The Progressives marked the emergence, for the first time, of a third major party in Canadian federal politics. In 1921 they won more seats than the former governing Conservatives, led by the clever autocrat, Arthur Meighen.

Not all the shoes fit in trying to match 1921 and 2015. But history like this does sometimes help to put things into perspective.

For a second case in point, consider the Canadian federal elections of 1957 and 1958.

On June 10, 1957 John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives won a minority government in Ottawa, finally defeating Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal successors of Mackenzie King.  

St. Laurent was succeeded as Liberal leader by Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson, who rashly launched an all-out attack on the Diefenbaker minority government. Diefenbaker claimed this made governing impossible, and called a fresh election for March 31, 1958. Then he won the largest federal majority government in Canadian history.

Some speculate that should a Harper Conservative minority government be elected this October 19, then spurned by Liberals and New Democrats, it might engineer a similar second election soon after the first, and win a second Harper majority government then. 

But the shoes of the 1957 election seem quite a loose fit. The Diefenbaker minority victory in 1957 ended 22 consecutive years of Liberal rule. A Harper minority victory in 2015 would extend the life of a Conservative government around only since 2006. 

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair have also made clear that they will not support a Conservative minority government in 2015, when 67% of Canadians believe “it’s time for a change.” 

Yet if the Liberals and New Democrats are not going to co-operate with another Conservative minority government, they will have to co-operate with each other to replace it. 

As now increasingly noticed, this raises a third possible historical precedent for 2015 — the Ontario provincial election of 1985. 

In this case, Frank Miller’s Conservatives had “won” a minority government of 52 seats, to David Peterson’s Liberals with 48 seats and Bob Rae’s New Democrats with 25 seats. 

But the Liberals and New Democrats quickly came together in the new legislature to bring down the Miller minority government — and with it the Progressive Conservative dynasty that had governed Ontario for 42 consecutive years! 

The old PC dynasty was succeeded by a Liberal minority government supported for two years by the New Democrats, in exchange for specific Liberal commitments to act on key NDP policy objectives. There was no formal coalition, but everything was spelled out in a written agreement.

Over the past few weeks, cases have also been advanced for the federal elections of 1993 and 2004 and the Ontario provincial election of 1999 as precedents for Liberal majority, Conservative minority, and Conservative majority governments at Ottawa in 2015. 

Yet none of this seems as interesting today as the most recent Canadian federal election of 2011, when the Harper Conservatives at last won their first majority government.

With just under a week to go, what seems clear about 2011 is that, at this point in the campaign, the Harper Conservatives were doing much better in the polls then than they are now.

By Canadian Thanksgiving 2015, Nanos Research, Forum Research, and Eric Grenier’s CBC Poll Tracker all had Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the lead, perhaps headed for a minority government not quite as strong as Mackenzie King’s in 1921.

Even the Conservatives were saying there’s “a real chance” that we will finally be able to answer yes to an excellent question posed by the Editor-in-Chief of Ontario News Watch a week ago:

There’s “already been quite a backlash against the Conservatives' appeal to anti-Muslim racism ... Wouldn't it be ironic if the backlash to these CPC tactics helped propel the Liberals — the party whose existence Mr. Harper most detests — into a position of power whereby they, alone or along with the New Democrats, ultimately defeated the Conservatives?”

At the same time, another thing Canadian political history has taught us over the past nine and a half years is to never underestimate Prime Minister Stephen Harper — and the hard core of popular support he clearly does still have.









About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : October 15, 2015

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