Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ignore Quebec? Why not ignore the West?

Recently, John Wright of Ipsos was quoted with a very interesting view on the importance of Quebec to the federal parties, specifically the Conservatives, after those new 30 seats some into play, probably after the next election:

Ignore the polls, ignore the census and ignore Quebec. Nothing will change the Harper government’s minority status until legislation passes creating more seats in the House of Commons, Ipsos pollster John Wright says.

... Mr. Wright is awaiting a bill introduced in the Commons in April that would create 30 new ridings, giving 18 seats to Ontario, seven to British Columbia, and give to Alberta. What makes the legislation controversial is that no new seats will go to Quebec, which already has 75 in the house.

The pollster asks: Why bother with Quebec? Mr. Wright suggests the Harper government has already given up trying to woo the province after making so many concessions with so few results.

He notes that Quebec Premier Jean Charest was the first visitor to 24 Sussex Drive after Stephen Harper took office in 2006 and that the Prime Minister’s legislation to recognize the Quebecois as a nation “within a united Canada” has done nothing to improve his fortunes politically.

Now, I have some major questions over Mr. Wright's judgment, as do Eric from and CalgaryGrit (who both articulate the math better than I can), especially with that last paragraph, where Mr. Wright seems to forget that Harper went from 9% of the vote in Quebec in 2004, to 24% of the vote in 2006, and ten seats that, had they not existed, would have made his minority pretty much untenable (even assuming all 10 seats went to the Bloc, which they wouldn't have, 114-103-61-29 does not give you enough to work with). A strong base in Quebec, which the Conservatives now have and will deliver them at least 6 seats, is always helpful.

But, let's reverse sides for a moment. What happens if someone said to the Liberals, "ignore the West" (someone already has, actually, and look what happened then)? Would they exactly be wrong in their advice?

If you assume the cold attitude Mr. Wright apparently has towards national unity, then yes. The West, aside from a couple of spots (well, Vancouver) is simply not prime ground for the Liberal Party. With only 7 seats out of 92 in the Western provinces - four of them in Vancouver - and only 16% of the vote in 2008, and the ability to only get between 3-7 seats more in good times, it's hardly worth the resources.

Despite having 30% of the population and 92 seats, the West always gives the majority of its seats to the Conservatives and its predecessors, even if they only manage 40-something percent of the vote. The Liberals, despite getting almost 30% of the vote in 1997, got only 15 seats. Now, really, is not the very definition of wasted resources? Why do we Liberals even bother? There are much better seats, ripe for the picking, in Eastern Canada. Even Quebec gives us better results.

For two very good reasons: the fact that, in 1997, those 15 seats helped us retain majority status despite increases in the vote Quebec and severe losses in Atlantic Canada; and the idea that federal parties who form a government should represent all regions of the country in at least some way.

The first reason is pragmatic; ignoring 92 seats is not a good idea if you want to form a majority, or any government whatsoever. And let's be honest, the Conservatives in the West are what the Bloc are in Quebec - they take up a certain number of seats and will continue to do so until they collapse. However, there is enough wiggle room for the Liberals to get at least 10 seats - and how important those 10 seats can be! They can make the difference between majority and minority, or they can allow you to work with one party to get legislation passed in a minority, instead of two or three. Parliament is above all else a numbers game, and if you have the numbers, you can do quite a bit. 10 seats, in the West or Quebec, is nothing to balk at.

The second reason is more idealistic; as a federal institution, the House of Commons should ideally have parties which will look at all sides of the debate, the needs of all regions of the country, and act accordingly. The best way to do this, of course, is have representation in all regions of the country, especially effective representation. That's not how it works out, of course. But neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives can win in Canada if they do not have a hand in every region, at least not a win that can be considered good for the country. With the Bloc in place, it's impossible - we won't get another 1980. Ontario may drive the swings in the country's governance, but it is the rest of Canada's regions that provide those extra seats that allow you to govern effectively. To ignore them is folly, and dare I say it, immoral.

And as Eric of explained, those 30 extra seats will not change that. Quebec will still take up a large bloc of the country's seats, and if you want to win government and maybe reach majority, you must have an effective vote there, or at the very least, a base - just like how you must have a base in the West. Why Mr. Wright believes ignoring Quebec, or in the reverse, the West, is a good idea, is beyond me.

PS: I'm still waiting to hear when Ezra Levant and Stephen Taylor decide to take on Mr. Wright for his divisive and ignorant remarks, as they did when Frank Graves came out with the "culture wars" idea, here and here. How long until you think they do?

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