by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)
Okay, I admit it: I am on the left of the political spectrum and, as far as I can recall, I have always voted for the NDP federally. But all along, I couldn't understand why that party always won so few seats compared to its level of support manifested in the popular vote. It just didn't seem fair to me!
<joke>Insert a pouty face here.</joke>
The 1993 federal general election was peculiar to me on so many levels. The oddity was not only that the official opposition had been formed by a regional party that technically did not want to be in that House, but also that the support for two of the three mainstream parties had collapsed. And as I mentioned in "The excesses of FPTP," for Progressive Conservatives, this election was the harbinger of their demise.
But it is only when I began to research past elections to test the hypothesis that "my" party was being treated unfairly that I discovered that ALL parties are treated unfairly by FPTP. Indeed, now I realize that the electoral results we have been getting are a feature rather than a bug of that system and that the simultaneous over- and under-representation of political parties has always existed, which is unfair and frustrating for everybody! Although I came to think about this topic from a partisan perspective, now for me it's a non-partisan issue of fairness.
This following table provides a lot of data to absorb. It shows the percentage of votes each party has received and the percentage of seats each party got in return during the federal general elections from 1957 to 2021. (A detailed summary of each jurisdiction's general elections can be found elsewhere in this website.)
Remember that a viable proportional system would provide compensatory seats only to those parties that obtained a given percentage of the vote (5, 8 or 10, depending on the system), thereby narrowing the gap between percentage of votes and seats. If you keep that principle in mind, I am sure you will find something that will get you fuming regardless of the party you support or oppose! For instance, find the four times between 1957 and 2021 when a party formed government with fewer votes than the party with the most votes, or the last time a government was formed with at least 40% of the votes.* And note that the only time when the proportion of votes was not greater than the proportion of seats for the NDP was a classic case of overcompensation. Even I can admit that!
This is the colour keys for this table:
|* The four times between 1957 and 2021 that a party formed government with fewer votes than the party with the most votes were in 1957, 1979, 2019 and 2021, and the last time a government was formed with at least 40% of the votes was in 2000. What's more, the governments of 1963 and 1965 that reached that threshold were minorities. The Green Party won its first seat only AFTER its best score in 2008.|
Canada has had 22 general election from 1957 to 2021, with precisely half of those yielding minority governments. Only two were "real" majorities (1958 and 1984) where the winning party obtained the majority of the votes (but an oversized proportion of the seats).
Opponents of adopting a proportional system often state that such a system can rarely create a majority government as we have come to know them, and on that point they are right. But what underlies their argument is that these artificial majorities are desirable and that, by definition, majorities work and minorities do not. That may have been the case in 1957, 1962 and 1979, but the eight other minority governments were relatively stable. It seems clear to me that the only interest these fake majorities serve is that of the governing party — except aren't elected officials supposed to serve the interests of those who elected them to office? (Call me naïve!)
How can they not see that, by putting forth that argument, they are putting partisan interests ahead of the will of the people? It wouldn't be because they're only in it for the quest of power for themselves, right? I mean, that would just be crazy talk, right?
Here is the table for the first 22 federal elections. It contains equally disturbing data.
|→ Canada had 22 general elections from 1867 to 1953, with two (9%) yielding a minority government, although the one of 1872 would have been so without the support of independent conservatives, and the one of 1926 was officially a minority but theoretically in majority status thanks to a pact between the Liberals and Liberal-Progressives. Only four were "real" majorities (1900, 1904, 1917 and 1940) where the winning party obtained the majority of the votes (but an oversized proportion of the seats). For all majority governments except the one in 1867, the winning party had obtained at least 40% of the votes, but two minority governments (1926 and 1945) had reached that threshold.
→ The results of the 1921 general election was particularly upsetting for the National Liberal and Conservative Party. Despite having obtained 30.0% of the votes, they won only 20.4% of the seats (i.e. 48), while the emerging Progressive Party, with only 20.7% of the votes, won 24.7% of the seats (i.e. 58), but the Conservatives still formed the official opposition as the Progressives declined to do so.
→ Three times in that period, the party that formed government did so with fewer votes than the party with the most votes: 1896, 1925 and 1926. Oddly, when that happened in 1896, the Liberal Party was still able to form a majority government. In 1925, the Conservatives had won 15 more seats than the incumbent Liberals yet the latter formed a minority government thanks to the conditional support from the Progressives, but that led to the King-Byng affair when that government fell in 1926.
|¤ It was more common in the 19th century to be elected as an independent, which explains why the percentage of seats for some years does not add up to 100 What's more, roundup errors must be considered.
¤ Canada has never formally had a Labour Party.
¤ In 1917, the Conservative Party ran under the Unionist banner.
¤ In 1930, the Progressives made a distinction between Liberal-Progressive and Progressive, but by 1935 the remaining Progressives were known as Liberal-Progressives and tended to support the Liberals.
¤ In 1940:
→ The National Conservative Party ran under the banner of National Government. Later when the party collapsed, it became the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (in December 1942).
→ Most Social Credit candidates ran under the banner of New Democracy.
→ The Communists ran under various names with the theme of Unity Reform Movement. When the Communist Party was banned later in 1940, it became the Labor-Progressive Party until 1959.