Polity by Rob Salmond


Canada voted

As readers know, the Liberal Party won Canada’s election earlier this week. Justin Trudeau is the new Canadian Prime Minister, and will lead a majority government.

First, I have a Wea Culpa on this result. A few weeks ago, when the New Democratic Party was leading in the polls, I posted at PA about what was driving their ascent, and what lessons that might bring for New Zealand. I said:

While there’s a tight election campaign on in Canada right now, next month the NDP is most likely to head the Canadian government for the first time.

At that time, the odds were stacked in the NDP’s favour. But of course, the NDP didn’t win in the end. The Liberals did. So I – like many others writing at the time the NDP was leading – was wrong. Wrong!

Philip Tetlock famously showed that expert predictions are wrong quite frequently, and they’re only moderately better than monkeys with typewriters. Glad to see I can play my own small part in keeping Tetlock’s distinction as the exception to his own rule alive!

So, what can we in New Zealand learn from the campaign?

I suppose people are going to see what they want to see.

Cam Slater saw the result as evidence that I’m broadly useless and that Labour should fire me. Duly noted and filed.

Steph Rogers and Gordon Campbell saw the Liberals’ win as a victory for the true left, because the Liberals are willing to go into deficit for the next two years whereas the NDP wasn’t. They suggest it was the NDP’s commitment to running continued surpluses that killed them in the final weeks as they came to be seen as too centrist and too like Stephen Harper.

I’m not so sure.

First, the NDP’s more centrist stance was highly public in general terms both when they went up in the polls, and also when they went down later. That makes it hard to sustain an argument that it’s the centrist stance that killed them. It would be causation without correlation.

And any claim that a single announcement about a set of budget forecasts can explain a loss of ten percentage points in a month isn’t grounded in the reality of how voters decide their choice.

Second, and more importantly, anyone claiming Canadians now see the Liberals as the party of the true left in Canada needs to talk to more Canadians.

For about 50 years, the Liberals have positioned themselves right of the NDP but left of the Progressive Conservatives / Conservatives. The new Prime Minister’s dad, Pierre Trudeau, was PM for 15 of those years, governing near the centre.

Both those facts stand as massive barriers to an 11th hour change in perception about which party stands for what.  

In this election, it’s certainly true that the Liberals had a looser position on deficits than the NDP. But on many other issues, the old pattern remained unchanged. Here, for example, is the NDP unapologetically claiming the mantle of the left, on issues ranging from the minimum wage to student debt, homelessness, childcare, and income support.

Third, for most of the year and across almost all issues, the Liberals have pitched themselves as centrist. Look at their platform, titled “A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class.” The main policy sections are squarely aimed at middle income earners, especially those with kids.

Most of the revenue from the new tax on the wealthiest 1% gets spent on a “middle class tax cut.” Most of the $22 billion in new benefits for children is paid for by cutting $20 billion of other benefits for children. And so on. It’s a cautious platform, with plenty for middle income families and little for those at the bottom of the heap.

No wonder the NDP thought there was room to run surpluses and still claim the mantle of the left!

So, what do we learn from this? Certainly there are lots of technical lessons to learn, and I have been following the platforms and the ads and the debates. More broadly it is, of course, too early to tell for sure. I imagine all the parties, and plenty of Canadian psephologists, will be sending their statistical software into overtime trying to make sense of the patterns.

But from the outside I see a historically centre-centre-left party winning by being itself, against the shadow of a deeply unpopular incumbent. It’s another data point for broadly progressive causes to consider, going into the pantheon right next to, but very different from, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory an in internal party election last month.

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