Opinion: How to Lose a Canadian Federal Election

August 6, 2019 Updated: August 7, 2019

How would you go about losing a Canadian election? That might sound like a trick question, but with a national campaign coming up this fall, a surprising number of people are acting as if they’re determined to lose. The essential tactic, which works elsewhere too, is to run as if you didn’t believe your beliefs and were in fact ashamed of them.

In case you aren’t Canadian and are less fascinated by us than we sometimes suppose, Canada is nearly a pure parliamentary system. We elect 338 members of Parliament in single-member constituencies using a first-past-the-post system, and whoever commands the support of a majority of MPs holds the office of prime minister as long as they keep the “confidence” of the House of Commons.

Our system is not “pure” for three reasons. First, an appointed upper house, the Senate, has limited power to check the elected Commons. Second, our federation divides power constitutionally between the federal and provincial or territorial governments, though mostly in favour of the centre. Third, since the 1982 “repatriation” of our Constitution, we’ve had a poorly conceived and badly drafted fundamental law that, while preserving most of the 1867 original, added a Charter of Rights giving judges enormous leeway to override our elected representatives without creating popular sovereignty.

Notwithstanding, our elections are basically national contests in whoever commands a majority of seats gets executive power.

It also matters electorally that Canada is a very big country with significant regional divisions. You don’t need to be big to have regional divisions—just ask the Belgians. But we are and we do: a growing West inclined to individualism, an underpopulated prairie region inclined to be overlooked, two big populous central provinces of Ontario and Quebec inclined to think they are Canada even when bickering over language, and a smaller Atlantic region with one officially bilingual province (New Brunswick) inclined to economic sluggishness.

The regions have no formal electoral standing; we have no equivalent of the U.S. Electoral College. But they do have distinct characteristics, and to a remarkable degree elections are won and lost regionally, including in 2015 when the Liberals limped across the majority status finish line with an unanticipated and in some ways inexplicable sweep of 32 Atlantic seats, unlikely to be repeated this fall. This may furnish some insight into how to win. But you’re waiting for me to tell you how to lose.

It Takes Work to Lose

It may not be hard. Elections have far more losers than winners, especially if, like Canada, you have more than two parties. We have 2.5-plus: the Liberals and Conservatives who alternate in power, and a tepidly socialist New Democratic Party that has never come close to a majority federally though it sometimes wins a provincial election. Add to that a formerly tiny but surging Green Party and a formerly significant but withering nationalist Bloc Quebecois. Then add in all the people who lost their party’s nomination races, and losing looks easy. But it still takes work, especially when others seem determined to beat you to it.

A few months back, the Conservatives looked as if they would coast to victory aided by an ugly judicial/political scandal over the Liberal-connected SNC Lavalin engineering giant. But they’ve been running hard away from their ostensible principles—from free markets to strong national defence to traditional social values, pandering cynically to special interests and political correctness—and are sagging in the polls.

The Conservatives have lost this way so often, federally and provincially, that you’d think they’d be sick of it. Occasionally they forget themselves, run a conservative campaign, and win. But then they govern from the left to make sure they lose next time, including running big deficits. And it works.

The Liberals are in a slightly different position. Programmatically, they’re fairly consistently left of centre. But in 2015, they shot from unaccustomed third-party status to victory with the charming Justin Trudeau, son of former charming prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Trudeau Jr.’s promise of open, inclusive politics and “sunny ways” brought a big majority of Ontario seats and a majority in Quebec for the first time since his father repatriated the Constitution over vehement objections from that province. (The Liberals got drubbed in the West, which is basically Conservative territory with some NDP pockets. But they don’t need the West.)

Do it again, right? Wrong. Since 2015 they’ve been working hard to reinforce the traditional image of their party as cynical, quashing dissent, hushing up scandals, acting secretive and surly, enforcing political correctness, and requiring unquestioning loyalty to the leader. They’ve shown open contempt for Western Canada’s aspirations and economic troubles. And they’ve brushed aside major broken promises, from electoral reform to balanced budgets, with an ill-concealed sneer at the naïve fools who took them seriously.

The NDP, meanwhile, chose a pseudo-charismatic leader, Jagmeet Singh, and are playing to type as sour, impractical, inaudible, especially when yelling and totally uninterested in ever having a new idea.

The Bloc Quebecois are struggling against a loss of interest in separatism in Quebec—or would be if they could find the energy.

In short, every major party is following a strategy that seems guaranteed to lose unless one of the others loses even better.

Except the Greens. They are committed to their environmental ideals, including that practicality is for chumps and enemies of progress. They are also “progressive” across the board, including on things like abortion or forced unionization that seem inimical to an organic approach to politics and public affairs. So far, they’re surging.

They won’t win a majority but they will do well, thanks in part to their own efforts and in part to the other parties giving a seminar on how to lose a Canadian election. It’s not clear why, but they seem determined.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Robson
John Robson
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”