The breaking wave

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On the face of it, the 2015 federal election results in Atlantic Canada mirrored those of the country, indeed even more so. There are 32 ridings in the region — seven in Newfoundland and Labrador, four in Prince Edward Island, eleven in Nova Scotia, and ten in New Brunswick — all of which were won by the Liberals — a clean sweep. On closer examination a number of trends are apparent in the data. Read on for all the statistical details your heart could possibly desire.

The number of people supporting Conservative Party, and it’s proportionate share of the vote, dropped in every riding in the region, an average of 18.1 points (a 57 per cent decline) in Newfoundland and Labrador; 22 points (a 48.1 per cent decline) on Prince Edward Island; 18.9 points (a 43.5 per cent decline) in Nova Scotia; and 18.6 points (a 34.2 per cent decline) in New Brunswick. Overall, Conservative support dropped 42.1 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

The NDP also experienced declines throughout much of the region, although significantly smaller ones than the Conservatives. In Newfoundland and Labrador its vote share dropped 6.4 points (a 23.5 per cent decline), in Nova Scotia by 14.1 points (a 47.5 per cent decline) and in New Brunswick by 11.5 points (a 29.9 per cent decline). On Prince Edward Island the NDP vote share actually increased by 0.5 points (an increase of 15.4 per cent). Furthermore, in several ridings in the region — Avalon (NL), Egmont (PE), Cardigan (PE), and Madawaska-Restigouche (NB) both the percentage vote share and the absolute number of votes for the NDP increased, an indication that it was not as strongly affected by the red wave as were the Conservatives.

The Green Party made small gains in Prince Edward Island (up 3.6 points) and New Brunswick (up 1.4 points). It declined slightly in Nova Scotia (0.6 points) and is largely off the radar in Newfoundland and Labrador having only 1.1 per cent of the vote share in 2015.

For the Liberals it was nothing but good news: they won every riding in Atlantic Canada, increasing both their absolute vote and their percentage vote share. Indeed there were not even any really close races in the region, the tightest being between the Conservatives (17,361) and Liberals (19,136) in the New Brunswick riding of Fundy Royal, and even there the percentage spread, 3.8 points, hardly made it a nail-biter.

A major factor in the election outcome was the very substantial increase in turnout in every province and virtually every riding. In Newfoundland and Labrador turnout increased by 18.5 per cent to a total of 61.48 per cent of the registered electorate; in Prince Edward Island the turnout increased 11.2 per cent to a total of 77.42 per cent of the registered electorate, the highest proportion in the country; in Nova Scotia turnout increased by 16.6 per cent to a total of 71.08 per cent of the registered electorate; and in New Brunswick the turnout increased 14.3 per cent to a total of 74.63 per cent of the registered electorate, the third highest proportion in the country. To the extent that it is possible to infer (from changing percentages), it appears as if much of this increased turnout was in response to opposition to the Harper Conservatives, and in most ridings it appeared to go in large measure to the Liberal Party.

The Canadian population increased on the order of 7.1 per cent between 2011 and 2015, and the number of registered voters increased by 5.7 per cent, so one would expect an increased number of voters based solely on demographic considerations. However, with the exception of the riding of St. John’s East where turnout increased only by 2.1 per cent, in all other Atlantic Canadian ridings the increase in turnout exceeding demographic growth, in many cases being double, triple, or quadruple this rate.

Thus, in Atlantic Canada we can observe two important electoral factors combining; a movement away from the Conservatives and to a slightly lesser degree the NDP to favour the Liberal Party, and large increases in voter participation that appeared to also benefit the Liberals. 

For an excellent comparative study in I recommend Kai Nagata’s Strategic voting didn’t defeat Harper. Voter turnout did. Nagata analyses trends in British Columbia where the election unfolded rather differently than it did in Atlantic Canada, in part because of strong advocacy work done by the Dogwood Initiative on environmental issues, and an informed strategic voting initiative conducted by the VoteTogether project of LeadNow. VoteTogether was a pan-Canadian initiative that did focus on five ridings in Atlantic Canada, two in New Brunswick, two in Nova Scotia, and one in Newfoundland and Labrador. In all five cases the LeadNow recommended candidates won the ridings they were contesting. 

For those interested in the details, I examine each individual province below. The principle focus is on the 18 ridings that changed hands between 2011 and 2015 although I provide some commentary on all of 32 ridings in the region. Throughout, the colour conventions are Conservative: blue; Green: green; Liberal: red; NDP: orange: Other: black. The “Other” category includes all candidates that ran as independents (i.e., with no affiliation) as well as the results for a variety of small parties that ran in the elections: Christian Heritage Party, Communist, Forces et DĂ©mocratie, Libertarian, Marxist–Leninist, and Rhinoceros. For easy reference, riding names are given in boldface.

For those who want to delve into the full details, read on! Otherwise, scroll to the end for some final observations on what the future may bode.

Newfoundland & Labrador election results

Newfoundland and Labrador

Labrador Election ResultsIn Newfoundland and Labrador three seats changed hands; one Conservative and two New Democrat all going to the Liberals. Overall turnout increased by 18.5 per cent, i.e., 40,216 more people voted, the highest rate of increase in Atlantic Canada. That said, the overall turnout rate in in the province was 61.5 per cent, the lowest in Canada. Overall, Liberal vote share increased from 37.9 to 64.5 per cent. These gains came at the expense of a decline in the NDP vote from 27.5 to 21.1 per cent, but an even steeper decline in Conservative support from 28.4 to 10.3 per cent.

A slightly unusual situation prevailed in the riding of Labrador. Conservative Peter Penashue was elected there in 2011 with 40.4 per cent of the vote. Penashue resigned in 2013 as a result of election funding irregularities and announced he would run again in a by-election to seek a new mandate. He was defeated (32.4 per cent) by Yvonne Jones (48.0 per cent) of the Liberal Party. Jones then returned as an incumbent to defeat Penashue (13.8 per cent) by a resounding 71.4 per cent of the vote. The turnout in the riding increased by 18.7 per cent. The share of NDP vote fell from 20.0 to 14.3 per cent.

St. John's EastIn St. John’s East, powerhouse NDP politician Jack Harris had been the Member of Parliament since 2008 (and before that in 1987–1988). In 2011 Harris won the riding with an astounding 71.2 per cent of the vote, dwarfing the Liberals (6.8 per cent) and Conservatives (20.9 per cent). In 2015, turnout increased by a miniscule (2.1 per cent), the smallest increase in the region. Harris’ share of the vote dropped precipitously to 45.2 per cent allowing Liberal Nick Whalen to win with 46.6 per cent. In addition to drawing a significant number of former NDP supporters, Whalen also benefitted from a collapse in Conservative support from 20.9 percent in 2011 to 6.5 per cent in 2015. Harris was caught in the cross hairs of rising Liberal support and falling Conservative popularity.

St. John's South–Mount PearlIn St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, popular NDP MP Ryan Cleary also went down to defeat. In 2011 Cleary won with 47.8 per cent of the vote, benefitting from a split between the Conservatives (22.8 per cent) and Liberals (28.6 per cent). In 2015 there was a 15.6 per cent increase in turnout in the riding, the NDP lost 11.2 points of the vote share, and Conservative support cratered to 4.6 per cent. All this support went to Seamus O’Regan of the Liberals who won with an absolute majority of 57.7 per cent. Cleary, while retaining 88.8 per cent of his 2011 vote, was caught by this triple whammy.

The riding of Avalon was the only one in the region in which an independent candidate drew more than a sliver of support. Scott Andrews won the seat in 2011 as a Liberal but he was suspended from the Liberal caucus in 2014 over allegations of personal misconduct. Andrews contested the riding in 2015 as an independent and drew 17.8 per cent of the vote, which was, however, far short of the 55.9 per cent that Liberal candidate Ken MacDonald received.  Avalon was also the only riding where the NDP share of the vote increased slightly from 14.2 to 14.4 per cent. Avalon also featured a candidate for Forces et DĂ©mocratie (Strength in Democracy), a political party that was otherwise restricted to the province of QuĂ©bec. Candidate Jennifer McCreath, a transgender activist, received 0.2 per cent of the vote.

In the other Newfoundland and Labrador ridings held by Liberals in 2011, and won by them again in 2015 — Bonavista–Burin–Trinity, Coast of Bays–Central–Notre Dame, and Long Range Mountains — its not easily possible to make detailed comparisons between the 2011 and 2015 turnout since all three ridings were redistributed (and renamed) in 2015 from their 2011 boundaries. On the face of it, Liberal support apparently doubled in all three ridings.

PEI Election Results

Prince Edward Island

Egmont election resultsOn Prince Edward Island, only one seat changed hands, Egmont, going from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Overall, turnout on PEI increased by 11.2 per cent to 77.4 per cent of registered voters, the highest rate in Canada. Liberal support went from 41.0 per cent in 2011 to 58.0 per cent in 2015. This came at the expense of the Conservative party whose voter share declined dramatically, cut more than in half from 41.2 per cent to 19.2 per cent. The NDP share increased slightly from 15.4 per cent to 15.9 per cent and the Green Party’s share more than doubled from 2.4 per cent to 6.0 per cent. The strongest showing for the Greens on PEI was in the riding of Malpeque where candidate Lynne Lund took 9.2 per cent of the vote.

In the three ridings held by Liberals in 2011, all were contested by sitting incumbents and their share of the vote increased from pluralities to absolute majorities. In Cardigan it was up 15.4 points from 49.6 to 65.0 per cent; in Charlottetown it was up 16.8 points from 39.5 to 56.3 per cent; and in Malpeque it was up 19.7 points from 42.4 to 62.1 per cent.

In Egmont, Conservative Fisheries Minister, Gail Shea, went down to defeat. In 2011 Shea won with an absolute majority of 54.6 per cent, beating the Liberals who took 31.3 per cent. In 2015 the numbers and proportions almost exactly reversed when Liberal Bobby Morrissey took 49.1 per cent of the vote to Shea’s 28.8 per cent. In 2015 the turnout in the riding increased by 12.0 per cent. In Egmont the NDP share of the vote increased from 12.4 per cent to 19.1 per cent. A smaller rate of increase (from 10.2 to 11.1 per cent) for the NDP also took place in the riding of Cardigan.

Nova Scotia Election Results

Nova Scotia

In Nova Scotia seven seats, four Conservative and three NDP, changed hands, all going to the Liberals. Provincial turnout increased by 16.6 per cent, increasing overall voter turnout to 71.08 per cent of registered voters, the fifth highest in Canada. Overall Liberal support more than doubled from 28.9 per cent in 2011 to 61.7 per cent in 2015. This came at the expense of both the Conservatives, who saw their support cut more than in half from 36.7 per cent to 17.8 per cent, and the NDP whose share of the vote dropped dramatically from 30.3 per cent to 16.2 per cent. The Green Party’s share also fell from 4.0 per cent to 3.4 per cent. The Liberals went from holding four seats in the province to winning all eleven Nova Scotia ridings.

Cumberland–Colchester election resultsThere were four ridings in Nova Scotia that went from the Conservatives to the Liberals: Central Nova, Cumberland-Colchester, South-Shore–St. Margaret’s, and West Nova. The patterns of change in these four rural ridings were very similar: the Conservative vote fell by almost half, the NDP vote fell by almost half, and all of these votes went to the Liberals. In all four ridings the Liberals won by absolute majorities. The change in Green Party support mostly remained with a percentage point up or down (down 1.8 points in Cumberland-Colchester).  Turnout in South-Shore–St. Margaret’s increased dramatically (27.4 per cent), moderately in Central Nova (17.1 per cent) and Cumberland Colchester (16.0 per cent), and only modestly in West Nova (6.8 per cent), apparently all going to support the Liberals.

Central NovaIn Central Nova, formerly the seat of Justice Minister Peter MacKay, the erosion support for the Conservatives was steepest, dropping 31.1 points from 56.8 per cent in 2011 to 25.7 per cent, illustrating that apart from the MacKay brand, Conservative support in Central Nova is no better than anywhere else in the province (Peter MacKay’s father, Elmer MacKay, in office from 1971-1993, was the former patriarch of this riding). Central Nova was also where Green Party leader Elizabeth May ran in 2008 receiving 32.4 per cent of the vote (although this was without a Liberal candidate). This support appeared to have been almost entirely for the candidate since in the subsequent election of 2011 (with Matthew Chisholm running for the Greens) it collapsed to 3.7 per cent, more or less where it has stayed subsequently.

South Shore–St. MargaretsThe only significant variation amongst these formerly Conservative held seats was in South-Shore–St. Margaret’s, where in 2011 under popular former MP (1997–2000) Gordon Earle the NDP ran a relatively close second  (36.2 per cent) to Conservative Gerald Keddy (43.1 per cent). In 2015 Keddy retired, Earle did not run and NDP support declined by 19.4 points to 16.8 per cent.  The only one of these ridings where Liberal support had previously been strong in 2011 was West Nova where former MP Robert Thibault (2000–2008) took 36.5 per cent of the vote in 2011, a share that increased to 62.6 per cent in 2015 under Liberal Colin Fraser (Conservative incumbent Gregg Kerr retired in 2015).

West NovaIn rural Nova Scotia, voters dramatically moved from both the right (Conservatives) and left (NDP) to the political center leading to dramatic increases in support for the Liberal Party. This was equally true in other rural Nova Scotia ridings held by the Liberals in 2011 where the percentage share also increased dramatically in 2015. In Cape-Breton-Canso support increased 28 points from 46.4 to 74.4 per cent; in Kings-Hants it was up 31.1 points from 39.6 to 70.7 per cent; and in Sydney-Victoria it was up 33.2 points from 40.0 to 73.2 per cent. In all cases these ridings, contested by Liberal incumbents, soared from below absolute majorities to in excess of 70 per cent support — veritable landslides.

Dartmouth-Cole Harbour election resultsThere were also three urban ridings that went from the NDP to the Liberals — Dartmouth–Cole Harbour, Halifax, and Sackville–Preston–Chezzetcook. In Dartmouth–Cole Harbour, NDP incumbent MP Robert Chisholm‘s (formerly a leader of the provincial NDP) hold on the seat was tenuous. In 2011 he beat Liberal incumbent  Mike Savage (2004-2011) (who promptly became mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality) by a very slender margin: 499 votes and 1.2 percentage points. In 2015 the NDP vote declined 12 points from 36.3 to 24.3 per cent, Conservative support dropped 10.8 points, and the turnout in the riding jumped 21.5 per cent — all of this apparently going to the Liberals. This allowed them to more than double their vote and soar from 35.1 to 58.0 per cent of the vote under Darren Fisher, a municipal councilor making his federal political dĂ©but.

Halifax election resultsIn the other two NDP-held seats the situation was quite different since they were held by powerhouse incumbents, both of whom won election in 2011 with absolute majorities. In Halifax, MP Megan Leslie, the deputy leader of the NDP and its high profile Environment Critic, was very popular in the riding handily winning in both 2008 (42.8 per cent) and 2011 (51.6 per cent). In 2015 her vote share fell 15.6 points from 51.6 to 36.0 per cent (a loss of 4,583 votes). At the same time the Conservative vote share fell by over half from 18.0 to 8.6 per cent  (a loss of 3,712 votes). This coupled with a 15.9 per cent increase in turnout, which apparently all went to the Liberals, allowed them to double their vote share from 25.6 to 51.5 per cent under the candidacy of Andy Fillmore, a former municipal planner.

Sackville–Preston–Chezzetcook election resultsA very similar situation prevailed in Sackville–Preston–Chezzetcook where NDP MP Peter Stoffer had held the seat since 1999, building his plurality steadily until 2006 when he won by an absolute majority. In 2011 Liberal support in the riding was very small, 11.2 per cent under candidate Scott Hemming. Stoffer’s main rival then was Conservative Adam Mimnagh who took 30.5 per cent of the vote. In 2015 support for Stoffer dropped 19.8 points from 54.1 to 34. 3 per cent (a loss of 5,867 votes) while support for the Conservatives was cut more than in half, from 30.5 to 14.8 per cent. At the same time, turnout in the riding increased 16.6 per cent, all apparently going to the Liberals. This allowed Darrell Samson, a complete political neophyte, to win, more than quadrupling the Liberal vote share to 47.8 per cent — a stunning defeat of an MP with a national reputation as an advocate for Canadian veterans.

New Brunswick Election Results

New Brunswick

Saint John–RothesayIn New Brunswick, virtually the entire province changed political colour. Only one riding, BeausĂ©jour, held by Liberal Dominic LeBlanc since the year 2000, did not. Almost the entirety of the rest of the province — eight ridings including Fredericton, Fundy Royal, Madawaska-Restigouche, Miramichi-Grand Lake, Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, New Brunswick Southwest, Saint John-Rothesay, and Tobique-Mactaquac held by the Conservatives in 2011 — went to the Liberals in 2015. It was a dramatic wipeout, with the Conservative share of the vote dropping from 43.8 per cent in 2011 to 25.2 per cent in 2015. There was also one NDP seat in the province, Acadie-Bathurst that went to the Liberals in 2015. The NDP vote share fell 11.5 points from 29.8 to 18.3 per cent in 2015. Turnout in the province also increased by 14.3 per cent to 74.63 per cent of the registered electorate, the third highest rate in the country after PEI (77.42 per cent) and Yukon (76.03 per cent). Virtually all of this went to the Liberals increasing their vote share in the province from 22.6 to 51.3 per cent, a sweep of the New Brunswick political landscape.

FrederictonA small portion went to the Green Party in the riding of Fredericton (an increase of 4,032 votes from 1,772 to 5,804) for Green Party candidate Mary Lou Babineau, an academic at St. Thomas University. This was almost certainly a spinoff from the success of provincial Green Party leader David Coon’s electoral success, winning a seat in the provincial legislature in the 2014 New Brunswick election. This gave Babineau a 12.4 per cent of the vote, the only riding in Atlantic Canada where Green Party support reached into the double digits. In other ridings, Green Party support also increased modestly, although staying at comparatively low levels (4.6 per cent of the votes cast).

Madawaska Restigouche election resultsIn the formerly Conservative ridings that went to the Liberals in 2015 there are many similar patterns. Conservative support declined in all of them, on average 20.1 per cent (range: 14.3–25.8 per cent). Except in Fredericton (as noted above) Green Party support increased slightly but stayed in the range of 1.9–5.1 per cent. With one exception (see below) NDP support also declined, an average of 10.8 per cent (range 7.8–13.9 per cent), however at only half the rate of the Conservative decline. The one exception was the riding of Madawaska-Restigouche where NDP support increased from 18.6 to 25.7 per cent under candidate Rosaire L’Italien, a popular local journalist formerly with Radio Canada.

Fundy RoyalThere was a very significant increase in turnout Fundy Royal (28.5 per cent); smaller but sizeable increases in Miramichi-Grand Lake (19.0 per cent), New Brunswick Southwest (20.0 per cent), Saint John-Rothesay (14.7 per cent), and Tobique-Mactaquac (14.7 per cent); and modest increases in Fredericton (5.9 per cent), Madawaska-Restigouche (7.7 per cent), and Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe (6.8 per cent).

Moncton–Riverview Dieppe election resultsAll these factors combined to give the Liberals sizeable increases in vote share averaging 27.6 per cent (range: 20.0–32.5 per cent), Although only two candidates, RenĂ© Arsenault in Madawaska-Restigouche and Ginette Petitpas Taylor in Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, received absolute majorities (55.2 and 57.8 per cent, respectively), most of the other Liberal candidates received comfortable pluralities. In Fundy Royal the spread between the Liberals (Alaina Lockhart) and Conservatives (incumbent Rob Moore) was 3.8 percentage points and in New Brunswick Southwest the spread was 5.4 percentage points, the closest races in the province.

Tobique–MactaquacWhat is quite remarkable is that in all these ridings (save Tobique-Mactaquac) the candidates running in 2015 were Conservative Party incumbents — all of whom lost (in Tobique-Mactaquac, incumbent Mike Allen chose to retire from politics before the 2015 election).  These included three Conservative cabinet ministers: Keith Ashfield (Fredericton), the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans; Rob Moore (Fundy Royal), the Minister of State for ACOA and Regional Minister for New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador; and Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska-Restigouche), the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, an indication of how unpopular the Harper Conservative government had become.

Acadie–BathurstFinally, in the riding of Acadie-Bathurst, Yvon Godin had been continuously elected as an NDP MP from 1997 until he retired from politics in 2015. Godin was a powerhouse politician in his community winning absolute majorities in 2011 (69.7 per cent), 2008 (57.4 per cent), and 2004 (58. 2 per cent), and approaching those levels in 2006 (49.9 per cent) and 2000 (46.6 per cent). In past elections no other party seriously challenged him, and in 2011 the Liberals took only 14.1 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives 16.2 per cent.  In 2015 his successor Jason Godin (no relation) was unable to sustain this level of loyalty and the NDP vote share fell to 39.1 per cent, which coupled with a significant drop in the Conservative vote (to 7.5 per cent), and an increased voter turnout of 11.6 per cent allowed Liberal candidate Serge Cormier, a provincial Liberal Party staffer, to win with 50.4 per cent of the vote.

Looking ahead

If there is any lesson that a political analyst should adhere to it is to avoid future prognostications, and the Atlantic Canada election results in 2015 provide an object lesson in that regard. Eighteen of the 32 ridings (56 per cent) changed political hands. What was done in 2011 was in large measure undone in 2015 and could, in turn, be undone in 2019 — or not.  Here is what can be noted.

In all fourteen ridings in Atlantic Canada formerly held by the Conservatives, the party remains competitive with more than 25 per cent vote share except for Labrador (13.8 per cent), South Shore–St. Margaret’s (22.5 per cent), Madawaska–Restigouche (16.3 per cent), and Moncton-Riverview–Dieppe (21.5 per cent), and it ran second in all these ridings except for Labrador and Madawaska–Restigouche.

In all six ridings in Atlantic Canada formerly held by the NDP, the party ran a strong second in the election and remains competitive with more than 25 per cent vote share except Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, although there it is just on the cusp with 24.3 per cent. Furthermore, the NDP ran second in Avalon (14.3 per cent), Labrador (14.3 per cent), Charlottetown (23.0 per cent), Sydney-Victoria (13.0 per cent), Beauséjour (15.0 per cent), and Madawaska-Restigouche (25.7 per cent) indicating that it is competitive in all four provinces in Atlantic Canada.

Atlantic Canada Proportional RepresentationThe best hope for the Green Party appears to be in Fredericton where the party hit double digits (12.4 per cent of the vote share) in 2015, the only such riding in Atlantic Canada.

If Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau makes good on his promise that 2015 is the last Canadian federal election to be conducted on the basis of the first-past-the-post electoral system, and in particular if a system of proportional representation is introduced for the 2019 election, the next such analysis of the vote may be conducted on a completely different basis. Thus, just to provide a basis of comparison, the figure at the right shows what the allocation of seats in Atlantic Canada after the 2015 federal election would have been if we were employing a system of proportional representation. Rather than 32 Liberal seats there would be six Conservative, one Green, 19 Liberal, and six NDP seats — a clear illustration of the disproportionalities that result from the first-past-the-post system.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...