Second place party could 'win' Ontario's election

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Photo: James McCaffrey

In the May 1985 Ontario election, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party, led by premier Frank Miller, won the most seats. Nonetheless, Miller did not get to stay in power. 

When the legislature convened in June of 1985, the second place Liberals and third place New Democrats united to pass a motion declaring non-confidence in the Progressive Conservatives. The lieutenant governor then asked Liberal leader David Peterson to form a government. 

It was minority government. Peterson depended on the support of the NDP's Bob Rae, with whom he had signed an agreement. The deal provided that the Liberals would enact a number of NDP measures, which they did. 

Somebody should remind the good people at Elections Ontario about this history. 

Voters in Ontario are all now receiving an information pamphlet from Elections Ontario, the professional, non-partisan organization that manages Ontario elections. Most Ontarians have probably received it by now. If you've got it, have a look at page three. There you will see the following false statement: "The party that wins the most seats across the province becomes the governing party, and its leader becomes the Premier of Ontario."


That statement is not true in principle, not true in theory and has not always been true in practice. In parliamentary democracies, party leaders become premier, or prime minister, when they can command the confidence of the legislature. They do not have to lead the party with the most seats. David Peterson's party in 1985 came second in seats, and yet Peterson went on to become premier.

Parliament and legislatures reduced to role of electoral colleges

In making the false statement it did about how parliamentary democracy works, Elections Ontario has confirmed what many critics, such as New Brunswick political scientist Donald Savoie, decry about the current state of democracy in Canada. They worry that the vital role of our elected legislatures has been severely weakened. Parliaments and provincial legislatures have devolved into odd simulacra of electoral colleges. Their purpose has been reduced to anointing the heads of government, be they premiers or prime ministers, who are then free to exercise power without ever again having to worry about the legislatures or parliaments that put them there.

In the U.S., the sole purpose of the Electoral College is to select the president. It does so on a winner-take-all, state-by-state basis. With the exception of two small states, the candidate who wins the most votes in each state gets a 100 per cent of its electors. That means a candidate can win the presidency while losing the popular vote – which is what happened a few times in the 19thcentury and again in 2000 and 2016. 

The Americans do have a legislature, however: the Congress, which they elect separately from the president. That separation produces the Americans' so-called checks-and balances system, an idea they borrowed from the French political philosopher Montesquieu. 

We in Canada, both provincially and federally, do not directly elect our heads of government, be they premiers or prime ministers. We elect parliaments or legislatures, and it is they, in principle, who have the authority to vote confidence in the chief executive. Those chief executives can only remain in power as long as they maintain the confidence of the elected legislatures or parliaments. 

As the official Ontario campaign gets going in earnest, this is more than a theoretical consideration. It is not at all outside the realm of possibility that on June 7 we could see a result similar that of 1985.

Less than two weeks ago, most polls were giving Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Doug Ford a double-digit lead. The most recent poll, however, shows Ford with a mere seven-point lead over Andrea Horwath's New Democrats, who have taken over second place from the governing Liberals. 

Since the beginning of this election season we've been hearing chatter about so-called strategic voting. 

The prevailing message has been that voters in the anti-Ford majority must be smart in the exercise of their franchise. They have to figure out how to cast their votes in such a way as to achieve one overriding objective: to stop Ford. While a few weeks ago the chatter tended to focus on getting New Democrats to vote Liberal, now it's beginning to go the other way.

A majority for Doug Ford is far from a sure thing

To put the current chatter in context, political analyst Paul Barber, who blogs under the rubric T.C. Norris, has looked back to the 1999 Ontario election campaign and analyzed the impact of the significant efforts, then, to get voters to act strategically. 

Progressive Conservative Mike Harris was the premier in 1999. He'd been elected four years earlier, in 1995. For many Ontarians, the experience of what Harris called his Common Sense Revolution had been bruising. As Paul Barber puts it:

 "The PCs had made a lot of enemies by 1999 -- teachers, nurses, trade unionists, residents of Toronto, etc. Their issues made strategic voting a theme of the election … Several strategic voting organizations inserted themselves into the campaign … [and] their mere presence reflected [a] real grassroots consciousness of strategic voting … That consciousness did have an impact. In eight ridings where PC candidates were defeated, strategic voting appears to have been the key factor."

Mike Harris went on to win the 1999 election. However, as polarizing as he was, Harris was a far more popular and less divisive figure than is Doug Ford. At this stage in the campaign, a good many Ontarians do not appear to have decided whom to support. A lot can happen in a month. 

If the vote on June 7 does produce what the British call a hung parliament, where no party has a majority, it is hard to imagine how Ford could gain the support of either the Liberals or New Democrats. That would open the door to the 1985 scenario. A second-place party, in collaboration with the third-place party, could take the reins of power.

And so, Elections Ontario should stop spreading nonsense about the party with the most seats automatically forming government. 

Ontarians are electing 124 members of their legislature on June 7. Those elected members will have the right to choose on whom to confer the mantle of power. 

It is true that the leader of the party with the most seats usually becomes premier. It is not, however, always the case; and it might not be the case this year.   

Photo: James McCaffrey/Flickr

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