Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Orange Scare? Conservatives take the GTA . . . and Canada

For anyone who sees Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as an arrogant, anti-democratic, pork-barrelling force operating Parliament Hill as an eastern branch office of Big Oil, the 2011 federal election results which gave them a majority of the seats in the House of Commons are dispiriting, to say the least. The New Democratic Party’s unprecedented tripling of its seats to a total of 102 has the air of what is known as a Pyrrhic victory – not that the NDP troops have been decimated, like those of old King Pyrrhus were in their battle with the Romans, but insofar as their success has cost the party its power in a House now fully become the Conservatives’ playground.

“Vote-splitting” between the NDP and the Liberals of what has been called the “centre-left” of the electorate has been fingered as the culprit by many media commentators and ordinary electors. They allege that enthusiasm for Jack Layton and the NDP as an alternative to the Liberal Party, prompted by the NDP surge in Quebec, led many voters who might have supported the Liberals to switch to the NDP, thereby leaving an opening for Conservative candidates to take ridings previously held by Liberals. Thus, the NDP’s own popularity seems to have ironically undermined their actual power in the House of Commons and resulted in a majority government antithetical to its views.

The primary locus of this three-way power-struggle was clearly southern Ontario, and specifically the Greater Toronto Area, in which Conservative candidates took enough seats from Liberal incumbents to finally get their party the House majority that had eluded them in the previous two elections. But how true is the allegation that support for the NDP allowed Conservative candidates to be elected? Could it be possible that it was actually Liberal supporters defecting to the Conservatives that spread the blue tide across the GTA? Or a last-minute catalyzing of the undecided vote that gave the Conservatives a boost from the 35% they had been polling at just days prior to the election to the 40% of the popular vote they managed to attract on election day?

Let’s examine the actual results, moving east to west.

1. In Ajax-Pickering, Liberal incumbent Mark Holland lost his seat to Conservative challenger Chris Alexander by just over 3000 votes – about the same margin he had been elected by over the previous Conservative candidate in 2008. In fact, Holland’s vote total of 21, 569 was virtually unchanged from the prior election, while the Conservative vote increased by over 6000. NDP candidate Jim Koppens did receive nearly double the number of votes (8284 compared to 4472) that his predecessor had in 2008, but half of these votes seem to have come at the expense of the Green Party, whose candidate earned 2000 fewer votes than in 2008. Here, it seems, Conservative voters came out to the polls in large numbers expressly to defeat the Liberal candidate and succeeded, irrespective of the NDP.

2. Scarborough Centre told a different story. Liberal incumbent John Cannis had been elected in 2008 by a margin of nearly 7000 votes over Conservative Roxanne James, with NDP candidate Natalie Hundt a distant third with fewer than 6000 votes. This time out, Hundt’s vote total increased to 11,273, while support for Cannis fell about the same amount that Hundt’s rose, to 12,075. James picked up only 2000 new votes, yet was elected in a tight three-way contest with only 35.5% of the vote. Here the NDP’s rise directly played a role in allowing James to be elected with probably the fewest votes of any MP in the area.

3. This pattern was echoed in Don Valley East, as Conservative Joe Daniel was elected by a margin of less than 1000 votes over Liberal incumbent Yasmin Ratansi. In 2008, Ratansi had garnered over 18,000 votes, but her support fell to 13,552 this election, while Daniel earned only 2000 more votes than his Conservative predecessor, yet was elected with 14,421. The difference again was the surge in NDP support, as Mary Trapani Hynes increased her vote total by approximately the same number as Liberal support fell, ending up with 9878 in a third-place finish.

4. In Don Valley West, Conservative John Carmichael was elected by only 640 votes over Rob Oliphant, the Liberal incumbent. Oliphant in fact received a couple of hundred votes more than he had in 2008, while his Conservative rival picked up some 3500 new votes. The combined NDP/Green support in this riding in both elections was about 8000 votes, with the NDP picking up about 1400 votes, approximately the same amount that the Green Party lost. It seems unlikely that the NDP polling surge was a significant factor here.

5. Eglinton-Lawrence shows a similar pattern. Conservative Joe Oliver was elected by a relatively comfortable 4000 vote margin over Liberal incumbent Joe Volpe. Support for the long-serving Volpe fell by only 500 votes, while Oliver’s increased by nearly 6000 to 22,633. Again the combined NDP/Green share remained stable, with NDP candidate Justin Chatwin increasing his total to 5591 seemingly at the expense of the Greens. That Oliver’s increase in votes actually outweighed the NDP’s total vote in this riding while Volpe’s support dropped only marginally indicates that the NDP was not a significant factor in the outcome.

6. Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden lost his York Centre seat to Conservative Mark Adler by wide margin. Adler received 20,355 votes to Dryden’s 13,979. Dryden’s total in 2008 had been 16,185, providing a solid 2000-vote margin over the Conservative challenger. Adler, however, picked up 6000 more votes for his party compared with the 2008 results. NDP candidate Nick Brownlee garnered about 2000 more votes than had his predecessor, while Green support plunged by about 1500 votes. Did Dryden lose support to the Conservative Adler or to the NDP? The NDP gain was approximately equal to the Liberal loss, but nowhere near the Conservative increase.

7. In Willowdale, Conservative candidate Chungsen Leung was elected with 22,206 votes, just shy of 1000 in excess of Liberal incumbent Martha Hall Findlay’s 21,245. Hall Findlay’s drop was about 2600 votes from her 2008 totals, while Leung gained 6300 votes for the Conservatives. NDP candidate Mehdi Mollahasani earned 4700 more votes than did the previous NDP candidate, while the Green Party did not have a candidate this time, though in 2008 their candidate had garnered over 3000 votes. Did some of these Green votes go to Leung?

8. In Richmond Hill, Liberal incumbent Byron Wilfert’s 5000-vote margin over his Conservative rival in 2008 became a nearly 4400-vote deficit in 2011. Wilfert’s total fell to 17,717 while Conservative candidate Costas Menegakis was elected with 22,093, almost 6000 more votes than his predecessor had taken. NDP candidate Adam DeVita garnered 4000 votes more than his party had in 2008, to finish with 8451, 1500 of which perhaps came at the expense of the Greens. Some Liberal voters may have switched to the NDP this election, but a signficant portion must have either voted Conservative or stayed home while new Conservative supporters made the trek to the polls.

9. Hotly-contested Etobicoke Centre is due for a recount after initial results put Conservative Ted Opitz only 26 votes ahead of Liberal incumbent Boris Wrzesnewskyj, at 21,661 to 21,635. Opitz’s total is almost 3000 votes greater than that of his Conservative predecessor in the 2008 election, while Wrzesnewskyj’s total is about 3000 votes fewer. NDP candidate Ana Maria Rivero earned about 3500 more votes than her predecessor in 2008, about 1200 of which may have come from Green losses. Again, one could suggest that Wrzesnewskyj lost some of his support to the NDP, but this would mean that Opitz was able to mobilize an equivalent amount of Conservative supporters who didn’t vote in 2008.

10. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who was first parachuted into Etobicoke-Lakeshore in 2006, lost his seat to Conservative Bernard Trottier by a margin of almost 3000 votes. Ignatieff’s vote total declined by nearly 4000 votes to 19,058, while Trottier improved his standing from that of his Conservative predecessor by over 4000 votes, for a total of 21,963. Meanwhile, NDP candidate Michael Erickson increased his party’s vote total by about 5000 votes to 10,979, and the Green Party lost about 1400 votes. This result virtually mirrors the result in Etobicoke Centre.

11. Bramalea-Gore-Malton is one GTA riding in which the NDP made a major gain in voter support. Liberal incumbent Gurbax Malhi had been elected in 2008 by a nearly 4000-vote margin over Conservative rival Stella Ambler, while the NDP candidate had garnered fewer than 6000 votes in total. This time out NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh was very nearly elected with 19,369 votes, falling less than 600 votes short of Conservative Bal Gosal’s total of 19,907, while the Liberal incumbent Malhi dropped almost 6000 votes from 22,214 to 16,401. The Conservative total here increased only 1600 votes from the previous election, but this was enough to be elected. The NDP’s increase in this riding was a stunning 13,000, while the Green Party lost only 800. About 10,000 more people voted in Bramalea-Gore-Malton in 2011 than in 2008, the majority of whom seem to have voted NDP. Clearly, the Liberals lost a significant amount of support here to the NDP, but the possiblity of electing an NDP Member of Parliament was no illusion, as the close finish proved.

12. In Brampton-Sprindale, Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla’s support continued to dwindle from the heights of 2006, when she had garnered over 23,000 votes. In 2008, her total had fallen to 18,522, giving her less than a 1000-vote margin over Conservative challenger Parm Gill. This time Gill got the upper hand, as Dhalla’s vote total fell by another 4000 votes to 14,231, while Gill’s share increased from 17,804 to 24,617, an increase of nearly 7000 votes. NDP candidate Manjit Grewal increased his party’s total by about 4600 votes to 9963, while Green Party support dropped by 1600 votes to 1926. Like neighbouring Bramalea, in excess of 10,000 more votes were cast in this riding than in 2008. Unlike the situation in Bramalea, however, many of these votes went to the Conservative candidate, whose increase in support far outstripped the Liberal decline.

13. In Brampton West, Conservative candidate Kyle Seeback was elected by a comfortable 6300 vote margin over Liberal incumbent Andrew Kania, 28,420 to 22,128. In 2008 Kania had held a slim 1000 vote surplus. Interestingly, Kania’s vote total actually increased by nearly 500 votes in 2011, but Seeback’s ballooned by almost 7000. NDP candidate Jagtar Shergill increased his vote total by almost 4000 to 11,225, while Green support tumbled by more than 2000 votes to 1,223. Like its neighbouring ridings, about 10,000 more voters cast ballots here than in 2008, and like Brampton-Springdale, most of these votes seem to have gone to the Conservative candidate.

14. In Mississauga-Brampton South, Conservative Eve Adams was elected with 23,547 votes, about 5000 more than Liberal incumbent Navdeep Bains at 18,562. Bains’s vote total dropped by about 2700 from the 2008 total of 21,220, while Adams’s total was nearly 8000 more than her Conservative predecessor. NDP candidate Jim Glavan increased his party’s count by more than 4000 votes to 9417, while Green Party support fell by about 1800 votes. Some of Bains’s support may have shifted to the NDP, but this does not account for the significant rise in Conservative votes. About 6000 more votes were cast in this riding than in 2008, many of which seem to been Conservative.

15. Mississauga East-Cooksville had elected Liberal Albina Guarnieri in 2008 with more than 50% of the ballots cast, or 20,371 votes. This time Liberal candidate Peter Fonseca garnered only 18,121, a decline of 2,250, while Conservative Wladyslaw Lizon was elected with 18,782, a narrow margin of only 661 votes. Lizon’s total was 5500 votes more than his Conservative predecessor had earned in 2008, an increase that is double the amount of the Liberal decline. NDP candidate Wasseem Ahmed saw his party experience an increase of 4600 votes to 8938, while Green support dipped by about 1000 votes.

16. In Mississauga South, Liberal Paul Szabo had been elected by 2000-vote margins over Conservative challengers in 2008 and 2006. This time, Conservative Stella Ambler was elected with 23,008 votes, almost 4600 more than Szabo’s 18,413 and about the same amount more than her Conservative predecessor had received in 2008. Szabo’s total dropped by about 2000, while NDP support increased about the same amount to 6315 for candidate Farah Kalbouneh. Green Party support fell by almost 2000 votes as well. The pattern seen throughout most of the ridings examined here is present again, as the Conservative increase is significantly greater than Liberal losses, while the NDP seems to have taken as many votes from the Green Party as from the Liberals.

17. In Mississauga-Streetsville, Conservative Brad Butt was elected with 22,104 votes, almost 3500 more than Liberal incumbent Bonnie Crombie’s 18,651. Butt’s total is 5000 more than his Conservative predecessor received in 2008, while Crombie’s support fell by about 3000 votes. NDP candidate Aijad Naqvi’s total of 7864 is about 3000 votes higher than was the previous NDP candidate’s, while Green support fell about 1200 votes. Like Mississauga South, the Liberal decline is approximately equal to the NDP increase – but again, the Conservative rise outstrips this number by a significant margin.

By taking these 17 Toronto-area ridings from Liberal incumbents, the Conservative Party virtually assured itself of a majority government, even had they picked up no other new ridings. In only three of these ridings, Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Scarborough Centre and Don Valley East, was an increase in local NDP support directly responsible for tilting the balance in favour of the Conservative candidate. On average, the increase in Conservative vote totals was double that of Liberal losses, and in many cases the Conservative candidate picked up in excess of 6000 more votes than in 2008. What was responsible for this significant increase in Conservative support?

It has been speculated that many voters who may have been undecided up until the final weekend of the campaign cast their ballot for their Conservative candidate out of fear of an NDP-led coalition government, intimidated by surging NDP popularity in Quebec. Some of these voters may have previously voted Liberal, or had been considering voting Liberal in the current election, but switched to Conservative in response to Harper’s fear-mongering regarding the economic insecurity he claimed would ensue from a Liberal-NDP coalition. Other fiscally-conservative voters who may have supported the Green Party in 2008 may actually have cast their lot with Harper’s Conservatives out of a lack of confidence in the economic policies of the Liberals and NDP. What is clear from these results is that NDP-Liberal “vote-splitting” in Southern Ontario was not the principal phenomenon driving the Conservatives to a majority.

Speculation on a Liberal-NDP “merger” has appeared in the columns of many corporately-owned news sources, including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post. This perspective is the product of minds who cling to the idea that the stands taken by the Liberal Party of Canada on progressive social issues such as the status of women, same-sex marriage, and multiculturalism qualify the party as a “centre-left” in the time-worn and misleadingly simplistic “Left-Right” political spectrum model. In fact, the Liberal Party has a history of being just as strongly dominated by corporate interests as the Conservative Party is, whereas the NDP is influenced by corporate interests only indirectly and in a strangely antagonistic way through its traditional support by labour unions comprised of people employed by large corporations. Despite Jack Layton’s attempts to create a Canadian version of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party by capturing middle-of-the-road, middle-class voters disgusted with Conservative corruption, the NDP remains in its principles and policy an entity entirely distinct from both the Liberals and the Green Party of Canada, a party with whom in previous years mergers were called for by “left-leaning” individuals with a concern for environmental protection.

It remains to be seen to what extent Jack Layton’s New Democrats have won the battle against corporate influence and the politics of cynicism, while losing the war itself to the autocratic Harper Conservatives. One phenomenon that may be of considerable interest but has barely been acknowledged in the commercial media is the astounding increase in votes cast in the north Peel ridings, and to what this implied increase in electoral engagement is due. What is clear is that a significant proportion of voters in the suburbs of Toronto prefer autocracy and the trickle-down effect of the oil, gas, and mining money flowing into Canada’s western provinces to a potentially democratically-messy economic re-organization of Ontario’s struggling manufacturing and agricultural sectors that an NDP-led coalition may have brought.