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A few caveats before we get into these hypothetical scenarios. Obviously, if the NDP was able to breakthrough into Quebec in 1997 the course of the party's history would be entirely different. But would a breakthrough in 1997 or 2000 under Alexa McDonough even be possible? If it had occurred before 2003, would Jack Layton still have been chosen as leader? How would the other parties have reacted to an NDP based primarily in Quebec? All of these questions are unanswerable, and will be left unanswered here.
The scenarios outlined below are based on the following premise: that the NDP takes the same proportion of the vote from the Bloc, Liberals, and Conservatives (or PCs and Reform/Canadian Alliance) that they did between the 2008 and 2011 elections. Would that happen exactly the same way in every election between 1997 and 2008, each with their own issues and dynamics? Of course not. But again, we're just doing a hypothetical exercise.
For the seats, I started with the UBC's electoral forecaster for 1997, but used a simpler system afterwards as that model does not handle huge surges by one party very well (in 2011, it would have given the NDP over 70 seats in Quebec). For the elections between 2000 and 2008, I merely penalized the parties by the same proportion as occurred between the 2008 and 2011 elections, and awarded the NDP the rest.
Results in the rest of the country are unchanged. Would that happen if the NDP was surging in Quebec? Probably not. But again...
What is the purpose of this exercise? Much of it is sheer curiosity, but I think it also shows just how important Quebec has been in the past and how it can still be important in the future.
The first scenario imagines that, after the referendum defeat of 1995, the Bloc Québécois is deemed no longer very useful and voters drift over to the NDP (note that in 1988 the NDP had 14% support in Quebec, better even than their 2008 performance under Layton, so it is not unthinkable).
The NDP wins Quebec with 37% of the vote, while the Bloc Québécois drops to 30%, the Liberals to 20%, and the Progressive Conservatives to 10%. This gives the NDP 56 seats, leaving just 12 for the Bloc, five for the Liberals, and one for the PCs.
The NDP's surge in Quebec propels them to Official Opposition status ahead of the Reform Party, while the Bloc drops to fifth-party status behind the Tories. Jean Chrétien wins a minority government. His only viable route to getting legislation passed is the NDP, as the Tories are not strong enough to give them a majority of seats.
In 2000, we can either imagine that the NDP continues its dominance in Quebec, propping up the Liberals for three years, or that the 1997 breakthrough never occurs, and instead takes place for the first time in 2000. For continuity, we'll assume the former scenario.
The NDP takes 37% of the vote again, while the Bloc plummets to 23%. This barely puts them ahead of the Liberals, who win 22%, while the PCs take 17% of the vote. The NDP retains 56 seats, while the Liberals take advantage of the Bloc's tumble to win 13 seats. The Bloc loses enough support in rural Quebec to the PCs to give the party no more than a handful of seats, and it is reduced to four.
The Liberals are returned with another minority government of 149 seats, while the NDP just manages to hold onto the Official Opposition role with 69 seats. But they lose their influence in the government, as the Progressive Conservatives use their 13 seats to give Chrétien a workable majority government. Disappointed that she continues to struggle to breakthrough in the rest of the country, McDonough resigns as leader and is replaced by Layton, who emphasizes his Quebec roots in his successful leadership bid.
Disgusted that Joe Clark has teamed up with the Liberals, the PCs split apart. One faction officially joins the Liberals while the other group approaches the Canadian Alliance. An agreement is reached to form a new Conservative Party.
Layton manages to keep the New Democrats the first choice of Quebecers with 38% of the vote, but the Liberals have been boosted to 27% thanks to the PCs from Quebec having joined the party en masse. The Bloc takes 25% of the vote while the new Conservatives, seen as too close to the old Reform wing, manages just 9% of the vote. The NDP takes 54 seats, with the Liberals winning 18 and the Bloc taking three.
This gives Paul Martin a new minority government, but the Official Opposition role has gone to Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Determined to not make the same mistake Clark made, Harper refuses to co-operate with the Liberals under any circumstances, and the Liberals and NDP team up to form a majority government.
But the sponsorship scandal poisons the relationship between the Liberals and the heavily Quebec-based NDP, and the coalition falls apart and new elections are called in 2006.
The NDP takes 39% of the vote in another successful campaign, but the Bloc jumps to 30% as a result of the sponsorship scandal. The Liberals still take 20%, while the Conservatives drop again to just 7%. The NDP takes 60 seats, their best-ever result, while the Liberals are reduced to 11. For all their gains, the Bloc picks up just one seat.
Harper manages to form a minority government with 114 seats, as Layton refuses to join with the Liberals again. For two years, he instead works with the Conservatives to pass budgets, though they oppose everything else the government proposes until things come to a head in 2008, and the government falls.
The NDP takes 38% of the vote in Quebec and holds 59 seats, as the Liberals drop to just 12% and seven seats. The Conservatives, now in government, manage to increase their vote share (at the expense of the Liberals) to 19% and win five seats, while the Bloc slips slightly to 26%.
Harper forms another minority government with 138 seats, while Layton takes over the role of Official Opposition from Stéphane Dion, whom the Liberals selected in hopes of winning back the Quebec vote. Dion proposes that the Liberals and NDP join up again to form a majority government. Layton has a chance to become Prime Minister, but his support in the rest of Canada is still weak and his potential partners have just been dealt a terrific blow in Quebec. Does he accept?
The point of this exercise is not historical revisionism, but instead what these numbers tell us about the future. As the Conservatives won a majority government in 2011, one might be persuaded that all Quebecers did was replace a teal party with an orange party - it doesn't change the electoral calculations one bit if the Conservatives win a majority government completely outside Quebec. But that was the unusual event. In previous elections, the Conservatives had never been strong enough to win a majority government outside of Quebec. Recall that in 2006 and 2008 the Conservatives were kept to a minority despite winning 10 seats in Quebec.
If the 40 to 50 seats the Bloc routinely won are now up for grabs by a national party, that changes things tremendously. Majority governments could have been cobbled together between 2004 and 2008 if the Bloc wasn't such an unacceptable dancing partner for a government. Barring a return to prominence for the Bloc, that is no longer a problem. What will that mean in 2015 and beyond?