Friday, May 29, 2015

The Federal Election of 2003 that never was

The following is a work of fiction. Going through some old polls, I wondered what a snap election call in the fall of 2003, before the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged, would have looked like. With Peter MacKay announcing he will not run for re-election this fall, now is a good time to wonder what might have been. Thanks to Professor Werner Antweiler of UBC for providing the election data that I used to estimate seat counts.


The election call took everyone by surprise, but then again it had been a whirlwind summer for the Liberal Party of Canada. John Manley dropped out of the leadership race to replace Jean Chrétien at the end of July, and Sheila Copps, seeing the writing on the wall, did the same shortly afterwards. With Paul Martin the only name left on the leadership ballot, the party moved up the convention to mid-August and Martin was officially named the party's leader then.

With a caucus revolt brewing, Chrétien no longer saw his planned retirement date of February 2004 as tenable. He stepped down, and Martin became Prime Minister on August 20, 2003.

Liberals knew they had to act quickly. The party was leading in the polls by a comfortable margin, but the right would not be divided for long. Word that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay, leaders of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, respectively, were talking about a merger forced the Liberals into action.

Calling for a mandate of his own, Paul Martin visited Governor General Adrienne Clarkson on August 24, a Sunday, and asked for the dissolution of parliament. The election date was set for Monday, September 29, 2003.

MacKay and Harper were indeed talking about merging the two parties into one, but the talks were still in a very early stage. While Martin was speaking with Clarkson, MacKay and Harper were speaking on the telephone. They agreed there was no time to formally unite the two parties. Who would be the leader anyway?

What if the two parties agreed not to run against each other, and worked out the merger after the campaign was over? Harper favoured the party that placed ahead of the other in the 2000 election getting the consensus right-of-centre candidate in each riding. And of course he would - the Canadian Alliance captured more than twice the Tories' vote in 2000.

MacKay was not in agreement. The latest polls had the PCs ahead of the Canadian Alliance, particularly in Ontario where Harper's numbers were very weak. MacKay wanted Ontario. But Harper knew that if he gave it to him, the Tories could very well outnumber his party's caucus after the election. And Ontario was key to his electoral hopes for the future.

The two agreed that they would just have to fight one more election as two separate parties. They wished each other luck, and the campaign was on.

This would be both Harper's and MacKay's first campaign as party leaders, as well as Martin's. Jack Layton of the New Democrats was also going to take his first kick at the can. Things were going moderately well for the NDP. After capturing just 8.5% of the vote in 2000, Layton had boosted the party back into double-digits. The party was not yet ready for a breakthrough, but if he played his cards right Layton could give the NDP its best result since 1988.

The only veteran leader was Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, entering his third campaign as leader. But the party was adrift. In April, the Parti Québécois had been booted out of power with its worst performance in 30 years and the latest polls put the Bloc around 30% in the province. Duceppe needed something to breathe new life into the sovereignty movement. He would eventually get it, but not soon enough.

The campaign

Paul Martin did not prove to be the best campaigner, but things were working in his favour. The internecine fighting the Liberals were known for was virtually non-existent, thanks to the party's strong polling numbers. In Ontario, where the provincial campaign had been delayed in order not to overlap with the federal one, Dalton McGuinty took the extra time to campaign with the federal Liberals, boosting both party's support levels. At the crowded leaders' debate, where the truce between Harper and MacKay seemed to collapse on live television, Martin stood above the fray as the four other leaders bickered.

Stephen Harper had hoped to use the campaign to portray himself and his party as a potential alternative by moving to the centre, but with the polls not moving along with him - and a disaster looming - Harper instead had to turn back to the right to shore up his base.

It was a decision that gave Peter MacKay an opportunity. With his own polling numbers going nowhere, MacKay tried to position his party as the only electable conservative option, visiting winnable ridings in Alberta and Ontario. His numbers did not move enough to turn the tide, and MacKay spent most of the last week of the campaign in Atlantic Canada, where his party was competitive with the Liberals.

In such a crowded playing field, it was difficult for Jack Layton to get his voice heard. But he was making some significant gains in British Columbia and Alberta, and was holding on to Alexa McDonough's support base in Atlantic Canada. However, Quebec and Ontario, his two native provinces by birth and residence, were not swinging over to the NDP.

Gilles Duceppe was also having trouble. A strong French-language debate in which three of the five contestants had less than passable French, dooming any hopes that MacKay had of a return to Jean Charest-levels of support in Quebec, boosted the Bloc at the expense of the other opposition parties. But the Liberals were still supreme. The new Charest government was in the midst of its honeymoon. Seeing where the winds were blowing, Charest even campaigned with Martin. What could Duceppe do? Bernard Landry had just been dealt a humiliating defeat, but the PQ's leader gamely went on the hustings along with Duceppe. The result, though, was to shift the Bloc's campaign focus ever more on the question of sovereignty.

The results

When the votes were counted, it was a massacre. The Liberals formed the largest government in Canadian history, even surpassing (in seat numbers) Brian Mulroney's triumph in 1984.

The Liberals captured 48% of the vote, their best performance in 50 years.

The Progressive Conservatives narrowly finished second with just 15% of the vote, followed by the Canadian Alliance at 12.5% and the New Democrats at 12%.

The Bloc Québécois finished with 35.5% of the vote in Quebec.

The Liberals won 212 seats, or 70% of the 301 seats on offer (the 2003 representation order, boosting the number of seats in the House to 308, was only to go into effect in 2004).

The Canadian Alliance formed the Official Opposition with 34 seats, while the Bloc Québécois captured 20 seats, the NDP took 19, and the Progressive Conservatives won 16.

It was a stellar victory for the Liberals, with 40 more seats than they had won in 2000. The Canadian Alliance saw its seat haul fall by 32 and the Bloc's by 18. The NDP did boost their total by six seats and the Tories' by four, but these were meager offerings compared to Martin's juggernaut.

The Liberals had won every region of the country except Alberta. In British Columbia, the Liberals took 37.5% and 21 seats against 25.5% and nine seats for the Canadian Alliance. The NDP captured 21% and four seats, while the Tories were shutout at just 9% of the vote.

Harper did win his home province of Alberta with 39.5% and 20 seats, but the Tories had prevented him from doing better. MacKay's urban swing through the province paid some dividends, as the PCs took 26% of the vote and two seats. The Liberals, at 18.5%, and the NDP, at 15%, also captured two seats apiece.

The Liberals won the Prairies with 36.5% of the vote, enough to give them 15 seats. The NDP finished second, the only region where they did, with 22% and six seats, while the Canadian Alliance had 18.5% and five seats (all in Saskatchewan) and the Tories had 18% and two seats, both of them in Manitoba.

In Ontario, the Liberals took 56.5% of the vote and 99 seats, leaving just two seats each for the NDP (13.5%) and the PCs (19%). The Canadian Alliance, at just 9.5% of the vote, was shutout.

It was a two horse race in Quebec, but the Liberals dominated. They captured 53.5% of the vote against 35.5% for the Bloc, enough to give the Liberals 54 seats to just 20 for the Bloc. The Tories had 6% of the vote, and managed one seat out of the landslide. The NDP took 2.5% of the vote and Harper just 1%.

Despite MacKay hailing from the region, the PCs finished second in Atlantic Canada with 32% of the vote and nine seats. The Liberals won 44.5% and 19 seats, while the NDP held four seats with 20% of the vote. The Canadian Alliance had just 2.5% of the vote here.

The aftermath

With such poor performances throughout the country, and finishing third in the vote count, Stephen Harper resigned as leader of the Canadian Alliance on the night of the election. He had seen his party's vote share cut in half, as well as its caucus. Leading such a rump party for four more years of Liberal domination was just not worth it. A promising career was cut short.

He was the only leader to step aside that night. Gilles Duceppe requested a leadership review in his election night speech, and won it in December. Jack Layton had just been elected the NDP's leader, and he had increased the party's representation. He would stay on.

The question was whether Peter MacKay would stay. He, too, had just been named PC leader. He had proven a capable campaigner. What's more, he seemed to like it. He had finished second in the popular vote and had MPs in every province except British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island. By comparison, the Canadian Alliance was represented only in Canada's three westernmost provinces. If MacKay could manage it, he might be able to reunite the two parties on his own terms. He pledged to stay on as well.

The election results had been predictable. Everyone in Ottawa had been expecting a Liberal landslide from the day that Martin's leadership of the party looked inevitable. But the federal election of 2003 was where the predictability would stop. The sponsorship scandal, Peter MacKay's fractious coalition government of 2007, the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 2008, and the country's first (short-lived) NDP government were still to come. The Liberal hegemony of the 21st century, predicted by everyone in 2003, would not last the decade.


I've always loved alternate histories, and going through old polling data can only excite the imagination (the numbers for the results are derived from polls done by SES Research, now known as Nanos Research, and Ipsos Reid between August and October 2003).

But this is an interesting counter-factual because it is entirely plausible. The Liberals were dominant in the polls in 2003, before the sponsorship scandal began to tear them apart in early 2004. Had Martin been able to become Prime Minister earlier, and call an election before Harper and MacKay had managed to merge their parties, the Liberals would have almost certainly won a majority government in 2003. That means the sponsorship scandal would have exploded in the midst of a majority government scheduled to rule until 2007 or 2008, rather than before the 2004 election that reduced the Liberals to a minority, and then to the opposition benches in 2006, and gave the Bloc renewed vigour.

What would have happened afterwards is anybody's guess. Would the right have still united? And if so, would it have been under the Canadian Alliance's terms, or the PCs'?

Without having had the ability to chastise the federal Liberals not once, but twice in Quebec, would the 2007 provincial election there have gone differently? It would have taken place not within the context of a Conservative minority government that had opened its arms to Quebec, but in the climate of a tired Liberal majority government ravaged by scandal. Quebecers might have been more concerned with the sovereignty question, or punishing the Liberals, than with identity issues that divided the anti-PLQ vote and boosted the ADQ into Official Opposition status.

The timing of today's post with Peter MacKay's retirement from political life (word is he'll announce it this afternoon) is a complete coincidence. I actually started on this yesterday. But the timing could not be more fortunate. What if an election had been held in 2003, forestalling the merger of his party with the Canadian Alliance on the latter's terms? How would we look back on his career today? It is an interesting question to ponder.