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MMP 102: Three Party Systems and Bob Rae's Government

Does Ontario have a viable three party system?

When indoctrinating people at Fair Vote Canada, we like to demonstrate distortions in Ontario's voting system using three examples: the 2003, 1995 and 1990 elections. These examples are carefully chosen; in addition to the distorted results, they are all recent results and three different parties form the government (the Liberals, PCs and NDP respectively). The idea is to show that vote distortions affect all parties, but the graphs are misleading, because they give the impression that Ontario has a three-party system where different parties rotate power.

That is emphatically not the case. Since 1867, the Conservatives and Liberals have won every Ontario election but two: the 1919 election (won by the United Farmers party) and the 1990 election (won by Bob Rae's NDP). In particular, the PCs had a long winning streak from 1943 to 1985, when they won 12 elections in a row (known as the "Big Blue Machine" in some circles). Incidentally, the NDP (then the CCF) first started winning significant numbers of seats in the 1943 election; it appears that the NDP/CCF and Liberals split the vote every election. In that light, pretending that Ontario had three viable parties is sketchy; in effect only one party could form power.

The Big Blue Machine's reign came to an end in 1985, which showed off another interesting aspect of our venerable voting system: the second- place plurality. The Conservatives actually won 52 seats to the Liberal's 48, but the Liberals won a greater share of the popular vote -- 37.9% for the Liberals versus 37.0% for the PCs.

Then a strange thing happened: the Liberals (led by David Peterson) and NDP (led by Rae) decided to form an agreement called "the Accord". The Accord stated that the NDP would support the Liberals for two years, in return for policy influence on Liberal legislation. This was not a formal coalition (my understanding is that no NDP politicians sat in cabinet, for example) but the voters got a taste of the kinds of policies the NDP supported.

In some sense the NDP had the best of both worlds; in addition to shaping legislation the NDP could continue criticising the Liberal government.

In 1987 the Accord came to an end, and the Peterson government called an election. The Liberals received 47% of the vote and a majority of the seats. Three years later Peterson ended his mandate by calling an early election, and in 1990 Bob Rae received 74 (56.9%) of the seats.

It might be a bit harsh to call the 1990 NDP victory a fluke, but it was highly unusual in a number of ways -- ways, I propose, that suggest that we should not expect this to happen again anytime soon.

First of all, according to Fair Vote Canada dogma the 1990 election marked the greatest vote distortion in Ontario history: the NDP received 37.6% of the vote and 56.9% of the seats. The Liberals actually did much better than their results would indicate: 32.4% of the vote earned them only 34 (26.2%) of the seats. That's a classical first-past-the-post distortion: the NDP received only 5.2% more of the vote than the Liberals, but received over twice as many seats, which indicates the Liberals had lots of support in many of the ridings they did lose.

Wikipedia suggests that one reason the Liberals lost was because people were upset that Peterson called an early election. This could very well have been the case (and it serves as a lesson to those FPTP supporters who claim we will have elections every year under MMP). In addition to the NDP victory, other evidence supports this reasoning: quite a lot of people threw their support behind parties that had no real hopes of getting power: the Family Coalition got 2.7% of the vote, and the right-wing Confederation of Regions party got 1.9%. Other small parties got another 1.6% of the popular vote, so 6.2% of voters avoided the biggest three parties, compared to 2.4% in 1987, 3.5% in 1995, 2.5% in 1999 and 4.2% in 2003. Something crazy was in the air. (Similar weirdness was afoot in 1919, it seems.)

Say the voters were determined to punish the Liberals. Why did they vote NDP instead of supporting the Mike Harris Tories? I can only speculate, but I do have some hypotheses: first, people had been opposing the Big Blue Machine for their entire voting lives, and did not want to risk another Conservative streak. Secondly, Mike Harris was inexperienced, and people saw his "Taxfighter" persona as kind of kooky. Thirdly -- and maybe most relevantly -- voters saw Bob Rae and the NDP as a viable alternative to the other parties. They respected Rae (I remember throwing my support for him after seeing a picture of him getting chained to a tree) and had experienced some of his leadership thanks to the 1985 agreement that let the NDP shape policy.

My belief is that it was this particular set of circumstances that allowed the NDP to win power. I do not believe that the NDP (or any other third party) is in any condition to challenge for power in the future, because those conditions no longer hold. People don't remember the Big Blue Machine any more. They remember Mike Harris, but the current crop of Tories (including John Tory) are going out of their way to distance themselves from Harris's adversarial nature. Moreover, enough people remember Bob Rae's government to mistrust the NDP.

Howard Hampton is not an obviously bad leader, but he does not stand out as visionary. His party had been getting decimated in Ontario ever since the Rae government -- it is currently getting less than half the seats it deserves (and in fact received two fewer seats in 2003 than 1999 despite receiving 2% more of the popular vote). If Ontario chooses MMP in this October's referendum, then smaller parties might become viable; otherwise I think we will be stuck with a two-party system for a long time.

Changing the two-party dominance was one of my big hopes for electoral reform in Ontario. Truthfully, I doubt whether the proposed MMP system will nurture a true challenger to either the Liberal or Conservative parties in Ontario. But at least the MMP system offers some hope; smaller parties will earn some seats and voters will be able to judge whether those parties are worthy of their continued support or not. If nothing else, this will probably give voters a few more options than they have now. Under FPTP we have no such hopes.


All of my numerical references are from Wikipedia, which compiled its information from Elections Ontario. Here is a listing of pages specifically relevant to this article:

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