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January 28th, 2015
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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
by Alice Funke, for the Hill Times Power & Influence Magazine, Winter 2015; Reprinted with kind permission
[Note: This article was penned for a November 14 deadline. The analysis holds up pretty well, though a few of the metrics have changed, as noted below.]
How will the 30 new ridings change the game in Canadian politics? Three competing trends will play out in the fight for the redrawn electoral map in the next federal election—and they’ll make it one for the ages.
Lack of incumbency: Between 66 and 75 of the 338 House of Commons seats that will be up for grabs in 2015 will not have an incumbent Member of Parliament on the ballot. At press time, 38 MPs had announced their retirement, with two vacant seats and eight others yet to declare their intentions. [UPDATE: that figure has since risen to 41, with several more retirements not unlikely]
Add those to the 30 new federal ridings created through electoral redistribution, and you have a lot of wide-open races.
New ridings in high-growth areas: Many of the seats that have been added are found in areas of rapid population growth, with new housing developments and an underdeveloped sense of community and belonging. Voters in these areas will be reached as individuals rather than as members of an established community. Incumbency and name recognition will be of little value, even in the few new seats that will have an elected MP on the ballot. They are the “air war” seats.
Ripple effects on other ridings: The addition of new seats in Ontario has also caused a drop in the average population of the remaining ridings, making some previously urban-rural seats more urban and therefore changing the nature of those contests.
In Saskatchewan, the end of the eight socalled “rurban,” pie-shaped ridings that joined four quarters of Regina and Saskatoon with their rural rings in favour of five urban and one rurban seat is expected to change the balance of representation in that province for the first time in 15 years.
A similar pattern could be repeated in Edmonton, whose ridings also became more urban, while the impact of in-migration on electoral contests in other parts of Alberta, such as Calgary and Fort McMurray, also Game changer: how the new federal electoral map will create new political realities remains an open question. These are the “ground war” seats.
Let’s consider each factor in greater detail.
Lack of incumbency
We call a riding with no incumbent MP on the ballot an “open seat.” 2015 will see a lot of open seats, though not a record high. [UPDATE: in fact, it will set a record, given the number of retirement announcements since press-time]
Two other elections stand out in recent history as having high open seat counts:
* 1993, when it became clear that the Mulroney government’s unpopularity would force many government MPs into opposition if they even survived the campaign (all but two did not), and;
* 2004, which saw the changing of the guard from Jean Chrétien to Paul Martin within the Liberal Party, a newly re-united Conservative Party, and an ambitious and energetic new NDP leader, all set to do battle on new riding boundaries, including seven new seats.
* Both of those elections heralded major changes in the federal political party system in Canada and had an outsized impact on the future of political debate in the country. This year can be expected to do no less.
It’s also worth noting the above-average number of first-term incumbents heading into their first attempt at re-election when the writ drops:
* The majority are wearing NDP colours in the province of Quebec. While they’ll face greater competition, particularly in anglo- and allophone Montreal and in Québec City ridings, one thing they won’t have to worry about is the residual strength that Bloc Québécois incumbents showed in 2011. Expect that residual Bloc vote to shrink in 2015, some to stay home, and some to bolster the NDP in their fight with the resurgent Liberals.
* Another group is the Conservatives who won seats around the ring of Toronto, and whose election gave the government its coveted majority, but whose provincial counterparts are mainly Liberals after last spring’s election.
New ridings in high-growth areas
Many of the new ridings around the outskirts of Ontario are a completely clean slate. Consider that what were two ridings in 1988 —York North and Markham-Whitchurch- Stouffville—became five seats in 1997, six seats in 2004, and stand at nine ridings today.
These commuter ridings around Toronto don’t have a long electoral track record, have brand new local riding associations, and will be heavily influenced by both the competing narratives of the national campaign and the very individualized targeting initiatives using the modern digital tools honed south of the border.
Another driver of population growth in these ridings in Ontario and B.C. is immigration, so the ability of the parties to target and integrate these new cultural communities in their campaigns will be vital.
The uncertainty in these ridings has actually seen many incumbent Conservative MPs choose to run in safer adjacent ridings rather than test the new waters. In doing so, they’ve stripped whatever residual benefit there might have been from their name recognition and put into question many observers’ early assumptions that the new seats were a boon for the government’s majority re-election.
Ripple effects on other ridings
Outside the areas of rapid growth in Ontario, the rural seats will become more rural and the small-town urban seats will become more urban, particularly in the southwest. Seats like Oshawa, Brantford, Cambridge, Sarnia, and Essex will see the balance shift somewhat away from the Conservatives and become more competitive for the first time in several elections.
In Saskatchewan, expect to see a more competitive playing field in Regina-Lewvan, Saskatoon West, Saskatoon University and Saskatoon Grasswood—the urban seats—and Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in the north, which has lost some of the agricultural areas in the south that vote Conservative.
Alberta will see a little more competition in open seats in the highly urban areas as well, including Edmonton Griesbach, Edmonton Centre, Calgary Centre and Calgary Confederation.
Vancouver Island in British Columbia is one area where the new seats are causing significant boundary changes that will increase competitiveness mainly between the Conservatives and NDP, while the addition of new seats in South Surrey and the lower Fraser Valley can be expected to merely up the Conservatives’ seat count. [UPDATE: the Green Party is also making a play for some south Vancouver Island seats, as well]
Other factors to consider
When the new electoral map was published, Elections Canada transposed the 2011 voting results onto the new boundaries and calculated how the parties would do in each seat.
This calculation is called the “2011 Transposition,” and while it’s an interesting starting point for any analysis of a new riding’s prospects, baked into the cake are a number of outdated factors that tell us more about where the puck was going four years ago than where it’s headed next time out.
Nominal winners: A transposition calculates the “nominal winner” of a seat, but one that doesn’t always make common sense given who the current incumbent is. For example, Winnipeg North Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux will be running for re-election as the incumbent MP in a newly-drawn riding with the same name that takes in most of his current seat, but for which the “nominal winner” is the NDP. Yet most observers expect him to be re-elected because of a second factor.
Assimilation effects: The portions of Kildonan-St. Paul, Man., which is a Liberal-Conservative contest, when added to Winnipeg North, which is a Liberal-NDP race, probably showed a higher Conservative vote for MP Joy Smith than they would do in a battle between Mr. Lamoureux and an NDP competitor. A similar example exists in suburban greater Vancouver, where incumbent NDP MP Fin Donnelly is running for re-election in a riding the Conservatives nominally win, but the margin would have been drawn from Conservative MP James Moore’s inordinate popularity, and he’s now running next door.
Campaign effects: The perception of winnability in a seat will affect the parties’ interest in targeting it for local organization support. Ridings such as the rurban Regina and Saskatoon seats, or some of the seats on northern Vancouver Island, are quite sensitive to boundary changes, and would not have been as heavily targeted by the opposition parties last time around as they will be this time.
Canadian federal elections have been classified as being either transformative or incremental in terms of the way they changed the number, strength and regional support for our national political parties. The year 1993 saw the rise of the Reform Party and Bloc Québécois. The year 2004 saw the right unite, and 2011 saw the end of the Bloc Québécois. Will 2015 prove the 2011 upheaval to have been transitory or permanent? You can’t answer that question without considering the new electoral map, and as we’ve seen, there are no straightforward answers, but a lot of very interesting questions.