How the Bloc Will Save Canada

The election math indicates one almost certain outcome: the savvy left-winger from Quebec will hold real power.

By Shannon Rupp 22 Jun 2004 |

You've got to admire Stephen Harper. Canadian elections are all about the mathematics of seat distribution, yet in his bid for power he has almost managed to convince Canadians that two plus two equals five. Or rather 155.

That's the number of seats necessary to form a majority government in Canada and, as the history has shown, it's next to impossible to achieve a majority without some support from Quebec. Perhaps for the first time, the rest of the country should be grateful for that, since it means Canada will likely get a minority government that reflects a broad range of views.

Despite what some commentators have said about Quebec's disenchantment with the Liberals leading to Conservative seats, the Quebecois have no incentive to support Reform-in-Conservative clothing. And they won't. The protest votes of former Liberals will go to Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc, who will use their power to promote Quebec interests, as they always have. But in this case, Quebec's interests generally coincide with those of the majority of Canadians, and not with the agenda of the Conservatives.

Quebec values the social services provided by government; the Conservatives want to reduce them. Cultural funding, which is crucial in Quebec, is slated for the Conservative cutting-room floor. Quebecers lean to progressive social values; the Conservatives want to challenge abortion rights and prevent same-sex marriage.

Quebec, Harper at odds over religion

Apparently Harper believes full citizenship rights are only for those who think like fundamentalist Christians - a view that won't get him very far in La Belle Province. The distance between the Conservatives and Quebec was underlined during the English debate when Harper dismissed the courts' rulings on same-sex marriage as meaningless, because it's "just what [Martin] and a couple of judges think." That's what every minority community wants to hear: a federal leader who holds the courts in contempt.

What's more, the role religious thinking plays in Harper's views is likely to offend the Quebecois more than most Canadians. While the domination of the Catholic Church ended with the Quiet Revolution, many people still vividly recall their experiences with tyrannical priests and a corrupt church that supported corrupt politicians. Given that history, how likely are they to warm to any party that seems keen on remarrying church and state?

Which is why the Bloc Quebecois will be, ironically, the party that protects all Canadians during the next government. They will hold the balance of power, and that will allow them to either block the Conservatives' Bush-like agenda, or force the Liberals to make good on some of their promises.

Either way, with separatism on the back burner, it's good news for the majority of Canadians.

Conservatives must dance with opposites

Without Quebec, Conservatives would have to take about 80 percent of Ontario's 106 seats to win a majority. How likely is that, no matter how disgruntled Ontario is with its provincial Liberals?

Nationally, current seat estimates put the Conservatives at about 125 and the Liberals at about 95. As the last week of the campaign begins, shifting polls suggest that the Conservatives are losing momentum and that the Liberals may take roughly the same number of seats.

The Liberals don't even have to win a larger minority of seats to form the government, so the Conservative agenda is at risk on that front as well.

In a case where no party has a majority, the governor-general selects the leader who is most likely to command the "confidence of the House." Usually that's the party with the greatest number of the seats, because they're most likely to form a stable alliance. But if the Liberals and the Conservatives are only a handful of seats apart, the name of the next Prime Minister may come down to which one can cut a deal with the Bloc. Martin might even invoke precedent and argue to the governor-general that, as the incumbent prime minister, he has a better chance of gaining the confidence of the House. That strategy worked for Liberal William Mackenzie King in 1925.

Power beyond NDP's reach

Whatever the outcome, the Bloc's role will be good for the left. While the BQ's progressive policies have a lot in common with those of the NDP, the Bloc has a lot more clout. They're expected to take more than 60 of the 75 Quebec seats, while estimates give the NDP just 20 to 25 seats across the country. As such, the NDP can only provide a foil for a majority government - not a crutch.

As well, NDP leader Jack Layton is as much a novice as Stephen Harper, which would make it difficult for the two to negotiate a minority government that would last. By contrast, the Bloc's Duceppe is a seasoned politician on the national stage with the finesse necessary to manage a fragile minority.

The Bloc and the Liberals are used to dancing together, which might make them seem a natural alliance, but you can bet Harper is so anxious to waltz that he'll let Duceppe take the lead. And part of the price of power will be to suspend the Conservatives retro social agenda and some of its nuttier financial plans.

In fact, one of the only Conservative policies that the Bloc wouldn't resist is its desire to give more autonomy to the provinces.

By minority, for minorities

Traditionally, minority governments are great at getting attention for issues overlooked by those entrenched in power and for preventing extremists from doing real damage. Which probably explains why the two largest parties have shifted into the "terrify the electorate" phase of the campaign in a bid to get a majority.

The Liberals claim that Quebec would be shut out of government if it returned only Bloc MPs. Yeah, right: with 60 seats, you're big enough to get exactly what you want from any minority government.

Harper's desperate bid to scare voters by claiming Martin supports child pornography will win him the Most Offensive Political Strategy award, but it's likely to lose him some seats. While they might go to the NDP, they're more likely to go to the Liberals.

Either way, the die seems cast.

Some commentators, of course, are still trying to anoint Harper. While the conspiracy theorists like to blame this on the right-wing business agenda of media owners, I suspect it has more to do with an unfortunate truth about journalists - far too many of them are numerically challenged. Ask around and you'll find that's how many of them ended up as journalists - they flunked math.

The pundits claiming a sweeping Conservative victory just aren't analyzing the numbers. But I suspect savvy voters are, and have figured out just where to put their protest votes. Because if neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals win big, Canadians will.

Shannon Rupp is a Vancouver writer who remembers virtually nothing about her political science degree except for one professor's edict to always do the math.


The following websites offer detailed information on demographics, history on swing ridings, and seat estimates, by party, and the overnight polls. They are a great resource for strategic voters, armchair pundits, and those who view elections as just another betting opportunity.


CBC offers history, voting patterns and a roundup of election news from across the country.

Statistics Canada has the 2001 Census demographic details by riding. Click on Federal Electoral District Profile. Select your riding.

Canada 2004 provides up-to-date seat projections (based on major polls), a list of candidates in every riding, and news updates.

SES Canada Research Inc. delivers views of a nightly voters poll to CPAC watchers also sends out daily e-mails with the latest results.

Seat distribution: Ontario, 106; Quebec, 75; B.C.,
36; Alberta, 28, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 14 each; Nova Scotia, 11; New Brunswick, 10; Newfoundland and Labrador, 7; Prince Edward Island, 4; Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories have one seat each. Total: 308. Seats outside Ontario/Quebec: 127.

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