2008 Canadian Federal Election: Results and Summary

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Oct 21, 2008

On the other hand, the election saw several significant trends, such as a strengthening of the Conservative vote in Ontario, an overall decline in support for the Liberal Party, and key electoral gains for the New Democratic Party. This article provides a summary of the 2008 federal election, including an overview of the results, discussions of key factors/non-factors in the election, and an examination of the election’s impact.


2008 Federal Election Results

Second Conservative Minority Government

The 2008 federal election resulted in a second minority government for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada, which won 143 of 308 seats in the House of Commons. This represented an increase in seats for the Conservatives, which garnered 124 seats in the 2006 election. Nevertheless, the Conservatives fell short of the 155 they needed to form a majority government.

The Liberal Party of Canada formed the Official Opposition, winning 76 seats in the House, the second highest seat tally of the remaining political parties. The Bloc Québécois won 50 seats (third highest total) and the New Democratic Party of Canada took 37 seats.

The 2008 general election also saw two independent MPs elected to the House of Commons. Independents are elected Members of Parliament who have no formal party affiliation. Bill Casey was elected for the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland―Colchester―Musquodoboit Valley. Casey, originally a Conservative MP, was dismissed from that party’s caucus after he voted against the government’s budget in 2007. André Arthur, the second independent, was elected in the Quebec City-area riding of Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier. Arthur was first elected as an independent in the 2006 federal election; he has never had any affiliation with a federal political party.

2008 Election Results (Seat totals and Status by Party)

Party

2008 Election

Status

2006 Election

Seat Change

Conservative Party

143 seats

Minority Government

124 seats

+ 19

Liberal Party

76 seats

Official Opposition

103 seats

- 27

Bloc Québécois

50 seats

Opposition Party

51 seats

- 01

New Democratic Party

37 seats

Opposition Party

29 seats

+ 8

Independent

02 seats

-

01 seat

+ 01

Summary of National Vote

In terms of gains, the Green Party of Canada received the largest increase in national support of all the political parties. In 2006, the Greens won 4.5 percent of the national vote; in 2008, that total increased to 6.8 percent, a gain of 2.3 percentage points. This increase in support did not, however, translate into any seats in the House of Commons for the party.

In the 2008 vote, national support for the Conservative Party remained largely the same. In 2006, the Party received 36.27 percent of the national popular vote; in 2008, it received 37.63 percent ― an increase of 1.36 percentage points. This marginal increase, coupled with declines in Liberal Party support (see below), did result in significant increases in the party’s total seat count, as it won 19 more seats than in 2006.

Support for the New Democratic Party also remained almost the same. The party received 17.48 percent of the national popular vote in 2006. In the 2008 election, it increased its percent of the vote to 18.2 ― a gain of 0.72 percentage points. As with the Conservative Party, this small increase resulted in a significant gain in seat totals for the party; in 2008, the NDP won eight additional seats.

The Bloc Québécois incurred only a slight drop in its support. In 2006, the Bloc won 10.48 percent of the popular vote (all from the province of Quebec). In 2008 that support dropped by half a percentage point, to 9.97 percent of the vote. This, in turn, resulted in almost the same number of seats from the prevision election (51 in 2006 and 50 in 2008).

The Liberal Party experienced the largest decrease in support of all the political parties. In 2006, the Party won 30.23 percent of the national vote, while in 2008 that total fell to 26.24 percent. This represented a decline of 3.99 percentage points. Moreover, this drop resulted in a large decline in seat totals for the party, as it won 27 fewer seats than in 2006.

2008 Election Results (National Popular Support by Party)

Party

2008 Election

2006 Election

Vote Change

Conservative Party

37.63%

36.27%

+ 1.36%

Liberal Party

26.24%

30.23%

- 3.99%

Bloc Québécois

9.97%

10.48%

- 0.51%

New Democratic Party

18.20%

17.48%

+ 0.72%

Green Party

06.80%

04.50%

+ 2.3%


 

Key Factors in the 2008 Federal Election

The Economy

One of the most important factors in the 2008 election was the economy ― in particular, the highly publicized weakening of the international finance industry and the sharp drop in the stock market that coincided with the election period. While the economy was already a key concern for Canadians prior to the election, these specific events brought the parties’ economic policies even more to the forefront of the election debate.

The Conservative Party attempted to calm fears by suggesting that Canada’s economic fundamentals were strong and that the federal government’s best approach was to lower taxes and exercise fiscal restraint. The Conservatives also attempted to undercut support for the other parties by arguing they would damage the economy further by raising taxes. The other parties, by contrast, attacked the Conservatives for failing to have a real plan of action for addressing the new economic conditions. They also argued that this “do-nothing” approach indicated weak leadership and a failure to understand the gravity of the economic situation faced by Canadian families.

The drop in Liberal support may have been due in part to a concern over that party’s proposed environmental policy (known as the Green Shift) and its impact on the economy. On the other hand, the Conservatives failed to gain a majority, even though the economy was supposedly an area of strength. In the end, while the economy was a central focus of the election, the issue may not have been a singularly decisive factor for any of the political parties as Canadians cast their ballots.

Quebec and Newfoundland

Another key factor was the failure of the Conservative Party to gain any kind of traction in the provinces of Quebec or Newfoundland and Labrador. This failure is very important, considering how close the Conservatives came to forming a majority government. In fact, following the 2008 election, Gilles Duceppe (leader of the Bloc Québécois) characterized his campaign as a success insofar as the Bloc was able to deny the Conservatives a majority government.

In Quebec, the Conservatives won 10 seats, the same as they won in 2006. More importantly, the party saw its share of the vote in Quebec drop from 24.6 percent in 2006 to 21.7 percent. The Conservatives had anticipated making large gains in Quebec due, in part, to long-term trends which had the Conservatives increase their popular support in that province over several elections. The Conservative government, helmed by Stephen Harper, had also attempted to make their party more attractive to Quebec voters. In 2006, the Harper government passed legislation recognizing Quebec as a “nation within a united Canada.” The Harper government had also attempted to meet financial demands from Quebec (as well as the other provinces) by addressing the perceived federal-provincial fiscal imbalance. Nevertheless, two key events derailed the Conservatives efforts to secure greater support in Quebec in 2008: there was a backlash over Conservative handling of arts and culture policy, in which the Party became perceived as under-appreciating the arts and cultural sectors; and the party gained an image as being overly socially conservative, with changes it had proposed to dealing with young offenders.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Conservatives lost all three seats they had won in 2006; they also saw their portion of the vote in that province drop from 42.7 percent to 16.5 percent. The Conservatives’ weakness in Newfoundland and Labrador stems from its cancelling of the Atlantic Accord (to which the previous federal Liberal government had committed), and dealt with equalization payments to the province. In 2006, the new Harper Conservative federal government unilaterally cancelled this Accord, resulting in a provincial backlash. The Conservative government later back-tracked from its original decision and negotiated a second deal with the provincial government, however voter disdain for the Conservatives did not subside. In the 2008 campaign, voters were reminded of all this by Danny Williams, the popular premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, who actively campaigned against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives during the election with his “ABC” campaign (Anybody But the Conservatives).

Televised Leader Debates

Traditionally, the televised leader debates have minimal impact on the outcome of federal elections. The 2008 debates were projected to continue this trend, especially considering the English debate was to be held at the same time as the debate of the vice-presidential candidates in the US. Surprisingly, however, the debates had a much larger impact on the 2008 election than in previous years.

In the 2008 campaign, the debate ‘stakes’ were raised significantly, at the campaign’s outset, over the issue of whether or not Green Party leader Elizabeth May should participate. Previously, only the leaders of political parties with representation in the House of Commons had been allowed to participate in the debates. Even though the Green Party had one member in the House prior to the election call, the media consortium (which organizes the debates) had excluded the Greens. In addition, both Stephen Harper (Conservative Party leader) and Jack Layton (New Democratic Party leader) expressed the view that May should not be allowed to participate in the debate. Following public outcry over the exclusion, the broadcasting consortium reversed its decision, allowing May to participate in the debates.

While the debates did not decisively change the dynamics of the election, they did serve to have a significant impact on the campaign. Prior to both the French and English debates, the Conservatives enjoyed a large lead over the other parties in public opinion polls; at that time, the general consensus of pollsters was that the Conservative Party could win a majority government. By contrast, in the pre-debate period, the Liberals were mired at historically low levels of public support, at times near only 20 percent of popular support. Following the debates, however, the gap closed noticeably; support for the Conservatives began softening, while the Liberals enjoyed a slight boost. This may have been due to perceived weak performance by Conservative leader Stephen Harper during the debates and relatively strong performances by Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion, NDP Party leader Jack Layton, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May (particularly, in the French debates). Also important to note is the increase in support for the Green Party. This may have been due, in part, to May’s participation in the debates, and the resulting national exposure.

The debates alone did not cause this shift in public support. Economic events, such as the collapse of major international financial institutions and weakening world stock markets, also coincided with the closing of the gap between the parties in the public opinion polls. Moreover, the Conservatives were already under public attack in Quebec over the party’s positions on the cultural arts and youth offenders. The debates, however, may have reinforced trends in voting behavior that were already ‘in play.’


Non-Factors in the 2008 Federal Election

The Environment

The environment was billed as a key issue in the 2008 election. Public opinion polls conducted prior to the election had suggested the electorate’s concern about the environment had increased significantly since the previous election in 2006. This coincided with greater public awareness about key environmental issues, such as global warming, and the rise of green politics at the federal level. The Green Party had emerged as a mainstream political party in Canadian politics, while the Liberal Party had chosen to make the environment a central plank of its election platform.

Nevertheless, it’s not clear that concern over the environment played a significant role in voting behaviour, at least not in a direct manner. The economy, instead, dominated political discourse during the election, with strong environment policy being portrayed as being in conflict with pressing economic realities. In this sense, the Conservatives may have been successful in suggesting to voters that the stronger environmental policies of their opponents, such as the Liberal Party’s Green Shift, would be detrimental to Canada’s economic stability and recovery. Further contributing to this was the inability of the Liberals to explain their Green Shift in an effective manner, so as to counter Conservative portrayals of this policy.

Military Mission in Afghanistan

Another significant non-factor in the 2008 election was the military mission in Afghanistan. Public opinion polls prior to the election had suggested that a strong majority of Canadians disapproved of Canada’s military actions in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report during the election in which he was critical of the government for misreporting the total cost of the military mission. Nevertheless, the Afghanistan mission was not a dominant issue in the election discourse ― nor was it likely a decisive issue in voter behaviour.

This may have been due to a number of factors. First, the Conservatives and Liberals both supported military action in Afghanistan, as well as the timeline for ending the mission. This partisan agreement effectively took the Afghanistan mission off the election table for both parties. Second, the fact that formal timeline for withdrawal exists may have reduced the significance of Afghanistan for Canadian voters. At the time of the election, the Conservative government had committed to withdrawing troops by 2011. The Afghanistan mission may have had a higher election profile if the government had left the timeline open, without a firm exit date.

Traditional Policy Issues

It is worth noting that several policy issues, which tend to be at the forefront of Canadian federal politics, did not play a significant role in this election. The first of these issues was health care. Traditionally, health care is a central plank of the parties’ election platforms, with each party highlighting how it would address deficiencies in the system (such as waiting times) and advocating reforms, be it through stronger public support of the system or greater participation by the private sector. The 2008 election discourse, however, rarely focused on the issue of health care.

Another traditional issue that was absent from the 2008 election campaign was Quebec separatism. Even in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois tends to focus voting patterns on the Quebec separatism, the issue had very little traction. Election dynamics in Quebec, instead, seemed to be influenced by Conservative policies on the arts and young offenders. The Bloc Québécois intentionally based its campaign on these issues. Interestingly enough, its success in the 2008 election was more about the party’s ability to capitalize on anti-Conservative sentiments rather than any public support for Quebec separatism ― the party’s raison d’être.


Beyond the 2008 Federal Election

Continued Minority Government

The most direct impact of the 2008 election result is continuing minority government at the federal level. This is the third minority government elected by Canadians since 2004, marking one of the longest periods of minority government in post-Confederation history.

Duration of Minority Governments (1867-2008)

Political Party

Prime Minster

Term

Duration

Liberal

William Mackenzie King

1922-1925

1,277 days

Conservative

Stephen Harper

2006-2008

888 days

Liberal

Lester Person
/ Pierre Trudeau

1966-1968

826 days

Liberal

Lester Person

1963-1965

846 days

Liberal

Pierre Trudeau

1973-1974

490 days

Liberal

Paul Martin

2004-2005

421 days

Conservative

Arthur Meighen

1926-1926

176 days

Progressive Conservative

John Diefenbaker

1962-1963

132 days

Progressive Conservative

John Diefenbaker

1957-1958

110 days

Progressive Conservative

Joe Clark

1979-1979

66 days

(Source: Parliament of Canada, 2008)

As the Conservatives do not enjoy a clear majority in the House of Commons, they will need to rely on the other parties to pass government legislation. This may result in greater cooperation between the Conservatives and at least one other party, either in an ongoing basis or a case-by-case basis. Following the election, Conservative Party leader, and prime minister, Stephen Harper indicated a willingness to work with the other parties. Considering the large ideological differences that separate the Conservatives from the other political parties, however, it’s not clear how such a relationship might work.

One advantage for the Conservative government will be a weakened Liberal Party (see below for more). With the Liberals looking inward at their leadership and policy direction, they may not be inclined to challenge the Conservatives in the immediate future, or to consider forcing another election anytime soon. This may, in turn, allow the Conservative government to push forward with its own agenda without great concern over losing the confidence of the House.

Growing Conservative Strength in Ontario

One of the more important results of the 2008 election was the growth of Conservative support in the province of Ontario, once a fortress of Liberal power and electoral support. Since the 2000 election the conservative support in Ontario has steadily grown, translating into a greater number of seats and share of the popular vote share. By contrast, the Liberals have seen their electoral fortunes steadily decline. The 2008 election is a significant milestone, in that it saw the Conservatives take top spot ― as the preferred federal political party of choice in Ontario ― for the first time in several decades.

Liberal Party Support vs. Conservative Party Support in Ontario (2000-2008)

General Election

Liberal Party

Conservative Party

Seats

% of Vote

Seats

% of Vote

2000*

100

51.5

02

25.8

2004

75

44.7

24

31.5

2006

54

39.9

40

35.1

2008

38

33.9

51

39.2

*2000 figures for the conservatives based on the combined numbers of the Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, which subsequently merged into the Conservative Party of Canada.

It is unclear, however, what this trend means for the long term. On the one hand, it may suggest a changing of the guard, in terms of the preferred political party in Ontario, away from the Liberals and towards the Conservatives. Considering the historic influence of Ontario on the overall results of Canadian federal elections, this may further suggest the entrenchment of the Conservative Party as the new party of government in Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that Conservative support in Ontario is stable. As the 2008 campaign clearly demonstrated, Conservative support outside Western Canada is vulnerable to sharp declines over relatively minor issues ― as evidenced by the party’s poor showing in Quebec. There, Conservative support at the beginning of the election bled away not only to the Bloc Québécois, but also to the Liberals. If Conservative support in Ontario is similarly soft, the Liberal Party may be able to recapture some of its past support under different leadership and/or with a different policy focus and platform.

Continued Liberal Weakness in Western Canada

In Western Canada, political observers have long recognized the weakness of the Liberal Party, which has been systemic since the days of the Trudeau Liberals in the 1980s. Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, the Liberal Party was largely able to rely on its massive support in central Canada to form governments.

Liberal Support in Western Canada (2000-2008)

General Election

British Columbia

Alberta

Saskatchewan

Manitoba

Seats

% of Vote

Seats

% of Vote

Seats

% of Vote

Seats

% of Vote

2000

5

27.7

2

20.9

2

20.7

5

32.5

2004

8

28.6

2

22.0

1

27.2

3

33.2

2006

9

27.6

0

15.3

2

22.4

3

26.0

2008

5

19.3

0

11.4

1

14.9

1

19.1

As the Liberal Party can no longer depend upon massive support in Ontario, it may have to look to growth in the west as a key element in the party’s revitalization. This, however, would be difficult; since 2000, the Liberal Party has steadily seen both its seat totals and percentage of the popular vote steadily decrease in the west (see above table). In 2000, for example, the party won 14 seats, with popular support in each of the western provinces above 20 percent. In 2008, the Liberals won only seven seats and fell below 20 percent in each province. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, support for the Liberal Party fell to lows of 11.4 and 14.9 percent respectively. It also bears noting that the Liberals have not elected a member of parliament from Alberta since 2004.

This all contrasts sharply with the extremely high numbers traditionally charted by the Conservative Party across the western provinces. Moreover, in the 2008 election, the Liberal Party trailed well behind the New Democratic Party as the second major contending party in each western province. A perfect example of this is British Columbia, where the Conservatives took over half the seats and almost half the popular vote, while the New Democratic Party was the second strongest party in the province.

Party Support in British Columbia (2008 General Election)

Party

Seats

% of Vote

Conservative Party of Canada

22

44.4

New Democratic Party of Canada

09

26.1

Liberal Party of Canada

05

19.3

Green Party of Canada

00

09.4

Growing New Democratic Party Electoral Success

While the New Democratic Party remained the fourth party in terms of seat totals, it nevertheless scored an important victory in the 2008 election. The Party significantly increased its overall seat count, winning its largest number of seats in the House of Commons since 1988. Since the 2000 election, the NDP has steadily increased both its seats in the House and its portion of the national vote.

New Democratic Party Support (2000-2008)

General Election

Seats

% of Vote

2000

13

8.5

2004

19

15.7

2006

29

17.5

2008

37

18.2

During the election, the New Democrats adopted the strategy of presenting themselves and their leader, Jack Layton, as a legitimate government alternative. This is in contrast with previous tactics adopted by the party, where New Democrats portrayed themselves as simply a social democratic voice in Parliament. It’s important to note that in the 2008 campaign the Party was able to increase its seat count even with strong growth by the Green Party of Canada ― support which likely came at the cost of traditional NDP votes.

It is, however, unclear what this trend may suggest for the long-term. While the New Democrats almost doubled their seats between 2004 and 2008 (from 19 to 37 seats), their portion of the national vote has only increased marginally during the same period (from 15.7 to 18.2 percent). This may suggest the Party has a ceiling in its electoral support and that current electoral gains have been based on dissatisfaction with the Liberal Party in its current form rather than stable, committed support for the NDP. Nevertheless, the 2008 election results are very important, considering that in 2000 the Party was on the verge of becoming an irrelevant force in national politics.

Declining Voter Turnout

Another important result of the 2008 election was the extremely low voter turnout. In the 2008 election, only 59.1 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot ― the lowest voter turnout for a federal election in Canadian history. Overall, voter turnout for federal elections in Canada has steadily declined since the late 1980s.

Voter Turnout for Federal Elections (1988-2008)

Year

1988

1993

1997

2000

2004

2006

2008

Voter Turnout

75.3%

69.6%

67.0%

61.2%

60.5%

64.7%

59.1%

This long-term, declining rate of democratic participation has been attributed to a number of factors, including a lack of interest in the electoral process, dissatisfaction with the candidates/political parties, and a lack of confidence that one’s vote mattered.

For more information on voter turnout: