Ministerial (dis)Advantage in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election

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Political News Friday, November 27, 2015 View Count = 2743

Ministerial (dis)Advantage in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election

cabinet ministers
Election 360 Logo 3“Ministerial (dis)Advantage in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election” is written by Matthew Kerby from the Australian National University. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Susan Harada and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The 2015 Canadian general election has been described globally as a political earthquake, an unexpected rout, and a stunning election victory or a historic majority win. Headline news is prone to exaggeration; to avoid getting too caught up in the moment it is useful to reflect on the past in order to inform the present. How best to assess the outcome of the 2015 election? One way is to examine how the election affected cabinet ministers, but without reference to individual ministers and their election narratives, which might otherwise taint our perspective.

Cabinet ministers provide a unique window into election dynamics. As both incumbent MPs running for reelection and members of the government, ministers are accountable for their performance as an MP as well as the success and failure of government policy, to their constituents. The twin conventions of individual and collective ministerial responsibility mean that the buck stops at the minister’s desk when it comes to matters that pertain to her portfolio, but ministers as a team take responsibility for the deeds and actions of government as a whole by giving the House of Commons the opportunity to pull the rug out from under government at any time. Responsible government is a core pillar of Canadian democracy. Votes of confidence are seldom an issue when the governing party holds a majority of the seats in the House, which is why elections are so interesting from a ministerial point of view.

Every four years or so, voters take over as judge, jury, and executioner with respect to their incumbent MP. This typically entails an assessment of MPs’ performance or, by extension, the performance of the party or leader. In the case of ministers, the assessment can extend directly to the minister’s handling of their portfolio area as well as the performance of the government of which the minister is an emissary. In this way, ministers’ electoral performance may cast a broader light on to voter sentiment and the perception of government performance at the time of an election.

The history of ministerial electoral performance typically plays in favour of ministers. They win more often than their party confrères and they win by wider margins of victory; if and when ministers lose, their margins of defeat are usually smaller than the margins for non-ministers. There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon: political experience, access to privileged resources, name recognition and exposure, safe seats and better redistribution of perks in the minister’s riding. Regardless, the take-home message is that ministers typically fare better than non-ministers when it comes to winning their seats in election.

Yet when we look at ministerial turnover at elections, we find considerable variation over the years. A comparison of the 2015 election with the historical record reveals that the current crop of vacating ministers exhibits the fourth highest rate of defeat in 70 years. When put into context, the three elections which saw more ministers lose their seats were the 1993 election in which the governing Progressive Conservative (PC) Party was decimated down to two seats, and the 1984 and 1957 elections in which the PCs were elected to government on the waves of the largest majorities in Canadian political history. The change in ministerial electoral fortunes experienced in 2015 immediately follows these landmark elections.

If we turn our attention to measures of individual ministerial performance, an examination of ministers’ margins of victory reveals that ministers who kept their seats in the 2015 election won by considerably smaller margins than their predecessors in earlier elections. Indeed, they fared only slightly better than ministers serving at the tumultuous tail end of the Dienfenbaker ministry and those Liberal ministers who perished in the crushing Mulroney victory in 1984. The margins of defeat for those unlucky and unlikely ministers who lost their seats in 2015 was also considerably higher, ranking fifth overall since 1945.[1]

The 2015 election may not have been the most earthshattering election in Canadian political history. But, from the perspective of ministers, there was certainly something different. The ministers who went into the 2015 election lost more seats, won by smaller margins, and lost by bigger margins than is usually the case. Indeed, the 2015 experience situates those ministers in a class typically associated with exceptional elections characterized by significant changes. When placed in the context of its peers, an examination of the electoral fates of cabinet ministers suggests that the 2015 election was, as the outgoing finance minister described it, a “significant defeat” for the Conservative Party and by extension a remarkable win for the Liberals.

1  The 2015 ministers could arguably be ranked fourth given that only one minister, Michael Fortier, a former un-elected senator lost in his bid to win a seat in the 2008 election.

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Matthew Kerby researches broadly in the areas of elite political careers, judicial politics, and political communication. His work has appeared in the
Canadian Journal of Political Science, Political Communication, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and elsewhere. His recent publications include, with Alex Marland, “Media Management in a Small Polity: Political Elites’ Synchronized Calls to Regional Talk Radio and Attempted Manipulation of Public Opinion Polls” Political Communication, 32, no. 4 (2015).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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