The biggest news from Canada’s federal election this past Monday wasn’t who came in first — voters returned the governing Conservatives to power, this time with a majority of seats in the House of Commons — but the second-place finish of the socialist New Democratic Party. The NDP benefitted from the slow collapse of Canada’s former ruling party, the Liberals, and the more sudden collapse of the secessionist Bloc Québécois. Indeed, the NDP’s rise from a third-place party with 36 seats to the official opposition with 102 seats was due almost exclusively to gaining 57 seats in the Province of Québec, all at the expense of the Bloc, which lost all but four of its 47 seats from the previous Parliament.
In the post-election haze, the storyline of the NDP’s Québec victory has turned to the strange collection of new Members of Parliament swept into office. Chief among them is Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the MP-elect for a French-speaking district outside Montreal. Brosseau doesn’t speak French. She doesn’t even live in Québec. Nor did she make any effort to actually campaign in support of her own election. Apparently, she never even set foot in the district or made a single public statement during the six-week election campaign. Nevertheless, she defeated the incumbent Bloc MP by more than 10 percentage points.
Miss Brosseau hasn’t appeared in public or spoken since her victory. The only confirmation of her existence comes from her father — who spoke to a reporter before he was quietly hushed by NDP officials — and her boss at the Ottawa college bar where she works as an assistant manager. The boss said he didn’t even know she was a candidate in the election.
This is the certainly the most comical indictment of democracy I’ve seen in quite some time. Voters openly backed a candidate they’d never seen or heard, and conversely expressed no interest in being seen or heard. News reports said Miss Brosseau spent a good part of the campaign on a pre-scheduled vacation in Las Vegas.
It doesn’t take a political strategist to figure out what happened here. Like many political parties, the NDP wanted to field as many candidates as they could throughout Canada. They didn’t expect to win many seats in Québec given the Bloc’s previous popularity (and the lack of any prior support for the NDP). So they asked Ms. Brosseau, no doubt a party loyalist who had a friend somewhere in the campaign’s high command, to allow her name to stand on the ballot. And then Québec voters went nuts and staged a mass defection from the Bloc to the NDP — the one federalist party that hadn’t pissed them off in the past.
That the NDP indiscriminately fielded candidates without vetting them — or having them run even a barebones campaign — is also a consequence of the Canadian election system’s perverse economic incentives. Political parties receive a $2-per-vote subsidy from the federal treasury based on the results of the previous election. So even if the NDP fields a token candidate who gets 1,000 votes in a safe Conservative district, that’s $2,000 more for the party treasury next time around. As always, when the government subsidizes something, you get quantity over quality.
National Post columnist Lorne Gunter, a Liberal who nonetheless sympahtizes with Miss Brosseau, sums up the entire affair thusly:
It’s not Ruth Ellen Brosseau’s fault she won election to the House of Commons in Monday’s election. Heaven knows she didn’t want to win or expect to win, or even try to win.
The story here isn’t Miss Brosseau, but the people who voted for her. And I’m not suggesting they made a mistake or turned the election into a farce. In reality, it didn’t matter if they voted for her, the Bloc candidate, or an inanimate carbon rod. In a parliamentary democracy, if you don’t vote for the party that controls the government — and Québec hasn’t done that since the Bloc’s rise in the early 1990s — then your vote is simply irrelevant. Unlike the market, democracy disregards any act that doesn’t directly advance the individuals who claim a rightful monopoly on power (or as Prime Minister Stephen Harper called it, a “mandate.”)
And it’s not as if some Biblical calamity will befall the poor souls who voted for Miss Brosseau. The election was a momentary protest of years of perceived neglect by the Bloc and the other federalist parties. They may well change their minds in a few years and return some other completely unknown bartender to the House. The sun will continue to rise every day.
So Miss Brosseau’s election is, I think, a positive sign. Anything that reinforces the notion that elections aren’t the most important events in the world — and throwing your vote away in protest is nothing to be ashamed of — only encourages individuals to seek alternatives to politics as a mean of social organization. Miss Brosseau’s successful non-campaign is perhaps a model for future anarchist protest — quite literally defeating something with nothing. Perhaps instead of concocting new ways to convince voters to support libertarian-minded candidates, the better strategy is to run completely unknown individuals and then make no real effort to elect them, instead relying on apathy towards the existing parties to force the voters into an impulsive act of protest.
As for Miss Brosseau, she’s basically won the Québec lottery. She’ll receive a nice salary for the next four years — roughly $157,000 per annum — from the very taxpayers who were silly enough to vote for her in the first place. No doubt she’ll continue to endure some short-term scorn from the media and political elites in Ottawa, at least until she finally makes some public appearance. But in the end she’ll be just another minority backbencher with no real power — just another MP hearing complaints from pig farmers who accidentally accepted a six-hour prank collect call from the United States. Or something like that.