The 2015 federal election: more visible minority candidates and MPs.

Author:Black, Jerome H.

The federal election of October 19,2015 established a high water mark in the representation of racial diversity in Parliament with the election of 45 MPs with visible minority origins. Their relative presence jumped over four percentage points compared to the 2011 general election and their larger number markedly narrowed the population-based gap in representation. As an account of this improvement in the representation of visible minority MPs, the focus here is on aspects of the candidate nomination process, with an approach informed by the supposition that heightened competition among the three largest parties engendered a greater degree of vote-seeking among immigrant and minority communities.

For the many observers who monitor and, especially, welcome greater visible minority representation in Parliament, the outcome of the federal election held on October 19, 2015 must have been viewed with a considerable degree of satisfaction. No less than 45 individuals with visible minority origins were elected to the House of Commons! (1) Moreover, it constituted a big improvement over the previous record level established in the 2011 election, when 28 visible minority MPs were elected. The increase across these two elections is also apparent in relative (percentage) terms, even as the House was expanded from 308 to 338 seats. While MPs of visible minority origins comprised 9.1 per cent of the House's membership following the 2011 election, they occupied 13.3 per cent of the seats after the 2015 contest.

These two successive record levels are notable for other reasons, as well. Visible minority representation has not followed a pattern of ever increasing numbers (neither in absolute nor percentage terms); rather, starting with the 1993 election, when a noticeable number of visible minorities first entered Parliament, the tendency has been one of little change across most pairings of elections and even decline across several dyads. In this sense, the back-to-back increases in 2011 and 2015 do make the latter election stand out even more. A consideration of the 2015 election result against the backdrop of the entire post-1993 period is also informative because it reveals at least two departures in what had been prevailing trends.

The first interrupted pattern has to do with the level of visible minority representation--or rather under-representation --that characterizes Parliament. One simple way to determine how much that representation is in deficit is to compare the percentage of visible minorities in Parliament with the corresponding percentage in the general population. Over the 1993 to 2011 period, the ratio of these percentages has fluctuated between a low of .39 (in 2008) to a high of .56 (in 1997), meaning that representation was, at best, just about half of what would be required to achieve "full representation." In 2011, the ratio was also in deficit, at an estimated .48 and, remarkably, at the same level as it was in 1993; in other words, over the 1993 to 2011 period, visible minority MPs were being elected in numbers sufficient to keep up with the growth in the visible minority population at large but insufficiently so as to narrow the representation gap. No doubt, the 2015 election did produce a jump in the level of visible minority representation measured this way. However, it is unclear if a specific ratio can be derived because the only available visible minority population figure, 19.1 per cent, is a survey estimate from the four-year old 2011 National Household Survey (and possibly associated with some response bias). Still, if it can be assumed that the figure is at least roughly indicative of the visible minority population and if a couple of percentage points can be added to it to account for subsequent population growth, then the ratio would be closing in on the two-thirds mark, which is a notable improvement in visible minority representation.

The second trend that the 2015 election interrupted was the long-term decline in the number of visible minority MPs affiliated with the Liberal party. In the 1993 election, 92.3 per cent of the visible minorities in the House of Commons caucused with the Liberals, but the ensuing elections witnessed a near constant drop in the party's share of such MPs, from 68.4 per cent in 1997, to 42.9 per cent in 2008, only to be followed by a plunge to 7.1 per cent in 2011 (with the election of only two individuals). The reversal for the Liberals in 2015 was nothing short of stunning. Table 1 has the breakdown of visible minority MPs according to their party association for each election covering the 20042015 period. The Liberal majority victory in 2015 was accompanied by the election of 38 visible minorities, who constituted an overwhelming 84.4 per cent of all such MPs. The other side of the coin was the sharp depletion of visible minority MPs among the ranks of the second- and third-place finishers. The Conservative party, which over the 1993-2011 period increasingly challenged the Liberals as the party with the largest share of visible minority MPs, saw its portion drop from 42.9 per cent (12 MPs) in 2011 to 11.1 per cent (five MPs) in 2015. As the entries in the table also show, only in 2011 did the NDP achieve a large share of the visible minority MPs elected (46.4 per cent or 13 individuals). Four years later, the party was only able to secure the victory of two such MPs (4.4 per cent of all visible minority MPs).

More Visible Minority Candidates?

Can the considerable increase in the number of visible minority MPs elected in 2015 be attributed to a corresponding bump up in the number of visible minority candidates? Can it be particularly connected to a greater number of visible minority candidates nominated by the winning party in the election, the Liberal party? It is not axiomatic that "more visible minority candidates mean more visible minority MPs," and, indeed, in the 2011 election the uptick in the presence of visible minority MPs (relative to 2008) was actually accompanied by a slight decline in the percentage of candidates. What ultimately contributed most to the increase in visible minority MPs were victories by NDP...

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