North America

Geopolitics in Canada: Politics, Economics, and Future Technologies

Canada is often considered to be a haven from geopolitics, a nation relatively free from economic want or political cant. But if by geopolitics we refer simply to the influence of geography upon politics, Canada may in fact be a prime place to study it, if only because the country posseses so much of the former when in comparison to the latter.

The basic fact of Canadian geopolitics is this: more Canadians live in the city of Toronto than live in the 2500 kilometer-wide expanse of land separating Toronto from Alberta. (Or, to put it in the most Canadian way possible, there are a heckuva lot more people who would like to see Auston Matthews win the Calder Trophy than Patrick Laine). Canada is in this way divided in two: between Alberta and BC on the one hand, in which around 25 percent of Canadians live and 30 percent of Canada’s GDP is generated, and Ontario and Quebec on the other, which account for roughly 60 percent of Canada’s population and GDP.

Source: Future Economics

These two halves, in turn, can also be divided into two parts. Alberta is separated from BC by the Rockies; Ontario from Quebec by the Anglo-French divide. (The debate is still open as to which of these two barriers is the more venerable). However, while the BC-Alberta split is pretty well balanced — Alberta’s GDP is a bit larger than BC’s, but BC’s population is a bit larger than Alberta’s — the Ontario-Quebec divide is tilted strongly in support of Ontario. By itself, Ontario accounts for an estimated 38.6 percent of Canada’s population and 38.4 percent of Canada’s GDP.

These are large figures not just in Canadian terms, but also in global ones. Few provinces or states within major countries represent such a bulk of their respective nations. Ontario’s provincial government has a budget that in recent years was larger than those of Quebec and Alberta combined, and also close to half that of Canada’s federal government (the capital of which, Ottawa, happens to be located in Ontario). The Ontario provincial budget is higher than those of any states in the US apart from California or New York. It is higher than the budgets of 15 EU nations.

Among other things, this makes the provincial election of Ontario that is scheduled to occur by 2018 a matter of some significance. According to current polls (yes, I know, polling cannot be trusted…), the Ontario Liberals likely will be thrown out of office for the first time since 2003, to be replaced with the Progressive Conservative party. This would be noteworthy given that, at present, only Manitoba is led by a Conservative government. The rest are governed by Liberal parties with majorities in provincial parliaments, or else by the New Democratic Party (in Alberta) or Saskatchewan Party (in Sasketchewan, of course), both of which enjoy majority governments too.

In Canada, due to the country’s vast size and diffuse population, provinces possess a high measure of capital and clout. The combined budgets of the ten provincial governments, for example, is larger than the federal budget. (In the US, by comparison, the 50 state budgets amount to less than half the US federal budget. And in Britain, the central government is far more prominent still). So, if provincial Liberals lose upcoming elections in provinces of considerable size—Quebec may have an election in 2018 too, and BC will likely have one this year— it might unsettle provincial relations with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal majority; a federal majority likely to remain until at least 2020.

It is not however only Ontario’s size which tends to make it the fulcrum in Canadian politics. Ontario is also centrally positioned, both economically and politically, within the country. Economically, the four provinces west of Ontario have around one-third of Canada’s GDP, while the five provinces east of Ontario have around one-quarter of Canada’s GDP. The median line of longitude of the Canadian economy — the place where the GDP to the east equals the GDP to the west; the Prime Median, as it were — runs directly through the city of Toronto, Ontario’s capital.

Ontario trades nearly seven times more with Quebec than does any other province, and trades three times more with Alberta than does Quebec. Ontario also trades more with Canada’s four Atlantic Maritime provinces than Quebec does. Politically, moreover, Ontario shares a long border with French-speaking Quebec — a border Ottawa abuts and Montreal is just 60 km from — yet shares a language with most of the rest of Canada.

We’ve left out any mention of Canada’s three Territories, Yukon, the Northwest, and Nunavut, for the sake of simplicity. Combined, they have a population of 113,000; smaller than the smallest province, PEI, and just 0.32 percent of the overall Canadian population. (By comparison, Alaska accounts for 0.23 percent of the population of the United States)

This is where we get to the real bacon of Canadian geopolitics: the somewhat uncanny reflection of geographical realities within Canada’s electoral outcomes; specifically, in the ability of Ontario to “swing” between either Quebec or western Canada during federal elections, or else for Ontarians to vote for a party supported in neither Quebec nor in western Canada and yet still manage to have that party win (or at least, manage to avoid having any rival party acheive a majority government).

The four most recent elections, which saw Trudeau emerge with a majority government in 2015, Stephen Harper win his first-ever majority in 2011, and Harper gain only minority governments in 2008 and 2006, are ideal examples of this:

The three major candidates in the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and Thomas Mulcair

In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority by uniting Ontario and western Canada — including receiving 27 out of 28 seats in Alberta — even as they won only 5 out of 75 seats in Quebec. In that election Ontario and every province west of Ontario gave a large majority of their seats to Harper’s Conservatives, while, with the exception of New Brunswick (the westernmost Atlantic province), none of the provinces east of Ontario came even close to giving a majority to the Conservatives.

Quebec, in contrast, gave 59 seats to the NDP, allowing that party to become one of the two largest in Parliament for the first time in its history. 2011 was a good example of Ontario swinging to the west. (Harper, not incidentally, was born in Toronto, attended university in Edmonton, and represented a Calgary riding in Parliament).

In 2015, on the other hand, Trudeau’s Liberals won an even larger federal majority by winning most of the seats in both Ontario and Quebec, even as they were crushed in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Liberals won a large majority of seats in Ontario and in every province east of Ontario—except Quebec, where they won only a narrow majority—and also won exactly half the seats in Manitoba, the easternmost Prairie province. But the Liberals did not come even close to winning a majority in any other province west of Ontario.

The large victory of Trudeau (who, by the way, was born in Ottawa, went to university in Montreal, and represents a Montreal electoral district in Parliament) is a good example of Ontario swinging east. While BC did give a plurality of its votes to the Liberals in 2015 too, it only amounted to 17 out of the 42 seats in that province; in contrast, in the Atlantic Maritimes the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the four provinces of the region, and in Ontario the Liberals won 80 out of 121 seats.

In 2008 and in 2006, Ontario did not give a majority of its seats to any party. Moreover, in neither of those elections did Ontario and Quebec give a plurality or majority of their seats to the same party. This resulted in both cases in federal minority governments.

In 2008, Ontario gave a plurality of seats to Harper’s Conservatives, who won big majorities in every province west of Ontario but who lost in every province east of Ontario except New Brunswick. Quebec meanwhile gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois that year. In 2006, when Harper’s minority victory was much narrower than in 2008, Quebec also gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois, but Ontario gave a plurality to the Liberals rather than to Harper.

In 2006 the Alberta-BC divide was also larger than in 2008 or 2011: the Conservatives swept Alberta but won only a plurality in BC. (New Brunswick however did fall in line with its fellow Maritimers in 2006: all four gave a majority of seats to Liberals). In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, every province west of Ontario gave majorities or pluralities to the Conservatives, while none to Ontario’s east (except, again, New Brunswick in 2008) did so.

While geopolitical patterns such as these vary over time and so are not certain to endure, still it is clear they run deep.

In Part 2 of this 4-Part essay, we will take a more detailed look back at Canada’s past elections and the (geo)politics of Canada’s provinces. In Part 3 we will attempt to analyze the modern Canadian economy, and in Part 4 we will discuss how technological changes in robotics and communications may impact the country.

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North America

Ontario: The Borderland Economy

Source: RBC, predictions from March 2015

Source: Royal Bank of Canada, predictions of provincial economic growth for 2015, published March 2015

With the economy of Western Canada hit hard by the fall in oil and other commodity prices that began last year, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, has begun to account for quite a large share of the country’s economic growth. Many Canadian economists – most of whom live in Ontario, as I do – assume this economic resilience is the result of Ontario’s economic diversity and size. Ontario’s population is much larger than that of any other Canadian province (see graph below), and its economy is mixed between services (in Toronto),  government (Ottawa), industry (southwestern Ontario), and commodities (northern Ontario). Ontario’s economy is also more oriented toward the auto sector than other provinces are, and so may be benefiting more than others from the fall in oil prices.

the provincials

Ontario accounts for around 38 percent of Canada’s population, compared to 23 percent for Quebec and 13 percent for British Columbia. Most other countries do not have provinces/states that are as large as this. California, for example, is the largest state in the US but has just 12 percent of the US population; source: Future Economics

Still, this may be missing the point to a certain extent. What really sets Ontario aside from other Canadian provinces is the proximity of large population centres in Ontario to large population centres in the United States. This is unique among Canadian provinces (see graph below), particularly if you ignore Quebec (which is separated from US populations by a language barrier as well as a political one) and British Columbia (which, perhaps not incidentally, is the other major province that has decent economic growth right now, in spite of the fact that it is a significant commodity exporter and has close ties to oil-rich Alberta). Ontario is the only province to have a handful of cities which straddle the US-Canada border. These include Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Sault St Marie, and Sarnia-Fort Huron.

US-Canada 15

on_e

Since the US economy has remained relatively strong in recent years, unlike those of Europe, East Asia, or much of the developing world, Ontario’s ties to the US may be what is driving Ontario’s economic growth. This should make Ontario concerned; the US economy has not had a recession for almost eight years now, so, in a certain sense at least, it is due for one soon.

Below, I have tried to show some of the ways in which Ontario’s proximity to the US is unique. I’ve gathered all the data myself using Google Earth and recent Canadian and American censuses, so if you think you’ve found any errors in the following graphs please let me know.

us-can 50.pngcan-us 50 land:water.pngus-can 100.pngus-can 200 .png

us-can neighboursus-can 1st and 2nd degreelength us-can

US-Can real gdp.png

us-can gdp growth

[New Brunswick had zero in this category because Maine’s economy has been neither growing nor shrinking in the past year or so. Alberta and BC are high in this category because of the growth of Washington state and Montana, respectively. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were doing great in this category before the oil crash caused their shared neighbour North Dakota to go from the fastest-growing US state into a serious recession. Ontario and Quebec are roughly equal in this category because of the huge size of New York state, which they both border. However if you were to ignore New York state, then Ontario’s border states, namely Michigan and Minnesota, are growing much faster than Quebec’s border states, namely Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Minnesota’s growth, meanwhile, is also why Manitoba is relatively high in this category in spite of North Dakota’s recession — as Minnesota’s  GDP is nearly seven times higher than North Dakota’s]

Ontario’s ties to the US have also meant that it is less dependent on inter-provincial trade of goods than other parts of Canada are: in recent years Ontario has conducted 2.5 times more trade with other countries (led by the United States, of course) than it has with other provinces. This is compared to just 1-1.5 times more for Quebec, Alberta, and British Colombia.

Economists and financial journalists in Ontario need to be more careful than they have been in the recent past. During the 2007-2009 economic crises they ascribed the relative success of Canada’s financial system (which is centred in Toronto, Ontario) to the fact that Canadian bankers and regulators were more prudent and conscientious than their peers in other countries, rather than to the fact that Canada was flush with capital at the time as a result of the sky-high commodity prices that existed just before and just after the financial crisis, and as a result of the fact that Canadian Baby Boomers  were then in the prime of their financial lives (as Canada, unlike the younger US or older Japan, is dominated by the Baby Boomer generation).

But instead of acknowledge these facts, much of the Canadian media decided instead to help create a cult of personality around Canadian bankers and Bank of Canada leader Mark Carney — a cult of personality they have since exported to Britain, where Carney has become a figure of great importance (especially since Brexit and the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron) and the first non-Briton to ever become the central banker over the British financial system, a system that is far larger, far more worldly, and far less dependent on  commodity sectors than the Canadian financial system is. Similarly, Ontario’s economic resilience is now being described (by some people) as if it was basically an inherent condition of the Ontario economy, rather than a result, at least in part, of Ontario’s unique ties to the growing US economy.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Ontario is not a resilient place or that bankers and regulators in Toronto and Ottawa are not prudent and wise. And certainly I would like Ontario’s economy to continue growing, since it is my home. However, believing either one of these stereotypes about Ontario too much could be a dangerous mistake for investors or governments to continue to make.

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North America

Canada’s Election – and what it could mean for the TSX

[Update– My predictions in this article were incorrect: the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, ended up winning a majority government in parliament. I didn’t see that coming!]

In most countries, investors usually have a clear idea of what they want to see from an election. They want the victory of a competent, “market-friendly” candidate, with a majority government and no significant regional divisions displayed in the country’s voting patterns. This is, in fact, what they got out of the most recent Canadian federal election, in 2011: the right-of-centre Conservative Party won a decent-sized majority government (which was Canada’s first majority government since prior to 2004), winning in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Prairies, while at the same time Quebec abandoned its independence-minded Bloc Quebecois en masse in favour of the NDP, which also became the largest opposition party by a large margin in Ontario, British Columbia, and the country as a whole.

From the perspective of investors, it is unlikely that the 2015 election will be much more favourable than the current situation that exists in Canada. Even if the Conservatives were to win an even larger majority than they have now, which seems unlikely, this would still only be a continuation of the status quo, and would therefore be unlikely to generate any excitement among Canadians or foreign investors. Plus, given that the Conservative leader Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister for just short of ten years now, this status quo may start to become tiring even for investors and Conservatives. It would certainly not induce any sort of “hope and change” optimism that could potentially help stimulate markets in the short-term. To the contrary, the election campaign will probably make Canadians less confident in the health of their economy, as both the Liberals and the NDP may spend it trying to convince Canadians that Harper has brought the country to the brink of a recession.

In contrast, it is not very difficult to imagine that the elections could make Canada less appealing to investors. Here’s one scenario that would be much worse from an investor’s view: the Liberal Party, led by 43-year old Justin Trudeau (the son of a former Canadian Prime Minister) wins a minority government in parliament, while, on a provincial level, the country is regionally divided in its voting patterns, with Ontario going primarily for the Liberals, Quebec voting primarily for the NDP, the Prairie provinces voting primarily for the Conservatives, and British Columbia splitting its vote between two or three of the parties.

In such a scenario, Canada would have changed from having a “market-friendly” majority government led by an experienced Prime Minister and having no regionalist tendencies reflected in its voting patterns, to having a left-wing minority coalition government led by a young inexperienced Prime Minister (who would have been chosen purely because of his family name) and having significant regionalist divisions between eastern Canada and western Canada and between Quebec and the rest of the country reflected in its voting patterns.

If the NDP defeat the Conservatives instead of the Liberals, meanwhile, which is also possible (the NDP are currently the second largest Canadian party in parliament by far), it would bring to power a party that has never been in power before in its history, which until relatively recently was viewed by many conservatives as being “far left”, and which has a leader who is only in charge because of the tragic death of the former leader of the NDP following the party’s unprecedented success in the Canadian election of 2011.

Even worse, a staunchly provincialist party like the Bloc Quebecois, which is currently polling at around 10-20 percent in Quebec, could theoretically end up becoming the kingmaker in a split between the Conservatives and a Liberal-NDP coalition. Investors could turn on Canada to a certain degree if they begin to think that an increasingly fragmented result such as this is likely to occur. Thus, while the defeat of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party or the loss of its majority position in parliament would not necessarily be bad for Canada over the longer term, it arguably represents a short-term challenge for the Canadian economy – and in particular, for Canadian financial markets – during the election year ahead.

For more on the economic position Canada currently finds itself in, see 5 Challenges for Canada’s Economy in 2015

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