bloc quebecois, Canada, Conservatives, election 2011, electoral reform, first-past-the-post, governor general, house of commons, in contempt, Liberals, May 2 2011, members of parliament, NDP, no-confidence, parliament, parties, politics, ridings, senate, Stephen Harper, the prime minister, the queen
So, in case you haven’t heard, Canada is having a federal election today. AGAIN.
We do this every couple of years, usually because Prime Ministers have the ability to call an early election whenever they want, and often choose to do so when their approval ratings are running high.
That is not what happened this time. In fact, not only is the Prime Minister unpopular, but 60% of the country never voted for him at all. Ever.
Allow me to explain in a very simplified way. People who want to email me or comment and tell me all the stuff I missed – go easy on me. It’s hard to condense the entirety of Canadian politics into a single blog post. I’m not a politico, I’m a Mom.
(People in the UK, this is all going to sound very familiar to you).
Basic Federal Government Structure
Canada has a parliamentary democracy, with a constitutional monarchy, modelled after the British way of doing things. That means that we recognize the Queen of England as our monarch, and she has some nominal power, but she doesn’t actually have much say in how we run our country, which we run via democratic election.
Governor General – this is the Queen’s formal representative in the Government of Canada. It’s his/her job to swear in new Prime Ministers and make sure the members of Canada’s government all play nicely with each other.
The Prime Minister – this is the official leader of the country. He/She is the head of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister holds less absolute power than, say, the President of the United States, because he/she shares that role with the Governor General/The Queen.
The Senate – Unlike in the United States, our Senate is not elected, it is appointed. The Prime Minister appoints (well, he tells the Governor General who he wants to be appointed, but the Governor could hypothetically ignore his advice) senators whenever we need another one, and that senator pretty much gets the job for life. That means that we still have Senators who were recommended by Prime Ministers who are long gone. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on how much we liked that Prime Minister!
The Senate doesn’t really do much. Senators are higher ranked than MPs, and they can choose to veto bills that have been voted in by the House of Commons, but that rarely happens. Mostly they edit bills and send them back down to the House of Commons to be voted on again, before they formally legislate the bills.
The real stuff goes on in the House of Commons, which is the part that is democratically elected, and that is where all the really important stuff happens.
The House of Commons – This is like the American House of Representatives. It contains Members of Parliament (MPs) who are democratically elected into office by their local regions (ridings). Because Canada only has 10 provinces and three territories, all much bigger than your average U.S. state, and because Canada’s population is mostly bunched up along the Southern border, the ridings are broken down to be relatively equal in population size, rather than actual area size.
There are 308 ridings in total, so there are 308 MPs to be elected into the House of Commons. The party with the most seats in Parliament gets to run the country, with the input of the other parties.
How a Federal Election Works
In Canada, we don’t vote for our Prime Minister directly. When we have a federal election, we vote for our regional MPs (similar to Representatives in the States). The political party with the most seats in the House of Commons wins, and their leader (also an MP) is appointed Prime Minister.
So, if you are a Canadian on election day, you head down to the polls and get handed a slip of paper. On the piece of paper are the names of the candidates running in your area, and you vote for one of them. If your guy gets in, then his seat counts towards his party’s number of seats and therefore counts towards who will end up becoming Prime Minister.
Each Riding determines the winning MP using the first-past-the-post system. That’s just our way of saying that the guy with the most votes wins. He doesn’t need to have the majority of votes, just the most compared to his rivals. He could have 25% of the vote and still win, as long as each of his rivals got less than that. He will go to the House of Commons representing his party, and the other 75% of the votes don’t matter.
This is how most countries descended from the British system (including the States) do business. It works fine, as long as there are only two parties who are real contenders, like in the United States.
Allow me to introduce you to what Canada’s political party scene looks like:
Yeah, that’s right. We have four (count ’em – FOUR) left-wing parties, and only one right-wing party.
Meet Canada’s Main Political Parties:
The Liberal Party:
This is Canada’s primary left-wing political party. They aren’t very left wing, by Canadian standards, although they’re still probably to the left of the Democrats in the States. They just believe in things like taxing people enough to actually cover government costs, requiring the wealthy to contribute more than the poor, and not bombing everything in sight. The Liberals introduced Canada’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, legalized gay marriage, and legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
While Trudeau (Canada’s version of JFK, except he lived a long and healthy life and therefore managed to piss a lot of people off over the years) famously racked up a huge deficit during his years in power, the more recent Liberals have become really good at eliminating any deficits and actually started paying back some of Canada’s debts. Unfortunately, they then got caught in a massive sponsorship scandal which lost them a lot of support.
(I notice that when a left-wing party does something wrong, they lose support, while when a right-wing party does something underhanded, their supporters just ignore it. Why do you suppose that is?)
The NDP is further to the left of the Liberal Party and tends to get a rise in votes whenever the Liberals piss people off (as do the Conservatives). The NDP put a lot of emphasis on social programs, helping the poor, promoting LGBT rights, and increased taxes on corporations. Many people believe that the NDP, if they ever win an election, will immediately plunge Canada deep into debt and ruin the economy, but it should be pointed out that on a provincial level, NDP governments actually have the best track record when it comes to managing money, ranking above the Conservatives.
The Bloc Quebecois:
This is actually a decent party that handles both money and social issues well. They’d probably sweep an election if it weren’t for the primary focus of their party – to separate Quebec from Canada and make it an independent nation. Canadians are proud of Quebec and think that a big chunk of land missing from our country would be unsightly, so the Bloc is never going to be elected in. However, they get most of the seats in Quebec and do a good job of protecting Francophone interests in the government.
The Green Party:
This party gets a reasonable amount of support – nearly a million votes last election (that’s about 6% of the popular vote) – but no Green candidate has ever been elected into Parliament. A lot of vote swapping this election has involved switching Green votes to the party leader’s riding, so at least SHE can get into the House of Commons. I hope that this has a side effect of reducing vote-splitting in other ridings – the last thing Canada needs is more splitting of the left-wing votes.
The Conservative Party:
There used to be two right-wing parties; the Progressive Conservatives, which were mainstream party, and the Reform, later called the Canadian Alliance, party, which consisted of the really socially conservative right-wingers (about equivalent to the United States’ Republican party, and never really taken seriously by most Canadians). The Conservatives noticed that they kept losing elections due to vote-splitting, and they merged into one party, which was the smart thing to do and which is probably what the left-wing parties should do, as well.
So now the fiscally conservative people and the socially conservative people all vote for the same party. Even so, the Conservative Party only get about 35% of the popular vote in Canada. Nevertheless, thanks to first-past-the-post, they end up with 45% of the seats in the House of Commons, with the other three parties fighting for the remaining 55% of the seats.
What’s Going On Now?
For the last two elections in 2006 and 2008, the Conservatives have won with a minority government. That means that they win the election because they have the most seats, but that they are outnumbered by opposing MPs from all the other parties combined. This makes every bill they want to pass into a wrestling match, because they need to get the support of enough MPs from the other parties in order to pass anything.
When I was a child, my teacher assigned me a seat next to a boy who used to tease and pester me during class. My mother complained, and the teacher told her, that kids need to learn how to get along, because we won’t always get to pick who we sit next to in life.
Well, I think my teacher lied, because the House of Commons is filled with adults and none of them know how to play nicely with the people they are sitting next to.
The reasonable and rational thing to do in a situation like this is to try to find a common interest. Find out what the Canadian people want, and try to work out solutions that most people can agree to. When you feel that you are being stone-walled by the opposition, perhaps it is time to let that particular matter go, or ask for their suggestions on what should be done, because like it or not, they represent the majority of the Canadian people.
Or you can handle things the way that the Conservatives have handled it.
Prime Minister Harper (who is the first Prime Minister to employ a personal stylist and who wants to call The Government of Canada “The Harper Government” instead) responds to pressure by trying to control information. The Conservatives have issued unconstitutional gag orders, forbidden climate scientists to talk to the press without permission, deleted scientific reports from Environment Canada’s website, and is trying to cut internet privacy.
The other MPs tend to get hiffy when they aren’t allowed to see the information that they are supposed to be making decisions about. I don’t blame them, because as a dog trainer, I frown on resource-guarding.
Things came to a head this spring.
The Conservatives inherited a balanced budget from the Liberals, but have now racked up the biggest deficit in the history of Canada. Given the current economy, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. So the opposition have made a lot of stink about some of the items in the budget, and accused The Harper Government of concealing information, and refusing to release documents.
It’s like being told “your car needs some work”, and when you ask how much it will cost, being told “that’s none of your business”.
Also, a Conservative was caught doctoring documents.
The Conservatives were ruled to be in contempt of Parliament. In contempt.
This has never happened before in the history of ever.
The MPs quickly got together and voted for a no-confidence motion. This effectively dissolved the government, because our elected representatives no longer had any faith in it. The Governor General could have just pointed at the Liberals (the party with the next amount of seats) and said, “Fine, you run the country,” but he instead suggested an election.
So here we are.
The issues on the election should probably be the things like: The loss of 1 billion in child care cuts (thanks for that), the rapid increase in infant mortality rates, the fact that the Conservatives no longer lower the flag to half mast when one of our soldiers is killed in action, the massive deficit (here’s something funny – Harper still complains about the Trudeau deficit. Hi, Rt. Hon. Pot, meet M. Kettle), the whole in-contempt thing, and the fact that Canada’s environmental stance is so against the Queen’s mandate that we have been threatened with being kicked out of the Commonwealth altogether.
Instead, the attack campaigns have all pretty much been:
Liberals: Stephen Harper lies, does no one care about that?
Conservatives: The left-wing people will all RAISE TAXES and ruin the economy. Here’s a shot of the Liberal leader’s scary eyebrows.
So, the Conservatives will win again, probably with another minority government. They’ll still be hobbled, Canadians will still be pissed off, and so it’ll be back to a stalemate.