Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Canada and the US: Politics, Part One

Disclaimer: As difficult as it is for me to believe I actually need to write this, it has become obvious that some people see writing about Canada (particularly in positive terms) as an attack on America. *Boggle*

In my view, this borders on xenophobia, however I am obliged to caution readers that the following blog entry, and possibly future blog entries, will contain material that implies that there are some things, in my considered opinion, that are better in Canada than they are in the US -- including, but not limited to, ideas on governance, political and ethical philosophies, civic-mindedness, health care, education and ice hockey.

It is the position of this blog and both of its authors that it is possible to praise and admire aspects of other countries without hating this one. This may represent a new concept for some.

American readers with fragile views on the superiority of their homeland over all others in every conceivable way are thus duly warned and may want to proceed with caution. Thank you.


In the US, we have had only two serious political parties for so long now that perhaps it is difficult to imagine any other way, but in point of fact outside the US this is an almost unheard-of idea. While in most "first-world" democracies it is true that there are usually only two dominant parties, a kind of "extra check and balance" is maintained by having sizable, viable third (and fourth and fifth etc) parties that command significant -- if niche -- bases of voters.

The idea behind this is simple, and in observation seems to work very well in Canada: with large blocs of voters committed to parties that will never dominate, the two general parties (who are usually, but not always, diametrically opposed) are left with no choice but to compromise and work with the minor parties in order to have a super-majority and get big things done legislatively. Because minor parties can fluctuate in focus and number as the public's views change, the two dominant parties can never be complacent that voters have "nowhere else to go" and thus have to work hard to earn a winning amount of political support.

This prevents the regrettable situation we have in the US where one party's actions are utter and complete anathema to the other, dividing the population and fostering rancor and bitterness between policymakers whose concern should be less partisan and more egalitarian. This is perhaps the ultimate result of having only two powerful political parties -- a completely polarised electorate and government whose efficiency and ratings are universally low (regardless of party) and who mostly inspire apathy and demoralisation in the governed.

Whether a multi-party system would actually work in the United States -- and there are many who wish it would, including us -- is open to question. At one time early in our democracy, the US did indeed have several parties that fielded viable candidates for Congress and the executive branch (Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, Whigs William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt were all third-party Presidents).

As recently as 1964, Strom Thurmond ran a credible campaign on the Dixiecrat ticket, and in 1992 Reform Party candidate and founder Ross Perot polled 19% from voters in the general election (an astonishing feat that is hard to even imagine today, now that the Democratic and Republican parties have further consolidated and gerrymandered their grip on power).

The Significant Political Parties of Canada
The two biggest parties in Canada are the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. There is a great temptation from Americans to think of these two entities as more-or-less corresponding to our Republican and Democratic parties, but this would be a mistake: both parties' platforms would be considered to the left of the Democrats on most issues, with the Liberal Party seen as very far to the left, and the Conservatives as somewhat more centrist (though there is a trend among Conservatives to embrace "neoconservative" principles like those adopted by the Republican Party).

Canada, unlike the US these days, has a certain set of core tenets that are almost completely "off the table" in political discussions -- topics that enjoy such wide and deep support that their implementation is unquestioned by either party. Universal healthcare, for example, is such a principle. Opposition to the death penalty and torture, and support for the UN, the Declaration of Human Rights, the World Court and the Geneva Conventions are others.

In the US, there used to be -- even quite recently -- some "third rail" issues that no candidate from any party was well-advised to tackle. Social Security is probably the best-known one, but others such as a general support for the arts, a well-funded educational system and the right of privacy were once considered untouchable. Whether you like or loathe the administration of George Bush -- and we fall firmly into the latter camp -- it must be said that he boldly broke new political ground by taking every single one of these issues head-on and developing political positions on them that factionalised the country. In this sense, he may well become an unwitting advocate of viable third parties in the US, since neither the Republican nor Democratic parties have produced alternative candidates so compellingly different that voters are willing to revolt against the new "status quo."

Broadly speaking, the Conservative Party of Canada embrace both the US concept of conservatism (mostly in the western half of the country) -- ideas like tough prison sentences, business self-regulation, alignment with President Bush and increased defense spending -- and neoliberalism/progressive ideas like full rights and unions for gay couples (though current PM Stephen Harper does not support gay marriage), transparency in government business dealings (!!), ending subsidies to big business (!!!) and giving every parent $100 per month for each child under six years old to help fund child care.

I will pause here so certain readers' heads can safely explode and recuperate, allowing them to carry on reading. :)

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, are currently "on the outs" with voters after an incredibly long streak of governing -- they were the ruling and dominant legislative party for 13 years, but appear to have become used to the benefits of power and got caught in what most Americans would dismiss as a trivial case of government kickbacks to a PR firm doing work for the party. The amount involved was said to be about $300,000 -- less than 1/6th the amount California congressman Duke Cunningham accepted in bribes all by his lonesome, for comparison purposes, but nonetheless it caused the collapse of the Paul Martin government and allowed widely-disliked Stephen Harper (leader of the Conservatives) to become Prime Minister.

Currently, Harper is struggling to stay in power with only 30% approval for him and his party. Even the formerly-minority New Democratic Party (NDP) has stronger numbers, and so the next election could see a fundamental shift in Canadian politics as the Liberals stage a comeback with the closely-aligned NDP as either their equal or at least significantly-stronger partner.

Since I mentioned some of the Conservative Party's positions, I should say that the Liberals' platform includes such tenets as a balanced budget (!), increased spending for the military (!!), and then a raft of positions that are recognisably leftist, such as raising the minimum wage, more money for education, tougher firearms laws and so on.

Despite these differences, the tenor and tone of the two parties would be quite recognisable to most Americans. Have a click on the Conservative website (linked again here) and check out their personal attack on Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion as a "flip-flopper," then notice the Liberal Party's website (linked again here) with its softer, almost generically platform-orientated message. Seem familiar?

The New Democratic Party (NDP) are beginning to emerge from the shadows of minority status to become a serious force that could even (possibly) capture a majority in the next election, allowing them their first Prime Minister. Their party is very focused on (among other things) the environment (a very big issue in Canada, much more so than here), public transit, progressive tax policies, Aboriginal (aka First Peoples, aka Inuit, aka Eskimo) rights, and renegotiating NAFTA. This is actually the party that is most like the US Democratic Party, at least as it currently stands.

Reflecting the trend in America, the 2006 by-election gave the NDP the balance of power in the Parliament with 29 seats. This is exactly enough so that any major piece of legislation supported by a major party plus the NDP will pass, meaning both Conservatives and Liberals work hard to curry favour with the NDP.

I hope, dear reader, you can start to see why I think this system may work better than the way Congress presently dances around the legislative process and the paux-de-deux they must do to get President Bush to sign what they pass. While the NDP was in the past a predictable partner for the Liberals, those days are long gone depending on the issue at hand.

The fourth significant political party has been the Bloc Quebecois (no accents because some browsers will have difficulty with them, but trust me they are all over the place in French, the dominant language of Quebec). It's easy to mischaracterise them as separatist wackos, and indeed many in Canada itself share that view -- everything they do is a) in French and b) for the sole benefit of the province of Quebec, the heck with the rest of the country. But really they are just a focused (some might say too narrowly) special-interest party who filter everything they support through a simple prism -- "will it benefit the people of Quebec and the values they stand for?". Imagine if your own favoured political party had such single-mindedness, and I think you can see why they keep getting re-elected. Nationally they play the gadfly, and serve a sometimes-annoying but necessary role in forcing the English-speaking parts of the country to pay some attention to them.

Finally, the Green Party of Canada is, after far too long, starting to make its influence felt and are expected to do well in the next election. At best, they will move from "fringe party" to "minority party" status, but their strong stands on the environment and eco-capitalism and eco-tax policies may make them a broader influence on the dominant parties, since Greens in Canada have various positions that appeal right the way across the broad spectrum of Canadian voters. If they succeed, there would be five national parties to help formulate policy and wrangle decisions. This could almost become fun! :)

In part two of this topic (posted whenever I damn well feel like doing all the fiddly bits of research!), we'll look at the role and power of the Queen of England, the Westminster system and English Common Law (the foundations of Canadian government), the role and power of the Prime Minister and Parliament, and the policies and philosophies that define and distinguish Canada and its standing among its people and the world.

There is a huge and thorough Wikipedia article further comparing and contrasting the US and Canadian styles of governing. If this post has managed to hold your interest, then you are commended to click through and read more on the subject, because knowledge is power and reading is FUNdamental.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chas. I followed the link to your blog from your post on ehMac. Fascinating stuff from a Canadian perspective. It is usually quite obvious why someone from a third world nation immigrates to Canada, but when your neighbour does I find it very interesting.

I've started reading from the beginning and have made it to this post (really have to get back to work). What an excellent comparison. I was pleased to see mention of the fact that all parties, even the Conservatives, are left of the Democrats as that is often misunderstood.

While you mention third parties being something that could benefit US politics, what I'd like to see here is a two term maximum law for the Prime Minister and an elected Senate.

I look forward to reading the rest of your blog and finding out how you guys are doing almost a year later.