Thursday, December 4, 2008

Canada and the US: Politics, Part Two

More than a year ago, I wrote a lengthy blog posting covering some of the political differences between the US and Canada, particularly the concept of multiple political parties. Since that article appeared, some of its predictions came true, some not quite so much, and we left it with a promise to post more about the parliamentary democracy system versus the republican (notice the small "r," this does not refer to the same-named political party) system the US uses, as well as to explain the role of the Governor General and Queen of England in Canada's governmental setup.

As we are in the middle of a political tempest which has, just today, put the focus on the mostly-ceremonial role of the Governor General (hereafter referred to as GG), this seems like a good time for the overdue Part Two of this civics lesson. First, though a very quick summary of the players and the state of play over the last year.

Canada uses a "parliamentary" system based on the one created in England. We have a House of Commons which is very roughly like the House of Representatives in the US, with directly elected "members" representing each "district" (Canadians call them "ridings") and "ministers" in charge of various departments ("ministries"). The head of the government is the Prime Minister , but he (or she) is not directly elected: instead, the leader of whichever party gets the most seats in Parliament becomes the Prime Minister (hereafter referred to as PM).

Despite not being directly elected, the PM is highly answerable to both the Parliament and the public, since he or she is seen as directly responsible for all actions taken by the government. The minority parties act as (and are referred to as) the Loyal Opposition, and their job is to act as the check-and-balance on the government's actions.

As most of our US readers might imagine, this means that it is very difficult for one party to actually grab majority power -- what usually happens is that one of the two bigger parties (in this case, the Conservatives or the Liberals ) must persuade one or more of the smaller parties to ally with them on a case-by-case basis to get things done. We find this much more interesting than US politics, where real cooperation has been very rare, since the two parties are pretty much convinced that the other party's members are traitors and swine. In Canada, such extremist rhetoric has been rare (until quite recently) and there is a greater degree (again, until recently) of ability to forge alliances to get things done. Not to mention a lot of soap-opera-esque drama as individual ministers and parties switch allegiances depending on the issues and the political winds.

Shortly before we moved to Canada, the ruling Liberal Party (which had been in power by varying degrees for the past 11 years) got caught in a series of (by US standards) minor scandals, and were punished by disaffected voters in the 2006 election by being replaced by a minority Conservative government. The head of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper , became PM.

Harper is known for his very autocratic style, and despite claims of being an evangelical Christian has an image as a bully who's not afraid to lie as politicians are wont to do. As newcomers, our impression of Harper is that he and his government have not performed badly by any means, and have more-or-less kept things running as they were before, with any reforms being fairly minor (Harper is more pro-oil and anti-art than his predecessor, but apart from that most Americans would struggle to tell them apart). The impression we get is that Harper would have been a much more radical PM if he'd ever been granted a majority, but it didn't happen and doesn't look like it ever will (at least, not under his leadership). Still, for a country that solidly voted Liberal just 15 years ago, they've taken a rather centrist road and done well with it. Until just lately ...

In 2008, breaking a promise he made to voters in 2006, Harper called early elections (you can do that in Canada!). In hindsight, it seems clear that he felt that the Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was universally seen as a wimp (and he is!), and so Harper gambled that a new election might give him a majority government so that he didn't have to compromise or work with the minority parties. The election, held just a few weeks before the US one in October, improved the Conservatives' position but despite huge advantages favouring them (including incumbency, a decent record and an extremely weak opponent) did not give him the majority he wanted. Oddly enough, the election further weakened the once-dominant Liberals and expanded the influence of both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the French-speaking, single-minded Bloc Québécois (BQ, obsessed with only the province of Quebec).

Thus, despite having more seats in Parliament than ever, Harper was now in a worse position than before. The other parties, quite frankly, hate him -- because he is so dictatorial, and because he is a superb political gamesman who skillfully manipulates the spin and "party line" to keep the public fed up with politics overall (sound familiar?), which favours the incumbents.

After the election, the economic crisis reared its ugly head, and the minority parties repeatedly urged Harper to take some concrete actions to prevent job loss and trade deficits, since the struggling US is of course Canada's main trading partner (though Canada has so far weathered the storm far better than the US -- we're still running surplus, if you can believe it, and no real bailouts to speak of). Harper, strangely, did nothing. For weeks on end. When his Finance Minister finally came out with an "update," it contained some very partisan "punishments" for both the left-leaning parties and left-leaning citizens, and nothing much for actually addressing the threat of job losses, inflation, the credit crunch and other signs of a weakening economy. Canada has, over many years now, brick-by-brick built a strong and vibrant national economy, the backbone of their presence on the world stage, and Harper was seen as being petty and derelict on the big problems.

The frustration (some might say panic) in the minority parties finally reached a boiling point, and last week, just a few weeks after the election, the three minority parties announced a kind of united front -- the Liberals and NDP would offer to form a coalition government, and the Bloc (while not signing on as a formal member) agreed to support them for a limited time. This surprise move meant that the new coalition controlled more seats in Parliament -- and represented 62% of the voters -- and threatened to throw the Conservatives (who just "won" the election) out of power by defeating them in a "vote of confidence."

Enter the Governor-General
I mentioned that the PM is the head of government, but unlike America, the PM is not the head of state. The head of state in Canada is actually -- yes, still -- the Queen of Canada, Queen Elisabeth II. She doesn't tend to drop by too often (a shame, actually), so she has an appointed representative that speaks for her and acts as the ultimate authority in governmental matters -- a position called the Governor-General, currently held by Michaëlle Jean (a Haitian-born, French-speaking woman who once worked as a TV reporter).

The Governor-General's job is, like the Queen's, largely ceremonial and public-relations-centred. But she does have a constitutional role to play, however rarely it becomes necessary, but just today the GG was forced to intervene in the dispute between PM Harper and the coalition. Her decision today (a bad one, in our personal view) was to "prorogue" (suspend) Parliament for a month, ostensibly to let tempers cool.

We appreciate the sentiment there, but the reason we say this is a bad decision is two-fold:

  • While suspended, Parliament cannot make any new decisions, just at a time when economic leadership is most required. Any stimulus packages, job-protection laws, extensions of unemployment benefits and other such moves will "simply have to wait" for a month, and there's no guarantee the feuding and fussing will be any less then, or that the Conservatives will be able to hang on to power when Parliament reconvenes.
  • It sets a bad precedent -- future PMs can avoid losing a vote of confidence by begging for a prorogue, and use the intervening time to "campaign" against their opponents unfairly (and you can bet Harper will do exactly this, indeed he has all but accused the coalition of being traitors).

The scenarios for January also look pretty grim: it's incredibly likely that unless the Conservatives seriously negotiate with the now-united minority parties, the budget they present when Parliament reconvenes will fail, which equals losing a vote of confidence.

At that point, one of four things could happen:

  1. Harper could resign, and if the Conservatives offered someone more willing to work with the minority parties, the Conservatives could possibly stay in power as the coalition dissolves.
  2. The PM will ask the Governor General to call another federal election immediately, which would almost certainly allow Harper to keep his job but leave the Conservatives with fewer seats and still a minority government (ie "back to square one"). The campaign would be exceedingly bitter (an element Harper has already introduced with a number of "poison pill" slogans) and the public are disinterested (to put it mildly) in going to the polls for the third time in three years.
  3. The GG will ask the opposition parties if they can form a coalition government (which they've already done, those eager beavers) and if so then they would be placed in charge. It's impossible to say if they'd do any better, since the Conservatives would, in this scenario, be extremely angry at having power "stolen" from them and be unlikely to "play well with others," but on the other hand, that's more or less how this whole mess started!
  4. Harper, who will still be PM when Parliament returns, could try to dance around and delay any bill that might trigger a vote of confidence (in other words, not spend any money). Yeah, good luck with that.
What's interesting is that, despite the coalition of minorities parties representing 62% of the voters (based on the results of the last election), the public reaction to the whole situation has been angry and frustrated. The voters are focused on how to deal with the coming economic downturn, and they are annoyed both that the Conservatives don't seem to be dealing with the issue, and also annoyed with what many see as a power grab by the minority parties rather than a sincere effort save the country.

Overall, I think this shows that Canada's democracy is vibrant and passionate, but that the current crop of "actors" are rather immature (not meaning to speak comparatively -- Canadian politicians are very mature compared to the shenanigans of the two US parties!) and unfocused. It's good, in our view, to have a neutral "ultimate authority" on these matters, even if the concept of the monarchy from which positions like the Governor-General stem is a little outdated. I sort of get a mental picture of her turning around in her seat to face Harper and Dion next month and saying something like "Don't you kids make me turn this country around, because I will!" :)

In the next instalment (which could take as long as a year to appear, I'm warning you now!), we'll look at the more obscure elements of Canada's government, including the Senate (yes, they have one, but what does it do? Beats me!) and the actual Constitution of Canada (started, in some respects, with the Magna Carta of 1215, begun in earnest in the late 18th Century, with other ingredients added over the years, but finally ratified in 1982 -- yes, you read that right, 1982!). History is fun!


Anonymous said...

A very good primer, Chas. I think that what many of my fellow citizens forget is that we do not elect governments in Canada, we elect the House of Commons to Parliament. As can be seen from what happened this week, this is not a minor distinction. It also means that the coalition attempt is completely legitimate. See what happened in Ontario in 1995, for instance.

When you do your follow-up article (in a year, or so) one point I feel you should make is that Canada's constitution does not consist solely of the Constitution Act (1982), but also incorporates the unwritten Westminster constitution and all the statutes passed since at least the Magna Carta. You may want to look for books and articles written by the late Senator Eugene Forsey. He was Canada's pre-eminent constitutional authority through much of the second half of the 20th century, and wrote many insightful and accessible items that influenced public debate.

Looking forward to part 3....eventually!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting this up.... I was curious how you would explain it. If I may, a correction though.
1) People don't elect "ministers", they elect 'Members of Parliament' (MPs). If MPs are very good, and belong to the governing party, they can be promoted to Ministers, which are the heads of Government Departments and/or Ministries. In the provinces, though, people elect a MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) except in Quebec and Ontario, where they elect MNAs (Member of National Assembly) and MPPs (Member of Provincial Parliament) respectively.
2) There is a fourth option for Parliament (OK, this isn't a correction) when it reconvenes in January. Since Harper is still PM, he schedules votes. He could design that schedule so that there isn't a vote of confidence for weeks or even a month or two.

Harper is more dangerous IMHO than you have painted (and you have not been kind). He has killed the money that went to disadvantaged groups, minorities, and women to challenge the government in court. In other words, for laws or rules (not all of which go through Parliamentary scrutiny) that infringe on Canadian's rights - Canada used to fund (in some cases) a court challenge by the affected group up to the Supreme Court. It was a wonderful quality control check on how laws were being enforced. Now those groups have to fund-raise to overturn these laws. The other side - the government - has virtually unlimited resources to defend what may be an unjust law. I could list examples, but this is a blog about your experiences - not a political blog.

I would also quibble with the statement that our democracy is immature. The system is quite mature, and has shown itself to be able to handle these little hiccups. Its the *politicians* who are acting immaturely.

Thanks again....

Anonymous said...

I'd just point out that Elizabeth II is "Queen of Canada" under the 1982 Canadian Constitution. GG Jean represents the Queen of Canada, not the "Queen of England". Same person, but two different monarchies.

chas_m said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chas_m said...

Great thanks for those who added helpful information and insight. These suggestions have been incorporated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the changes.... Can't wait for the next instalment.

Two observations....

I don't think we will see the ties to the Monarchy changed anytime soon. While I think there could be support to change the old system (in principle), I'm convinced that we couldn't reach a majority decision on what the new system should look like. So, we'll just keep using the old system since it actually seems to work, mostly.

Interesting that your post on this political kerfuffle has generated the most comments. I'm not sure what that says about Canadians, but I'm sure it says something.