Friday, October 21, 2005

Election Primer Part 1: The Feds

We've got 3 elections on the horizon in my world. Montreal is having a mayoral election on November 5th. The Parti Québécois (the provincial separatist party and current opposition) are having a leadership race towards a provincial election in the near future. And there is going to be a federal election at any moment, or at least that's what you'd think watching the media here. So let's start with the feds.

The Canadian government is run by a parliamentary system, with Members of Parliament being voted in by the electors of their riding. The party with the most seats in the House of Commons becomes the Cabinet. Their leader becomes the Prime Minister. They propose laws that than get passed by the House. If a vote is lost by the leadership, it forces a vote of confidence that can lead to an election. Or the government can call an election any time within 5 years of its last victory. We currently have four major parties and one independent with seats in the house: the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party. There are several other small parties that run in the Federal election that generally do not win any seats but some of whose minor success can have some impact on future legislation: the Green party, the Marijuana party, the Christian Heritage party, the Marxist-Leninist party, the Communist party, the Libertarian party and the Canadian Progressive party.

The Liberal Party has been in power since 1993, though under current leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin, they are hanging on by their fingernails. Their position is ostensibly center-left, supporting government programs while maintaining fiscal responsiblity. Socially, they run to the left as well, though in Canada, that puts them in the middle. They like big business and power, though, and their long run has either revealed or allowed to develop a lot of corruption and cronyism. They did do a lot of good for the country, notably getting rid of the deficit and keeping us out of the war in Iraq.

The Conservatives have gone through a lot of permutations in the last ten years, but we're for the longest time, like the Liberals an original party and a fundamental part of Canada's political history. Traditionally, when they were know as the Progressive Conservatives or the Tories, they represented slightly more conservative values fiscally and socially. In the 90's, a new party called the Reform came out of the west who were supposed to be a new wave of conservatism, addressing the failings of the traditional Tories. The Reform, who later became the Canadian Alliance (what are they, a super hero group. Just their name made you want to slap them.) tried to ride the family values wave and failed miserably, ending up splitting the Progressive Conservatives and partly supported the Liberals' dominance in parliament. Last year, the Reform party and the Tories got re-united under the leadership of Stephen Harper and became the Conservative Party of Canada. It's very hard to tell what their position is because every time one of them says something extreme about gay marriage or family values, the rest of them sush him or her up. And their spending plan at the last election was significantly more than the Liberals.

I don't know much about the New Democratic Party's history. They represent the farther left, with a heavy emphasis on social concerns and the environment. They have always been in the wings and in the 90's were effectively dead in the House. However, since Chrétién stepped down, they have had a new resurgence under the leadership of Jack Layton and now command an important position in the House.

Finally, the Bloc Québécois are the federal party that represents Québec. It is weird that they are a federal party, since their concerns are a single province. But Québec is the second biggest province (after Ontario) so they usually win enough seats in the House that they become pretty important players. They are led by Gilles Duceppe who was considered laughable 5 years ago (for no reason other than a funny hat he once wore. Ah, the Canadian media) and is now well-respected in Québec and definitely visible on the national scene. The Bloc's political position, aside from sovereignty, is quite close to that of the NDP. Their main goal is to make Québec a separate nation.

Since the federal election of 2004, the House of Commons looks like this:

Of 308 seats,

the Liberals have 135,
the Conservatives have 99,
the Bloc has 54 and
the NDP has 19.

A party needs 154 seats to form a majority. So, do the math and you can see that the Liberals quite quickly looked to the NDP for support and currently those two parties make up the Federal government. However, the Conservatives are constantly threatening, with the Bloc to vote against a bill and bring the House down. So we are currently run by what is called a Minority government and unfortunately, most of the political talk these days is not about actual legislation but strategic power-broking and who will win the next election. Despite all the game-playing, a recent poll shows that if an election were called tomorrow, very little would change. All the parties are stuck in their power position, at least for the near future.

Personally, my big-picture analysis of the situation is that those numbers fairly decently represent the will of Canadians. We don't want to waste money, but we believe in social programs. We don't want to impose our social will on others and we think it's extremely important to protect minority groups (and I mean that in the most general, political sense). However, there are some freaky christians out there in the small towns and their voice cannot be ignored, just as there are some old school leftists who don't like capitalism at all.

The last election was called because the Liberals time was running out and the Conservatives thought they could take advantage of a scandal-ridden government (I didn't even touch on the Sponsorship Scandal, but it's big and bad). Harper failed. Since then, all he has done is look like an idiot, trying to present some coherent platform to the Canadian people and muzzle the more insane elements in his party. The Liberals haven't done anything, except pass Gay Marriage and talk a lot. The Bloc just keeps blocking, which is particularily annoying considering the tantalizing idea of them uniting with the NDP. Unfortunately, their desperate dream of independence drives all their decisions. The only party who is talking about doing anything is the NDP. They actually forced the Liberals to spend a bunch of money on housing and the cities, spending that was part of the Liberal election platform. That's pretty bad when the party you allied with to make your minority government forces you to carry out your own campaign promise.

I liked Jack Layton a lot before he got into Parliament. He was intelligent and direct. He got a bit shifty during the election, smiling way too much and looking a bit like a used-car salesman. But he is, as I say, the only one talking about specific legislation and trying to get things done.

I wish the others parties would realize that this minority government is going to be the way of the future (as it is in many European countries) and start working on compromises that would actually help the Canadian people. Instead, it's, as usual, all about them and how they can get more power.


Jason L said...

Nice overview.

Can anyone recommed a book which might give a general overview of the Canadian parlimentary system? High school or freshman level.

WeSailFurther said...

That was a gret review. I love the outlines of political parties and how they react and interact, how political minorities work with what power they have, and all of that. Keep it coming.

Sounds very British. Alsoo check out the Irish system. I like theirs a lot. Each voter gets to choose a first choice and a secod choice. I think they also get a third choice, which, implying that their are three choices on an issue, is a good deal.