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Politics: Canadian Style

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O.K. that’s it. I have sat patiently through it all, but now I feel it’s my turn. I’m going to talk about Canadian politics. Almost every web site I go to, blog or otherwise, harps on about people and incidents I have never heard of and don’t care about. So now it’s your turn.

But as a service I’ll offer this quick primer in Canadian civics for you out there who may not know anything about our system of government. Skip ahead if this information is redundant because it’s going to be really basic stuff.

First things first. Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy. This means that the Queen, or as in our case the Governor General, is considered titular head of state, but in fact has no power. We have a federal system of government which involves parties fielding a slate of candidates across the country competing for seats in The House of Commons. Any party that wins an outright majority of seats runs the country for the next four or five years, they have to call an election in their fifth year of office. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister then appoints his cabinet from fellow members of his caucus, in other words people who were elected to the house of commons, not just his buddies. He doesn’t need to worry about anybody’s approval, except for bruised egos within his own party.

The folks who lost the election are called the Loyal Opposition. In the case of a majority government they have little or no effect on what happens in the country. Pretty much everything they do is posturing for the next election in the hopes of impressing somebody somewhere to switch their vote next time around.

Things only get interesting when there is a minority government and the guys with the most seats have to curry favour from a smaller party to stay in power. Since we currently have four political parties and three independent Members of Parliament (M.P.s) the current situation has made for the best House watching in ages.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, you still need to know about the parties. The ruling party of about the last dozen years are the Liberals. This has nothing to do with liberalism, although I’m sure most conservative observers in the U.S. dismiss Canada as akin to socialist, these guys have spent the last ten years cutting the heart out of our social programs in an attempt to balance the budget.

Until recently they were pretty much indistinguishable from the party calling itself The Conservative Party of Canada. (They used to be called the Progressive Conservatives which will give you an indication of the change) I think most people would easily recognise them as Republican clones. They are a new feature on the Canadian Political landscape as we have never had any real polarization in politics before.(except for the French English thing) The problem for this party is that a majority of people in Canada don’t like the politics of polarization. It’s just not polite.

The newest party is also one of the most contentious. The Bloc Quebecois are a separatist party through and through. They only run candidates in Quebec, and are there to represent the interests of their constituents alone and don’t give a hoot for the rest of Canada.

The last party to have sitting members are the New Democratic Party(N.D.P.) They are what passes for Canada’s only socialist party. Advocates of social programs like day care, health, education, equal rights and the environment they maintain a small core of seats which can sometimes swell dependant on the mood of the country. Their long association with unions took a hit when union memberships became affluent enough to worry more about taxes then jobs and wages.

As I had previously implied Canada currently has a minority Liberal government. When combined with the N.D.P. they are one or two votes short of a majority in the House of Commons. Given the fact that if a government is defeated and an election called on what is known as a vote of confidence(any piece of important legislation like the budget would do) the tension around Parliament Hill has been palpable enough to cut with a knife.

Just last month the excitement reached fever pitch, at least for those reporting on it, as the vote on the budget approached. Steven Harper leader of the opposition Conservative party announced that he had allied with the Bloc Quebecois in an attempt to defeat the government over the budget. Since Mr. Harper has been heard to refer to the Bloc as traitors this was largely seen as a marriage of convenience.

(Background note: There is currently a scandal of some significance being played out in Quebec about the shenanigans of the Liberal party’s fundraisers and kickbacks and illegal slush funds. As their popularity dropped like a rock both the Conservatives and the Bloc saw an opportunity to increase their standings in the house if an election were called immediately.)

To off set this alliance Paul Martin, Prime Minister, struck a deal with the N.D.P. Instead of having a $4.5 billion tax cut for businesses in the budget that money would be earmarked for health care, education and the environment, more specifically to help Canada meet it’s Kyoto accord targets. He also guaranteed he would call an election as soon as the inquiry into the scandal had released it’s final report.

Everything was still up in the air until two days before the vote and in a twist out of some weird novel, a prominent female member of the Conservative party changed sides to become a Liberal. What made this even more titillating is the fact that she had run against Mr. Harper in the last leadership convention, was considered a moderate sheep among the wolves, and was dating the deputy leader of the party. Not only did she leave her party but she left her man over politics!

Vote day rolled around with still nothing clear. It would all come down to how the three independents voted. Pretty much everyone knew how two of them would go, one each way, but it was the third who was important. Making it all the more poignant was the man literally had to crawl out of his sick bed to attend the vote as he is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

I don’t know how votes are conducted in the American Senate, but here the procedure is as follows. The Speaker of the House(sort of a hall monitor and rule enforcer who does his best to maintain a semblance of order) reads out the bill in question. He then asks that all in favour of the bill stand, and they do one after another through the party ranks, and then the opposed. The votes are then tallied.

It was a tie. Somehow or other it ended up a tie. In that case the speaker must cast the deciding vote. Since he is a member of the ruling party, who normally is not allowed to vote, that meant that the motion was carried.(It also explains how with an odd number of seats a tie is possible because one member doesn’t normally vote. The speaker is an M.P. just like everybody else)

The government survived to fight another day. The political fallout has been that Steven Harper and the Conservative party came off looking opportunistic and so desperate for power that they would do anything with anybody in a chance to get an election called. Since the majority of Canadians had no desire to have another election so soon, his popularity along with that of his party’s has plummeted from leading in the polls a month before the vote, to trailing the Liberals by as much as 5%

Even more significantly was the fact that his personal popularity, which is just as important here as for American politicians, dropped even further then the party’s did. In the month since that fateful day he has done nothing to improve upon his fortunes with his actions and speeches.

First of all it was decided that they had to do a political makeover on him to make him more friendly and accessible to the public. To that end they have organized a series of “barbecues with Steven” events for the summer months in an attempt to show him as just a regular guy. The reaction to this announcement has been greeted with contempt and cynicism from both the press and the public. The unintentional but implied condescension in the plan has not been lost on anyone.

Then there has been the tenor of his speeches. Recently they are beginning to sound like those of a bad loser whining because he didn’t get his way. How else could you explain his lashing out at the Liberals as making a deal with devil for receiving the support of the Bloc Quebecois in both a recent vote and the upcoming vote on same sex marriage. Are they only a devil when they vote against you Steve, or what would you call your actions of a month ago where you and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc appeared in a joint press conference announcing your intent to defeat the government. People’s memories aren’t that short.

The Conservative party of Canada has enough problems as it is with voter credibility without their leader sounding like a hypocrite. For too many people in Canada they represent a type of social conservatism based on religion that does not play well here at all. Even their opposition to gay marriage has been worded in such a manner as to bother people who might otherwise have supported their stand.

In the month leading up to the vote on the budget, anticipating a victory and an election, the Conservatives were intent on finding candidates for as many ridings as possible. While this it itself was understandable the nature of the candidates gave people pause for thought. More and more of them were self identified members of fundamentalist churches.

As a large majority of Canadians are uncomfortable with church and state associations this has them concerned about the direction the party would take if they ever gained power. Although I try to avoid generalities, Canada does have a history of being more liberal socially then the United States and the majority want to maintain that status.

If only from a misguided sense of superiority the power of the religious, and what is considered here the extreme right, in America is looked down upon. One only need compare the more liberal attitude towards same sex marriage, medical marijuana and abortion as represented by court decisions and the public’s lack of outrage over those decisions to see how large a gap exists between the two countries.

With ninety seats in the House of Commons the Conservatives seem to have some basis of support, but in actuality it is rather tenuous. The majority of that vote was more dissatisfaction with the a party that had been in power for twelve years. More along the lines of a warning to not take the people of the country for granted then anything else, the results of the last election should not be read as an endorsement of Conservative policies.

Unless some miracle happens, and what that could be is unfathomable, and the Conservatives manage to convince the people of Canada that they are not a threat to the status quo of fiscally responsible social programs that provide a decent safety net for everybody, they stand little chance of ever gaining power. Unlike there predecessors the Progressive Conservatives their appeal is too focused and their power base too narrow. The moderate conservatives who were the bedrock of the old party have little or nothing in common with this new party.

Well there your go. I’ve had my turn. Now we return you to your regular programming of the American political wars. I hope you enjoyed the break.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Francis

    Goood post! Explained Canadian politics quite nicely. I agree with you about Mr Harper. He just doesn’t get it, or his power base (Conservative Western Canadians) won’t allow him to act like he gets it. However, something occurs to me. From what I can tell (from asking friends and such), the MAIN thing that keeps a number of people from going Conservative is the gay-marriage issue.

    Since that issue will be resolved in a matter of days, it occurs to me that it clears the way for the Conservatives to stop ‘harping’ about it. They might actually be able to focus on some issues that might help them get elected.

  • Gerry Hall

    Harper’s hypocrisy is astounding. His alignment with the block on the budget bill and then his assertion that the block has no legitimacy with true Canadians on the same sex marriage issue assumes everybody in this country is a mindless idiot, further lowering his credibility.
    With Harper as leader, the forthcoming election will produce more seats for the NDP than the Conservative party. He is incompetent and should resign now

  • Very good post.

    Harper could have some support if he would stick to the business of being the best opposition he can and stop bantering about the “ethical legitimacy” of every vote in the Commons.

    Right now he looks like a sore loser, up against a more experienced and tactical political party.

    One thing Harper has to remember is by going up against the Liberals he is taking on a 400 pound gorilla – the Liberal Party of Canada is the oldest party in Canada – the first PM of Canada was a liberal!

    Of course these old dogs know more tricks than he – they’ve been in the political business for 130 years! They put Canada together for goodness sakes.

    I guess Harper thought he was a good game player with his “bring down the budget” scheme. Too bad for him, instead of letting a sleeping dog lie and running on his own merits, he rang the starting bell to play games with his budget deal, and the Liberals can play so many games so much better than his rookie party that it is making his head spin.

    Poor Mr. Harper. He makes me laugh!

  • Good post! The problem is that although a significant number of Canadians are fiscally conservative, they are more often than not socially liberal. The Conservative Party, despite their new party name, are still very much run by the Reform elements which are perceived by central Canada as very socially conservative in their approach.

    In addition, as noted, the Liberal Party has, in the last few year being presiding over a fairly tight budgetary policy. Lastly the Liberals tend to hijack populisst programs from other parties, that they use quite effectively to maintain their “big tent” position with the electorate.

    Until the Conservatives move mainsteam, at least in their social policy focus (become “Red Tories”), they will have a difficult time creating a majority government, no matter how ham-handed the Martin Liberal government appears….

  • Sorry, but Sir John A. Macdonald our first prime minister was a the leader of the Conservative party and also involved in the first political scandal in our country’s history. That fact that he drank vodka and gin in the house because they looked more like water is incidental to anything.

    more Canadian political trivia provided by gypsyman

  • Wonderful post. Minor historical error. The Alliance did indeed take over the party we knew as the Progressive Conservative Party and it was removed from the roles of Elections Canada. It it’s place are actually two parties. For the first, the Conservative Party, job one was to get rid of the adjective “Progressive” and purge as many of the dissenters as possible. Some opponents have had funds witheld. Some have been banned from membership in new party. To take a line from Star Trek (at least within the Conservative party) “resistance is futile”.

    There is however, a second group consisting of loyal Progressive Conservatives. This group continued the constitution, policies and the philosophy of the Progressive Conservative Party. In fact the group requested that they be given the ability to campaign under the name Progressive Conservative. Elections Canada would not grant that request but did allow the group to register as the Progressive Canadian party, retaining the PC Party as the short name.

    That growing group continues attract back members who regard themselves as progressive-conservatives.

    We now have a presence all across Canada and are busy completing the rebuilding of our party.

    Check us out on the web at http://www.progressivecanadian.ca or http://www.pcparty.org (that’s org as in original). Type carefully, because somebody out there employs the same tactics as hackers and porn sites do and has bought up addresses similar to ours. If you are looking for the Progressive Canadian site and you find yourself looking at Steven Harper, you’ve been fooled.

    And if you think that the PC Party — the progressive-conservative alternative has disappeared, you’ve been fooled again.

    Our job now is to let Canadians know we’re back and to let those who still regard themselves as progressive-conservatives that it’s time they came home.

    Jim Love
    President, Progressive Canadian Party

  • To think I’d live to see the day that anything I’d write would be praised by someone call themselves a member of a conservative party? I better not tell my mother, she might shoot me.

    Seriously this proves out the point that politics in Canada are new to this polarization thing. Most of the time Canadians could have felt safe with anyone they voted for in knowing that they would be dealing with people with compassion. It was a conservative government that brought in Medicare countrywide. Tommy Douglas and the N.D.P. may have implemented it in Saskatchawan first, but it was John Diefenbakers conservatives that gave it to Canada.

    God I wouldn’t want to have tried to call him a socialist.

    cheers gypsyman

  • Klaus J. Hansen

    Really good blog. I found this on the Mormon “Stand Together Canada” site. (I am a Mormon myself). I hope they read it. They might learn something.

    (Dept. of History, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, ON)