I had wondered how Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, expected to get away with calling normal parliamentary procedures like a vote of non-confidence and a coalition government "treason" and "coup d'etat". How could any member of parliament be so cynical as to expect not to get caught in such an outright lie? In fact he himself became Prime Minister after "overthrowing" a government in 2005 through the same non-confidence procedure and winning the subsequent election. True he didn't have the opportunity to form a coalition government, but that's mainly because nobody wanted to join forces with him, and the government he defeated had been sitting for two years, not 27 days.
Well, now I know the answer. According to a survey conducted between December 9 and December 12, after the whole circus died down in Ottawa, a majority of Canadians don't know that we don't directly elect our Prime Minister, who the head of state is, or how to best describe our system of government. On the plus side, 90 percent knew that a Governor-General could refuse to let a sitting government call an election upon losing a vote of confidence in the House Of Parliament.
The survey was commissioned by a group known as The Dominion Institute who claim their goal is to build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story. Well, judging by the results of their survey they have a hell of a long way to go if they want to even come close to achieving this goal. If 51 percent of Canadians believe that the Prime Minister of Canada is elected by direct vote like the American President, is it any wonder that the Conservative Party was able to convince people that the proposed coalition government of a couple weeks ago was "undemocratic"?
Aside from not understanding how the parliamentary system of government works, which has been in place since 1867 when the country was formed, only a bare majority knew that we are a constitutional monarchy. Now I know to people who live outside of Canada that the concept of a constitutional monarchy sounds more than a little obscure, and why shouldn't it? They haven't grown up with the system or studied it in school. Finding out that Canadians are equally ignorant about such basic precepts when it comes to the government they live under is not only embarrassing, but more than a little scary.
Maybe it doesn't seem like such a big deal to some of you that most Canadians think either the Prime Minister or the Governor-General are head of state, or that they can't name the style of government we live under. However, ask yourself this: how much difficulty would an American have in telling you that the President is head of state or that they live in a republic? Why should it be so difficult for Canadians to do the same thing?
However that is trivial when compared with the fact that 51 percent of the people polled in this survey believed that the Prime Minister was elected directly. That shows not only a complete lack of knowledge as to how our system of government works at its most basic, but just how few people actually vote in federal elections. If you've ever stepped into a polling booth on election day in Canada to cast a vote, you'd have noticed that nowhere on the ballot is there a place to vote for Prime Minister. Even if the margin of error, 3.1%, for this survey is factored in, it means that forty-eight per cent of Canadians of eligible voting age have never stepped inside a voting booth, or don't understand what it is they are doing when they cast a ballot.
I'm beginning to feel silly explaining this in every article I write about Canadian politics, but obviously it's needed. Canada works under a system of parliamentary democracy where the country is divided up into electoral districts called ridings based on population density. Each riding represents one seat in the House of Commons, and political parties select candidates to run as their representative in each riding. The political party that elects the most candidates forms the government with the leader of that party becoming Prime Minister.
If no party wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons the one with the most seats tries to rule with either the support of another party or on its own. A minority government can lose votes in the house without having to resign except for one on financial matters or if the other parties pass a motion of non-confidence. When that happens the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General, the Queen's (the head of state) representative in Canada, to dissolve parliament so a new election can be called. The Governor-General has the option of asking the opposition if they feel like they can form a government, or the opposition can ask the Governor-General for the chance to form a government if they can offer proof of their ability to govern. That would usually require a coalition of parties with sufficient votes in the House to defeat a motion of non-confidence, and a guarantee that the coalition would last for a particular length of time.
In order for a democracy to work a country's population has to at least understand how their system of government works. If they don't they can be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who would take advantage of their ignorance to prevent the checks and balances built into the system from working. When a government under a parliamentary system does not receive a majority of the seats in the House of Parliament, it is understood that they do not have sufficient support to be a representative voice of the country. It is the opposition's responsibility to ensure that the governing party is responsible to the whole country, not just those who voted for them, and ensure that legislation represents the majority as much as possible.
Since Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada were first elected to a minority governing position in 2006 they have acted like they have a majority government. Until this past November they were given a free ride by an opposition in disarray for various reasons. Now, when the opposition acts like they are supposed to, calling the government on legislation they did not think represented the best interests of the entire country, Stephen Harper accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and usurping the democratic process. He was able to get away with that because too many Canadians don't understand how their own system of government works.
Marc Chalifoux, president of The Dominion Institute, summed up the situation succinctly when commenting on the survey: "Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) but lacked, in many cases, the basic knowledge to form informed opinions." When the people a system of government is supposed to represent don't understand how it works they surrender what voice they might have had in its process. If the people of a country have no voice in their government can it really be called a democracy?
Until Canadians can get it together to understand even the most basic principles of their own system of government they will remain at the mercy of who ever wields power in Ottawa. Until that time we are a democracy in name only.