I know that in the United States you’ve just passed through your autumn election season, so you’re probably looking for a little political comic relief. So I thought I’d try to fill you in on what’s going on in Canada. Nothing like another country’s idiocy to make you feel better about your own.
I’m going to make the assumption that you know we have more than two parties – we have four, actually – and that all of them no matter what they call themselves are pretty much to the left of the Democratic Party. We operate on a system where our House of Commons contains a certain number of seats representing districts across the country. Each of the parties runs candidates in each of the ridings (administrative or electoral divisions), and the party that gets the most seats forms the government with their leader becoming prime minister.
Our current situation is that no one party managed to win enough seats in the House of Commons to have a majority, which means the party that did win the most seats, in this case the Liberals, (don’t let the name fool you, they’re not that liberal according to our standards) have to win the support of other parties in order to govern. If a major bit of policy, like a budget, gets defeated in the House of Commons, that’s called a confidence issue and an election has to be called.
Since the last election there has been a lot of political jockeying, some approaching soap-opera drama, and accusations of attempted vote “buying” in order to keep the government afloat. But it finally looks like they’ve run out of ways to keep it going. Now it’s just a matter of when, not if, the election will be called. The one thing the Liberals have going for them is that the opposition parties are even less likely to agree with each other than they are to agree with them.
On one side we have something called the Conservative Party of Canada. This party was born out of the ashes of what used to be the Progressive Conservative Party (fiscal conservatives, socially liberal) merging with what was once the Reform Party, then the Alliance Party of Canada (fiscally and socially conservative).
The third largest party is the Bloc Quebecois, which is, as you might have guessed from its name, a separatist party representing the interests of Quebec and Quebec only at the federal level. Its primary concern is to prevent anyone else from winning federal seats in Quebec, which then validates the Quebecois’ desire to secede on the basis that no one outside of Quebec cares for Quebec.
Last, but not least in this year’s circus is the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is the closest thing that Canada has to a socialist party. The NDP usually manages to win 15 to 20 House seats in each election. Normally that would be considered an inconsequential number, but in a minority government, those relatively few seats become very important.
In order for the Liberals to have survived this long they have needed the support of the NDP and the two or three sitting independents to win the close votes. They have taken as much advantage of this as possible in its successful efforts to make the government spend its budget surplus on health care, education, and social housing instead of offering tax cuts to businesses.
But there are only so many things that the NDP is going to be able to get from its shopping list. The party is very unhappy with the way in which the government has implemented its health-care spending plan. So it appears the NDP may be prepared to cut ties with the Liberals.
In Canadian politics, just like in the comedy world it is so resembles, timing is everything when forcing or calling an election. We don’t have a set election day like there is in the States. The way it works here is that six weeks from the day an election is called, we vote. Fast, dirty and quick, but at least they’re painlessly short.
For instance, the Liberal government is releasing a financial statement in the House that will have to be voted on to be accepted. As any vote on budgetary matters is considered a confidence measure, if it is defeated, the government will have to call an election. What’s six weeks from this week? The week before Christmas.
No political party in its right mind is going to call or force an election to be called where the vote takes place the week before Christmas. That’s going to guarantee a really pissed-off electorate that will punish the ones it finds responsible. There is no way on earth an election will be called until after the Christmas break.
There are two other factors entering into everyone’s consideration about when is the best time to call an election. The first is that thing called a Canadian Winter. Since the majority of Canada experiences the equivalent of what North Dakota gets for winter, you can see how little that appeals to most politicians. Voter apathy is bad enough without having to worry about snowstorms, whiteouts, and minus 50-degree weather keeping people away from the polling stations.
So it looks like all indications point toward a spring election. But this year we have a wild card variable called the Gomery Inquiry. Also known as the Sponsorship Scandal, the inquiry will issue its final report on how the Liberal Party funnelled money to be used for ad campaigns in the last Quebec independence referendum back into its own campaign fund. It’s a lovely little tale of kickbacks, bribes and fraud (also known as politics as usual in Quebec) involving people deep and high up in the party. On February 1, the final naming of names and apportioning of blame will be released.
If you were an opposition member, wouldn’t you love to have that released in the middle of an election campaign? If you were in the government, wouldn’t you rather wait a few months after its release before calling an election? Counting on the public’s short memory and attention span to allow you to weather the storm, you would call a spring election and capitalize on the warm weather and the normal optimism that comes with people having survived another Canadian Winter.
The leader of the NDP has come up with what he thinks may be a way to bring about the election to time it for the release of the Gomery Inquiry. Instead of waiting for a bill that all parties can agree on defeating (which could be a long time coming, because the Liberals are so adept at playing the left and the right off of each other), they utilize a rarely used constitutional procedure where the opposition can have the House of Commons recalled from its Christmas break.
At this special session, known as Opposition Day, one of the parties files what’s known as a motion of non-confidence. If the motion wins passage, the government has to call an election. (For a really good analysis of this, check out this column by John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail) Of course there are difficulties in this, ranging from the three opposition parties actually ever being able to agree on anything, to being able to justify not having confidence in the government.
Even if they do manage to pass the bill and have it deemed sufficient to bring down the government it still means holding the election in January/February in Canada. The potential for backlash against the people forcing the election call may still be greater than anything the Gomery Inquiry can produce in the way of ammunition against the Liberals.
When the first bit of the inquiry was revealed earlier this month, the Liberals poll results dipped for only a couple of days, and now they’ve started to rise again. Before Christmas break they will pass all sorts of legislation to win favour with the public – including a rebate check for heating fuel for low-income Canadians. Those checks will roll out sometime in January, along with everyone’s Goods and Services Tax rebate checks.
More than one person will entertain warm thoughts about the government while holding checks for about $300 in their hot little hands. No one can even accuse the politicians of buying votes, because the heating-oil checks have been on the books since Hurricane Rita and are just now coming up for a House vote.
The Liberal Party of Canada has been running the country for the last 20 years. It knows more about the ins and outs of parliamentary maneuvering than the other three parties combined. It remains to be seen how everything will fall out in terms of when the election will be called, and then, how the voters will vote.
It would be typically Canadian for the weather to cast the deciding vote in our election, but it may come down to that. At least there will be something on TV other than hockey and curling this winter.