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Oh Canada !

Canada Day

With Canada in the news lately and more than a few lefties wanting the leave the US now, I though I would do some explaining of the Canada political system and government.

The Canadian system of government is a Parliamentary system based on Westminster system used in the UK, as are most in the former English colonies. With an upper house – The Senate like the House of Lords in the UK – and a lower house, The House of Commons. The House of Commons is where all the action takes place. When one hears of that is happening in Parliament, this what they are referring to.

The head of the government is the Prime Minister or PM for short. The Prime Minister is the head of the particular political party he is a member of. Chosen by the party in a Leadership Convention. When a general [federal] election is held, the party with the largest number of Members of Parliament is the one whose Leader forms a government. At this time it is Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party. With the New Democratic Party or NDP running second. Which makes the NDP the “Loyal Opposition”, a position that was usually held by the Liberal Party.

Canada’s electoral system is referred to as a “first past the post” system. The candidate with the most votes in a riding wins a seat in the House of Commons and represents that riding as its Member of Parliament (MP)

A riding is what Canada refers to it’s Federal electoral districts.  These electoral districts originally were the counties that people lived in but as urban populations grew, they were often split up into two or more ridings based on population using a specific formula. The electoral district boundaries are proposed by an arms-length body with no party affiliation.  Because of this gerrymandering is rarely an issue.

Candidates for each riding are chosen in  provincial committees or by party membership

The defining characteristic of candidate nomination in Canadian political parties is the almost complete lack of public regulation. Political parties are left on their own to decide how they nominate their candidates.

They can choose to elect a candidate through a vote of their local membership or not; they can allow their leader to unilaterally select candidates or not; and, if they decide to permit contests, they determine all of the procedures including the timing, venue and the eligibility requirements both for voting and for standing as a candidate for nomination. Added to this is a reluctance on the part of the parties to establish one set of rules governing all their nomination contests.

Often these are left to provincial committees and can vary significantly from one region to another, while in other parties significant discretion over candidate selection is vested in the central campaign. When the latter is the case, the central campaign’s involvement is typically uneven, leaving the electorally poor boroughs on their own while closely scrutinizing, sometimes orchestrating, the nomination process in constituencies that are electorally important to the party. The result is that there often is dramatic variance in the way candidates are nominated both within and between parties.

The “single member plurality’ electoral system (SMP) used in Canada limits the amount of choice voters have when casting their general election ballot. SMP allows voters to express only one opinion on the ballot, and this one preference influences both the selection of their local representative and the selection of the party  to form the government. Unlike some other electoral systems, SMP does not allow voters to mark one preference solely on the basis of their preferred local candidate and a separate one for their preferred party. The result is that most voters cast their ballot primarily based on their views of the national parties, their leaders and policy positions.

Research indicates that most often the identity and characteristics of the local candidates play a minor, secondary role in voter choice. This means that the only opportunity voters have to consider the type of person they would like to be their Member of Parliament, and to influence this selection unencumbered with other considerations such as their views of the parties leaders, is at the candidate nomination stage. Reflective of this is the frequency with which we hear anecdotes of voters ‘holding their nose’ to vote for a local candidate they don’t like because she represents their preferred party.

This can cause a political predicament.  Parliament lasts usually to 5 years and then is dissolved and general elections called.  If no party gets the required 155 seats in the house, then the party with the most seats has to form what is know as a “minority government”   meaning the PM and his party has to work with the other parties and members of Parliament more heavily to get any legislation passed.  It also heightens the risk of losing a vote of no-confidence.  Losing a vote or motion of no-confidence requires the PM to ask the Governor General to dismiss Parliament call a general election.  [This can also occur if Parliament fails to pass a budget.] This happened to Stephen Harper in 2008.

The provincial governments are run along the dame lines as the federal government with a few exceptions. Except for the NDP the nation parties are not affiliated with those on the provinces. And the provinces had a bit more anatomy than the US States do. Canada’s Nation Health did not originate in Ottawa but in the provinces. It was only AFTER a number of provinces had implemented it them selves that Parliament decided to go national.

The Alberta Tar Sands was an Alberta thing initially. Alberta was one of the poorest of the provinces and liked the money it was bringing in. Ottawa wanted a piece of the action and Alberta  initially told them to take a flying leap since they were getting very little from the federal government. I strongly suspect this has changed little.

Because Canada’s system of government is set up to be more people inclusive it also tends to be more centrist. With few extremest points of view. The downside to this is that minority views and problems get lost in the snuffle, like those of the First Nations. Small parties and independents rarely get elected to office. Though MPs are free cross the floor and switch parties  with out first resigning.

With separate federal elections from provincial elections and by-elections when an MP’s seat has to be filled, Canada does seem to have a lot of elections. There are few referendums on the national level in Canada, most being on the provincial level.  The main national referendum being the Charlottetown Accord which tried to reconcile the differences between national and province powers and responsibilities. It failed.

If all this seems confusing and chaotic to you, you are not alone. But it does work and the kind of political divisions like we have here are fairly rare.

If anyone feels the need to correct and update, feel free. I am no expert. Just posting this so when you think “How come we don’t do this here.” The form and function of these other countries might have a bit to do with it.

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