Introduction to Canadian Politics
Featured / October 6, 2015
Not sure how this whole thing works? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
If you’re like most Canadians, you probably pay no attention to politics until three weeks before voting day. In fact, you might not even pay attention when there is an election. You might be new to this country and want to get a handle on things, or maybe this is the first year that you’re old enough to vote. Maybe POLI was full this year.
As you read this paper, Canada finds itself in the midst of an election. Usually elections last 37 days, but this one is running for 78 days. Canadian Parliament has a maximum life of five years but an election can be called early by the ruling party, in this case the Conservative Party of Canada, which has a majority in parliament. In minority governments, the opposition parties can call a vote of non-confidence, which would result in bringing Canada into a federal election.
On voting day you’ll find that none of the leaders names are on your ballot, probably the name belongs to a person you’ve seen on signs around your neighbourhood. This is because, unlike the United States and some other countries, you vote for the party, not the leader. Even if the leader is in your riding and he or she loses as Prime Minister, they still get to take a seat in parliament.
This is where “First-Past-The-Post,” or “winner takes all” comes into play. Since you vote for a person who is running in your riding, the person that wins that riding gets a seat in parliament. If 60 per cent of voters in your riding elect a Conservative candidate, that means they get to sit in parliament, ideally to represent the interests of your riding. However, due to the nature of FPTP, the only requirement is that the candidate get the most votes. This means that if a candidate gets 40 per cent of the vote, but the two other candidates each get 30 per cent, the one with 40 gets a seat in parliament even though 60 per cent of the riding didn’t vote for that candidate. This is what we’re stuck with for now.
So Oct. 19 comes and goes, and a new parliament is called into session. Whomever you voted for in your riding gets to go to Ottawa and create laws that ought to benefit both your local riding and the country.
The person you elected will be one of 338 members of parliament (MPs). It should be noted that the number of members elected has a profound impact on the type of governance we have.
For the last four years, parliament has been controlled by a Conservative majority government; “majority” meaning the party controls more than half of the house. Assuming that party discipline is in full order, as it typically is in Canada, the Conservative party can pass anything it wants.
There’s also a chance that this election could result in a minority government, as Canada experienced several of these between 2004 and 2011. This means that a party has the most seats numerically, but less than half of the total seats. meaning the ruling party needs support from one or more other parties to pass bills. As such, parties need to work together to pass laws, which slows the process considerably.
Minority governments—or “hung parliaments”—aren’t always unproductive, as they might have been between 2004 to 2011, with elections being called every few years. Universal healthcare was passed in the 1960s in a Liberal minority government that gave the NDP considerable influence.
There are also coalition governments, one of which occurred in 1864 comprised of the Clear Grits, Parti Bleu, and Liberal-Conservative Party. They’re much more common in Europe, where countries are more likely to have more representative electoral systems which almost always results in minority governments. This means that getting things done can be difficult. As such, ideologically similar parties might join forces to pass laws acceptable to both. A coalition government was considered in 2008 between the Liberals and the NDP, but Canadians rejected it after a campaign by the Conservative government and a prorogation by Stephen Harper.
SENATE AND BEYOND
After a bill makes its way through parliament it arrives in the Senate, the thorn in the side of Canada’s republican democracy.
In an ideal world, the Senate is meant to be the “chamber of sober second thoughts.” The Senate has 105 seats, with seats distributed among provinces and territories to give lower-population parts of Canada a fair say in government. Senators are appointed, not elected, and in order to be elected must be over the age of 30, own $4,000 of property and live in their home province. Senators would vote for the Senate version of a bill, after which it gets sent to the governor general for Royal Assent.
So, why do so many people hate the Senate, including other politicians? Without getting into the Mike Duffy details, the Senate is thought to be undemocratic because senators are appointed. Every Canadian political party believes that the Senate, in its current form, needs to be abolished or reformed, but doing so would require the provinces to agree unanimously to whatever the change might be. For now, Canadian political parties are trying to remove the Senate from action, with Justin Trudeau announcing last year that all “Liberal” senators were no longer part of the Liberal Party, and should be regarded as independents. Currently, 22 seats in the Senate are vacant.
Regardless, the House is where most business happens. Once a bill gets through the Senate it goes to the Governor General to be granted Royal Assent. The role of the Governor General is to act as a representative of the Queen. It is universally regarded that this role is essentially traditional and ceremonial; the Governor General is appointed by the Prime Minister.
The Governor General is also the person who must drop the writs of election, or call an election. This will happen every four years, 37 days before an election day, or following a vote of non-confidence in Parliament.
Perhaps compared to the American system, ours isn’t so complicated. We only vote for our parliament, and not our Senate or Governor General. Things get done very quickly whenever we have a majority government, and minority governments can still be productive, giving us things like an enviable healthcare system. In a few weeks, we’ll find out what our next system will look like, and it could be yet another minority. There’s where the people of Canada come in.