01 December 2008

Government, Canadian-Style

We’re getting a fascinating firsthand lesson in Canada’s form of government and political parties as dramatic and, the Canadian media say unprecedented, events are underway.

Five political parties of significance exist in Canada: Conservative, Liberal, New Democrats (NDP), Bloc Quebecois (BQ), and Green. The most recent election, just held on October 14, resulted in the Conservatives retaining the most--but not a majority--of seats in Parliament, though they received just 37% of the total national vote. With the largest number of MPs (Members of Parliament), the Conservatives’ party leader, Stephen Harper (photo), continued as Prime Minister.

But it appears that last week Harper and the Conservatives went too far. First, understand that the Canadian Federal government is in surplus, and has been for some time. Canada went through a period of chronic federal deficit, but through considerable pain reversed that situation and has been in surplus for some time. Avoiding deficit spending seems to be a huge deal here. With the Canadian economy in decline and the Conservatives having reduced taxes in several areas, it’s looking like maintaining the surplus in 2009 is unlikely.

Ostensibly as an austerity measure to help avoid a deficit, the Conservatives proposed eliminating a federal subsidy of political parties of $1.95 per vote. I’m not clear on this, but apparently only the Conservatives do any significant private fund raising, so elections are largely publicly financed. All parties except the Conservatives are highly dependent on the $1.95 subsidy, so eliminating the subsidy would effectively cut off campaign funds for every opposition party. As you might imagine, this really ticked off the opposition, as they I think rightly perceive it as a ruthless power play cynically disguised as an austerity measure by the Conservatives intended simply to put the opposition out of business, at least for a long while until they organize grassroots fundraising.

So, in the face of the Conservative threat to their existence, the Liberals and NDP have just negotiated a “coalition government,” quite an achievement given that the Liberals and NDP differ on many issues. Combined the Liberals, NDP, and BQ have more MPs than do the Conservatives. The BQ will not officially be part of the coalition, but says today it will support the Liberal-NDP coalition for at least a year. Under the coalition agreement, Liberals would hold eighteen cabinet seats and the NDP six seats. Unknown is who would be Prime Minister. Stephane Dion is the Liberal party leader, but announced his resignation--after the Liberals’ dismal showing at the polls in October--effective in the spring and a campaign for a new Liberal leader is already underway.

The plan is for a “confidence vote” in Parliament on December 8th. Only Conservative MPs will vote against the confidence resolution, and since the Conservatives are running a minority government (they have the most, but not a majority, MPs), they will lose that vote. Normally what would then happen is another election, just a few weeks hence. But the Liberals and NDP recognize Canadians are perturbed by growing election frequency (again a national election was just held in mid-October). So instead of asking for an election, the coalition will propose to the Governor General that she approve the formation of the already negotiated, ready-to-go coalition government. The coalition’s letter of proposal to the Governor General is apparently in final draft form.

Now I’m a bit hazy on the Governor General’s role. Officially the Governor General--Michaelle Jean since 2007--is the British “Queen’s representative” in Canada. Canada’s form of government is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada and head of State. I’m trying still to understand exactly what this means in practical terms. Until now I’d thought the Governor General a largely ceremonial position. It is not. Officially she’s (the current Governor General happens to be a woman) the Commander in Chief of Canadian armed forces, and it’s the Governor General’s responsibility to ensure continuity of government, among other responsibilities.

Evidently the Canadian constitution provides for the Governor General to approve, if she so chooses, a coalition government, in lieu of an election, after a Parliamentary vote of “no” on a confidence resolution. Harper is going berserk, calling this a coup and an anti-democratic subversion of the results of the October 14th election. The coalition points out that 63% of Canadians did NOT vote for Conservatives in October, and the strategy the coalition is pursuing is constitutional. Desperate, the Conservatives have backed off the proposed elimination of the political party subsidy, but to no avail. The coalition’s momentum is such they are not about to turn back now, no matter what the Conservative’s say, citing a lack of trust. As I understand it, Harper’s only option now for saving his government is suspending Parliament. I’ve no idea what the ramifications of that would be. Also he can and I gather will propose to the Governor General that another election be held instead of a coalition government being approved. If the Conservatives can gain a Parliamentary majority in a new election, they’re saved for now.

The drama has Canadians riveted, the CBC reported the highest number of views ever of a recent story on its website about the matter. For us it’s been a great opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the Canadian system of government and political parties. Right now it looks like Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are done for, but a lot could happen between now and the December 8 confidence resolution vote.

No comments: