Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Not a rant, per se...

Update: As the discussion moves to what the Governor General will do, we are shocked to find that a bimonthly history magazine has managed to publish up-to-the-minute commentary relevant to her role in brouhahas of this nature.

So, Canadian politics somehow got interesting while I wasn’t paying attention.

The bulk of my readers here are, of course, Canadian (Hi Bob! Hi Doug! How’s it goin’ eh?) and therefore need no background on what’s been going on in my ice-bedecked homeland, but I do have some readers, (beyond the imaginary ones in my head), that are less familiar with how things work over there. Canadian readers can skip directly to paragraph 8.

First, and most importantly, Canada has a Parliamentary democracy, modeled on Britain’s legislature. Throughout most of the last century, the Liberal party has governed either with a Parliamentary majority, or in minority governments propped up by the NDP. Normally, the official Opposition is the Conservative party – being an equitable people, we Canadians occasionally let them take the wheel to allow the Liberals some shut-eye/corruption purging.

Irrelevant entertainment break! I also hope it reinforces the French stereotype that Canadians are flannel-wearing lumberjacks. Or, it's a metaphor - but for what? Suggest yours in the comments!

The last federal three elections in Canada have yielded minority governments – the first was Liberal led, followed by Parliaments in which the Conservatives held the most seats, but not the majority. Our last election was six weeks ago, during which the Conservatives picked up seats, the Liberals lost more seats, the NDP picked up a few and (if memory serves) the Separatist Bloc Québecois (BQ) held steady.

Here’s where things get interesting. The current Prime Minister has managed, up until now, to keep the scent of Liberal blood in the air, so that the NDP and BQ (both parties of the left) continue to chase after that party’s central/left voter base. As long as he continued to engineer a situation where the Liberals were constantly on the back foot, he was able to do pretty much anything he liked, even though, as a minority leader, he would normally need to be in constant negotiation with the opposition parties to get his legislation through.

His government recently threatened to introduce a measure that would remove a subsidy that grants political parties funds on the basis of their popular vote. The subsidy was introduced by the Liberal government as a way to limit the influence of big money in political fundraising. The Conservatives, being much better at raising “grassroots” funding (many, small donations), are less reliant on these funds. The three opposition parties are heavily reliant on them.

All three parties were now backed into a corner – without those subsidies, they may well be out of competitive politics for a generation. Crises sharpening minds wonderfully, they decided to do something that has not been attempted in Canada since Confederation – create a coalition government.

In Canada, this is causing consternation in some circles: the Liberal leader, who will, under the new agreement, be Prime Minister, lost seats in the last election. There are complaints that this agreement goes against the will of voters, expressed just six weeks ago.

In theory, the members of the House of Commons decide their own leaders – voters get almost no say in the matter. Of course, this is neither how the system actually works, nor is it how it is perceived come election time.

The reason for this dysfunction (and subsequent ignorance) is the Party Convention. To steal an argument from historian Christopher Moore, historically, the Prime Minister was chosen by his peers – that is to say, other MPs. Today, party leaders are chosen by their party membership*, and thus do not require the confidence of the MPs who are elected in the same party in order to govern. Meanwhile, as leader, he has the power to give them Cabinet posts and party funding. *(Often this means people who had their memberships bought for them by the leadership campaign).

The effect of this is that MPs, to use Trudeau’s phrase, are nobodies fifty feet off of Parliament Hill. In fact, they’re nobodies on it either. Unlike Congressional members or Senators in the U.S. they do not, for the most part, have the ability to modify, let alone oppose, legislation. Those that do are booted from the party. This leaves the Canadian Prime Minister with more power within his government, relatively speaking, than the President of the United States.

A coalition government, would hopefully loosen up Canada’s Parliament, in all parties. MPs with real power will be more held to account by their constituents, and Prime Ministers who actually have to answer to their colleagues in the house can only be more responsible to their civic, rather than political, duties.

Pre-confederation coalition government. Yes, these things actually play on TV in Canada.


Natalie Joan said...

Love the videos almost as much as the commentary, Mark. But there have been coalition governments in Canada before. One federally (union government, under Borden during WW1) and a few provincially as well.
Not sure that any of them every really fared that well, but they did exist.

Mark Reynolds said...

I didn't know about the provincial examples (apparently Manitoba and BC, and sort-of Ontario). Borden's government I knew, but I don't think it's the same; I believe his was hatched as means to promote national unity during wartime, not because he needed the seats.

Kevin Hughes said...

Technically Borden's coalition wasn't really to promote unity so much as it was to allow him to get his majority and pass through the conscription law, which was being threatened by french opposition (proving that nothing much really changes). As far as I know, it was the only actual coalition government Canada's seen to date, so this could all get very interesting if it doesn't fall apart before getting out the door.

Victor Chisholm said...

Love the log-driver video. I always thought of extreme sports as a curiously contemporary fascination, though now I can see that they didn't just spring up from nowhere. They had antecedents - but they just might have been work-related (log-driving) or warfare/survival-related (Highland games). But what bizarre things they have evolved into today, like downhill ice-skating.

Mark Reynolds said...

Whoops, my apologies Nat, Kevin - you are both right, though the situation is of course very different from today.
Now I guess the big question is whether Harper asks for a prorogue, and whether the GG accepts it. Fun!

Mark Reynolds said...

Victor: Given that I have yet to manage stopping while ice skating, the thought of doing so on a slope makes me quake. On the other hand, maybe I'd be really good at it as a result.

Till-Arne said...

Kudos to you Mark. I do not think I could have written on the topic without going into a rant.

For those who want to see Harper out and who support a Coalition, I suggest signing a petition, such as the one by Canadians for a Progressive Coaliton. Google it.

dmchenail said...

The Log Driver's Waltz has to be one of my favourite childhood memories... now I will have that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day! Go CBC!