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Weather Station Rerun: Canadian Politics for Foreigners

April 10, 2011

This is a piece I wrote the last time Canadians had to go to the polls. We seem to be voting a lot these days, so much so that I can actually recycle articles from two years ago. The only difference this time around is the absence of former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, who is I think working at a call centre now. Anyway, here’s the 2008 article again:

I’ve found that the Canadian political system confuses some people, and let me tell you why: It’s a mess. Here are the sad facts:

  • We’re a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II of England (above), who stops by every few years to wave. Her face is on our cash, and her portrait is in all the hockey rinks. What the Queen does is have a Governor-General, who is her representative here, but she doesn’t pick that person; the Prime Minister does. The current GG is a TV journalist from Quebec. Her job involves a lot of coming around and waving.
  • We have an upper house and a lower house. The lower house is where the things get done. The upper house, our Senate, is an appointed body that rubberstamps final assent on new law. You read that correctly: our Senate is made up of people appointed by the governing party. They tend to be chosen for a variety of reasons, political acumen being pretty low on the list. Our Senate has a lot of hockey players in it.
  • Our head of government is our Prime Minister, who at the moment is Stephen Harper. We don’t vote directly for our PM. We vote locally for our MP, Member of Parliament. Whichever political party gets the most MPs elected gets to form the government, and whoever leads that party is the PM. The PM is also an MP, with a riding of his or her own to also represent, although we all know that doesn’t actually happen.
  • We have a five-party Parliament. There used to be two parties, the Conservatives (“Tories”) and the Liberals (“Grits”), and they would campaign, and one would get more than the other and would win. Then a third party, the New Democratic Party, or NDP, strolled in, creating the possibility of a minority government. Then another party showed up, the Bloc Quebecois. They only run in Quebec, but there are a lot of them. They are numerically unable to form the government, but were once the official Opposition, and remain spoilers. Now there’s another party, the Green Party, with one MP in the House of Commons. This situation makes minority governments far more common. We just had one. It basically means the governing party has to make a lot of side deals with rivals to stay afloat.
  • Here’s how that works: The government, say, introduces a budget. Every MP votes on it. With a majority, well, it passes and it’s law. In a minority, the government needs at least one other party to get on board. If the government holds a vote and loses, it’s taken as a vote of non-confidence, the government fails and we have to elect a new one.
  • Our elections can happen at any time. The Tories introduced a fixed-date election law when they got elected two years ago, then ignored it a couple of weeks back and called another election. I have voted in something like eight federal elections in 20 years, and about the same number of provincial elections.
  • Oh yeah — our provinces and territories work the same way, only with different parties, and the leader is called the Premier. I live in Ontario, which currently has a Liberal majority government, but the provincial Liberals don’t get along with the federal Liberals. It’s all very stupid.
  • Back to the national scene: The Liberals’ leader is a nerd named Stephane Dion. He has failed to really impress the people and is to blame for his party’s sinking status. Dion is almost like the John Major of Canada, except he’s more like the Mr. Bean of Canada.
  • The current Conservative Party, led by Harper, is not the same one we used to have. The old one got wiped out because of a particularly shitty PM named Mulroney in the early 90s; they went from majority government to two seats. So a new party came along, called Reform; they rose through the ranks, changed their name to the Alliance, then absorbed the last shredded remnants of the Conservatives to become the new Conservatives. But a lot of old Conservatives don’t like the new Conservatives, because the old Conservatives were blue-blooded eastern barons, and the new Conservatives are J.R. Ewings from the Alberta oil sands. It’s fun to watch from the outside.
  • The NDP is led by Jack Layton, a scrappy little guy from Toronto. People like him, but they don’t like the NDP much, so he’s kind of stuck. A few provinces have had NDP governments and it hasn’t gone well.
  • The Bloc has a guy named Gilles Duceppe, but they rarely leave Quebec so we don’t know much about them. Duceppe wore a hairnet to a photo op at a cheese factory once, and it has haunted him ever since.
  • And the Greens serve a person called Elizabeth May, who is so over the top unusual she will clearly never get elected. She is the only leader who is not a sitting MP, and is not likely to become one, so in the flukey weird King Ralph chance that the Greens form a government, she would have to watch from the balcony.
  • If a party leader resigns, a convention is held and party members vote on the new leader. If that party is in power, that person becomes our unelected Prime Minister. We usually don’t like that when it happens, because once it was Kim Campbell, and another time it was John Turner.
  • Our leaders debate on TV, but it isn’t like American debates. Everyone gets the same question and they take turns answering. It’s really dull. Then there is hugging and cake, because we’re Canadian.

I wrote this more than two years ago. Little has changed. We have a different Governor-General now, and the Greens lost that one seat they had in the last election. But really, all you have to do is go back and change “Stephane Dion” to “Michael Ignatieff” and it all still works.

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