December 3, 2008

What is happening in Canada

From reading the comments yesterday and today, it's pretty obvious that there is confusion over what's happening in Canada's government. This is a primer for non-Canadians (and some Canadians) about this mess. If you didn't care about this yesterday and you still don't care about it today, know that I am knitting a very beautiful brown sock and a great brown hat and this blog will maybe be interesting to you again tomorrow. (Or maybe not, since I don't know if I can count on a brown sock and a brown hat to put the zip into it.)

The first thing you need to know is that Canada has a parliamentary democracy, and that we are a Constitutional Monarchy. This is a very, very different system than the US uses, and it allows for a lot of interesting political variation. The most significant to the majority of my readers will likely be that our head of Government (The Prime Minister) is not the same person as the head of state (The Governor General). The Governor General is the Queen's representative in Canada, and plays an important role. (She's also the Commander-in-Cheif of the Canadian Forces.) In addition, we vote for parties not individuals. (Edited to add: There's been some debate about this in the comments, and as usual, the commentors are right and I was unclear. When I say this, I mean that we do NOT vote for a Prime Minister in an election. We vote for the person at our local level, they represent a party, and then the party's leader becomes Prime Minister. Clearer?) We vote at the local level and elect a Member of Parliament, and the party that gets the most MPs wins, and the leader of that party becomes Prime Minister. (Yup, that means that if the party choses a new leader while they are in power, we get a new Prime Minister without an election. It happens.) Because we have several valid, effective parties, the vote is split into several pieces, usually five. The Conservatives (Canada's "right" although not as far right as Republicans.) The Liberals (Canada's centre/but left leaning party) The New Democratic Party or NDP (The left) The Bloc (a Quebec Party that only operates in Quebec. They're allegedly "separatists" but it's been a while since that had a lot of momentum. They're left of centre.) And the Green Party (left of centre as well.)

Excellent. So an election is called (more about that later) and we all go vote (or most of us go vote. Shame on the rest of you, and I hope you aren't bothering to bitch right now. You gave up that right when you couldn't be arsed to go to the poll.) Now, one party will get more MPs elected than the others. That party will form the government and the Governor General will appoint it's leader our Prime Minister. The runner up forms "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition." and everyone else forms the opposition and everyone goes to the house of Parliament and all the MPs sit in the house and vote on stuff, and for a motion to pass the majority of the MPs need to agree it's a good idea.

If the winning party has enough MPs that they can pass stuff without help from any opposition MPs, then they have "a majority government". These governments tend to be very stable. If the winning party has enough MPs elected that they need the co-operation of an opposing party to get things passed... they are said to have a minority government, and those tend to be unstable, and the Prime Minister of a minority government needs to operate in a more co-operatie spirit, or he/she won't be able to get much done. In either case, the Prime Minister remains Prime Minister until one of 5 things happen.

- Five years are up.
- Their party decides they shouldn't be leader anymore.
- They die.
-They go to the Governor General and ask her to call an election.
-They lose the confidence of the house.

We are largely concerned with the last thing on that list. This is an important part.

If the government (majority or minority, though you can see how it's more likely to happen with a minority) tries to pass something that is a sort of a motion that has "a confidence motion" attached to it, and they lose that motion, then they are said to have "lost the confidence of the house", which means "the majority of MPs, and therefore Canadians, think that you're not doing a good job, and we have no faith that you'll improve. We want someone else." At this point, the Prime Minister goes to the Governor General, tells her that he's lost the confidence of the house and asks her (usually) to prorogue (suspend) parliament and call an election, which must happen within 8 weeks. Some important things, like how the government spends money, or how they use the Canadian Forces, are automatically "confidence motions", but (and this is so important to the rest of this) a confidence motion can be attached to any other motion.

Our current Prime Minister is Stephen Harper. He's a conservative, and he's been Prime Minister since his party won a minority government in February of 2006. The Honourable Prime Minister has taken an unusual approach to running said minority. Instead of operating in a co-operative spirit, the Prime Minister has been rather aggressive, and instead of moderating his motions to the point where the opposition might vote for them anyway, he has instead taken to attaching a confidence motion to just about everything. This means that every time the house votes, they can either vote with him, or force an election. All last year, this strategy worked beautifully. The opposing parties (particularly the Liberals, who were having leadership troubles) didn't want an election. Forcing the opposition to choose between forcing an election and agreeing with him rammed through a lot of legislation, but bred a lot of contempt. (Depending on whether you are a conservative or not, this strategy has alternately been called "being an aggressive parliamentarian who makes the most of the system" or "being a big fat bully".)

On September 7, 2008 the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to call a federal election, saying that there was no spirit of co-operation in the house (which is true, although debate rages about who's fault that is.) He won a second minority in October (vs his hoped for majority) but spoke of a renewed sprit of co-operation and productivity. Last week, immediately following the resumption of parliament, he reverted to his same strategy, and put forth an "economic strategy" which included, among other things, the removal of federal election subsidies to all parties. This would have effectively hobbled the oppositions ability to campaign, and guaranteed that they would be unable to oppose him in parliament, since they wouldn't have the money to launch campaigns.
There's a lot of debate over whether or not this was ethical. The Prime Minister made this a confidence motion, essentially saying (to put it mildly) to the opposition "either do it my way, or we'll have another election, which you will lose, will piss Canadians off, and will cost the country another $300 million dollars." ($300 million is the cost to the government of an election.)

The opposition cried foul. Not just because they were unhappy with the funding cuts, but because they claimed that the Government was not responding properly to the economic crisis by failing to provide (among other things) an economic stimulus package, and because they realized that Mr. Harper clearly intended to continue to govern by hanging the threat of an election over their heads every time he wanted a motion to pass. They said they had had enough and would vote against his motion, therefore causing him to lose the confidence of the house.

Mr. Harper responded to this by removing the funding cut, but the opposition did not back down, saying that their other problem had been the lack of response to the economic crisis, and that it still was. At this time, it is supposed that Harper, knowing that the Liberals (who lost badly in the last election and have leadership problems) were not only unwilling, but likely unable to manage an election, rolled the dice, believing that he had the other parties on the ropes, and stuck to his guns.

Meanwhile, the other parties formed a coalition... a combination party consisting of the Liberal party and the NDP (supported by unofficial members - the Bloc and the Green Party). Together, this constitutes every MP in the house who is not a conservative, and represents two thirds of Canadians. This coalition went to the Prime Minister and told him that he had "lost the confidence of the house" and that they were willing and ready to form an alternative government.

Re-enter the Governor General. The role of the Governor General is to appoint a Prime Minister, dismiss a Prime Minister, to prorogue (suspend) parliament, to call the house to the hill, or to dissolve parliament. She has the constitutional right to override the Prime Minister (although traditionally, she doesn't) and within the confines of the Constitution, she acts in the best interests of Canada as she sees them. For example, if a Prime Minister wanted to prorogue parliament, she could say "No. I don't think that's right." or if a Prime Minister asked her to call an election, technically she could refuse, or (and this is the important bit) she can ask a party from the opposition if they will form another government, should she believe this is a better choice.

What's relevant here, is that The Prime Minister essentially has two choices at this point. One way or another, he cannot continue to be Prime Minister, at least not without another election. He does not have the confidence of the house, and the rules of parliamentary democracy say that he's cooked without it. His choices are to either go to the Governor General - Madame Jean, and tell her he quits and ask her for the next step, or he can wait until there's a vote on something - anything, at which point the opposition will attach a vote of confidence to it, and his government will fall, thus automatically turning the next step over to the Governor General.

When a party does not have the confidence of the house, the Governor General has two choices. She can call an election and we'll all vote again... or she can, under the constitution, ask the opposition if they are ready, willing and able to form government. Obviously, if the opposition held few seats or was ineffectual, she wouldn't bother, since Canada would soon land in the same boat, when the new house couldn't agree on squat. It is not her job to do the bidding of the Prime Minister, it is her mandate to protect Parliamentary Democracy. Triggering another election mere months after the last one isn't good for democracy (because nothing can get done) and selecting a powerless alternative government also sucks (because nothing can get done.)

As the opposition (all of it. Every MP) has agreed to work together if they form the alternative, she can be reasonably sure that they will form an effective government, one that (at least theoretically) represents more Canadians than the current Conservative government, it is possible (we don't know if we can go so far as to say "likely" that this is what she will do.) The new coalition party will rule, and the Conservatives would become the opposition. Deep breath.

Obviously, the Prime Minister thinks that this is a pretty bad idea, and he is wigging out, mostly because of three things.

1. He doesn't want to lose his job. (Totally understandable.)

2. He says it is undemocratic. Many conservatives have called this a "coup" or "overthrowing the government" and have implied or claimed outright that it is illegal.

3. He claims that it is especially wrong because it includes the Bloc, a Quebec only party, claiming that it is a "betrayal of the best interests of our country."

There are several things wrong with that.

1. Well, there's nothing wrong with that. I don't want to lose my job either. Fair enough. You can't pick on the guy for that.

2. It isn't undemocratic. It is perfectly legal, has precedent in this country, has worked well in other countries with a Parliamentary Democracy and is a proper application of the principles and laws of that system. In fact, the current Prime Minister himself suggested the exact same thing to the Governor General in 2004, when he was the opposition. (There's a copy of his letter here.) He obviously didn't feel that it was an "undemocratic seizure of power" then, or a "betrayal" then... and it isn't now. He just doesn't like it and ... well. See #1.

3. The Bloc is NOT part of the coalition. They support it, they like it, but they are not a signatory. They will have power under the coalition, but, as many Canadians like to forget when we talk about the Bloc, they do represent an entire, enormous province of Canadians who's participation in parliament is appropriate and daily. Also, if you read that letter above, where Mr. Harper himself suggests forming an alternative government, you will note that he said himself that he would form it with The Bloc. If he was willing to align the Conservative party with The Bloc, then the Liberals aligning themselves with The Bloc can hardly be the mark of Satan upon them. He's just upset. See #1.

Where we are now, is that The Governor General is flying home (she was on a State visit to Europe) to deal with all this, and nobody knows what she will do. She must act within the confines of the constitution, and in the best interests of Canada as she sees them. Apparently, Mr. Harper, looking to avoid the official vote of confidence on Monday, is going to ask her to prorogue (suspend without dissolving) parliament until January, so that he can have more time to fix this up, or come up with an economic strategy that won't get voted down. This suggestion enrages a lot of Canadians, who are trying to figure out how the Prime Minister can believe that the best thing to do in the middle of an economic crisis is to not only fail to come out with a plan for it, but to then compound the trouble by having no parliament in session during said crisis. On the other hand, this suggestion thrills other Canadians who don't want to see this Government defeated. The Prime Minister will go to Madame Jean, the Governor General, and ask her to do.... well. We think it will be the prorogue thing, but he's a hard man to predict, and Madame Jean will pull the plug on parliament or not, call an election or not, appoint an alternative government or not. Usually a Governor General grant the wishes of the Prime Minister, but the question she faces, is "Is that reasonable if a Prime Ministers motivation is to avoid a legal vote?"

It all rests in the hands of one woman. Governor General Michaƫlle Jean.

Dudes. I love this country.

Posted by Stephanie at December 3, 2008 1:07 PM