Canada just had an election six weeks ago, but we might have a new Prime Minister and cabinet from a different party in a week or so, without holding another election. What gives?
If you don’t live in a country like Britain, or Australia, that uses the Westminster System, what’s happening in Canada right now — to the extent that you’re paying attention at all — must seem very strange. For our American cousins, here’s how our system lines up with yours:
|President (directly elected)||Sovereign, represented by the Governor General (appointed and purely ceremonial)|
|Senate (directly elected)||Senate (appointed and mostly ceremonial)|
|House of Representatives (directly elected)||House of Commons (directly elected)|
|House Majority Leader (indirectly elected)||Prime Minister (indirectly elected)|
A question of confidence
Since only our House of Commons — equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives — is actually elected, it holds all the real power, and the leader of the ruling faction in the House — the Prime Minister — is the effective (but not constitutional) head of state and can appoint the other cabinet ministers (just like the party with a majority in the U.S. House can appoint the committee chairs).
The Prime Minister holds power, however, only to the extent that he or she can keep the confidence of the House of Commons. Any party leader can go to the Governor General and offer to form a government, but by tradition, the G-G will always give the first chance to the leader of the party that won the most seats. If that party has a majority of seats in the House, then forming a government will be a no-brainer (assuming that the leader can maintain party discipline); if the party has only a plurality of seats, then it has to prove that it can control the house and pass its major legislation; if not, then the G-G can offer a different party leader a chance to form a government.
Only MPs are elected
Although this might sound bizarre to people used to the American system, there’s nothing inherently undemocratic about it. Canadians elected 308 Members of Parliament (MPs) earlier this fall; we did not vote directly for a specific Prime Minister or a specific party. The Conservative Party won a plurality of the seats, but not a majority: that doesn’t guarantee them the government, only the first turn to try to form one. The Conservatives are about to bring their first major piece of financial legislation before the House, and if it is defeated, the G-G is required to conclude that the Conservative government does not have the confidence of a majority of the 308 MPs we elected, and (since the last election was so recent) to give another party leader a try if one can make a credible case.
Last time around, the Conservatives had no problem governing with a minority government — they just made sure that at least one of the other parties would support each piece of legislation they brought forward, and the opposition parties — especially the Liberals — were too timid to force an election by defeating them. This time, though, the Conservatives foolishly pushed the opposition parties just a little too far, by trying to cut government funding for political parties. This would hurt the opposition much more than the Conservatives (who are better at fund-raising), and whether the move was morally right or wrong, it was politically ignorant.
Suddenly, two of the opposition parties — the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) — woke up out of their daze and realized that they could vote with the Bloc Québécois to defeat the Conservatives, then join together to form their own government. The Conservatives immediately panicked and withdrew the anti-funding proposal, but the genie was out of the bottle — the Conservatives’ only remaining hope is to try to appease the Bloc enough to keep their support.
Food for Junkies
So if you’re a political junkie who’s still in a slump after the end of the U.S. election, stay tuned — even Canadian politics can be exciting sometimes.