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The Canadian Political System Confuses Me in the Brain

081202-harper-vmed-215a.widec.jpgI’m on the fence with regard to the logistics of the Canadian Parliamentary system. It’s a weird feather. Right now, it’s conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper — who is in the minority government — is in quite a pickle. He’s basically been futile as PM in the face of the current global economic crisis (though, to be fair, I don’t know any world leader that’s been particularly effective), so the opposition groups and gotten together and signed an agreement unilaterally giving themselves power. Meanwhile, it’s also set a confidence vote for Monday, which would basically topple the current administration.

But what I find kind of fascinating about this whole thing is that Stephen Harper — who apparently won a strengthened minority in October — can effectively post-pone his own toppling by possibly suspending Parliament, preventing them from voting him out. Moreover, the no-confidence vote comes because three other political parties have ganged up on the conservative party, including the Bloc Quebecois, who apparently want to break up Canada.

Want more bizarreness? If the no-confidence vote goes as planned and Stephen Harper is removed, the Liberals want to install Stephane Dion, who led his party to a thumping two months ago in national elections. So, essentially, the guy who lost in national elections two months ago would replace a Prime Minister who gained support.

I don’t get it, really. The system seems kind of sketchy and subject to whim. But, my political alignment is rooting for the Liberals, all the same.

(H/T to Ranylt, an Ottawan rooting for the coup)

| Comments (28)


Yes, well, unfortunately, the Conservatives decided to address the economic crisis by:

1. refusing to go into a deficit, even on the short term (against almost all advice to the contrary)
2. attacking gender pay equality
3. refusing any prospect of assistance to ailing industries (most notably the auto industry, which is sorta kinda hugely important)
4. promising to cut the federal funding that political parties receive in order to operate, thereby essentially crippling the ability of the opposition to campaign in future elections.

The best comparison I can give is if the US House of Representatives voted today to adopt the Newt Gingrich style policies of the '90s (except the parts about creating jobs and limiting the powers of Congress). Oops, Stephen Harper, there's your administration circling the drain.

So the two other national parties decided, "hey, if we can convince the Bloc to give us some support, we'll have a majority and we can knock off this guy who seems to have forgotten he doesn't own parliament."

So the Liberals & NDP can form the government, while the Bloc has promised them votes. The NDP like it 'cause it gives them an otherwise impossible shot at governing, the Bloc like it 'cause they'll get some pro-Quebec stuff in, and Dion likes it 'cause he gets to be PM for a few months, and the other big Liberal guys like it 'cause in May, one of them will replace Dion as party leader and automatically get the top job. And it's all perfectly legal.

The Tories, of course, are saying the Liberals are giving the keys to the country to socialists and separatists, which is definitely arguable...just as it was when Harper tried to do the exact same thing four years ago.

Sure, Canadian politics is pretty boring (admit it, you didn't even know we had an election in October, did you?). So trust me when I say this is the most exciting freaking thing to happen in Ottawa since Alexandre Daigle put on a nurse's uniform.

As a Canadian who follows Canadian politics somewhat usually, we need to get rid of Harper badly. Almost by any means necessary. I hate the Bloc, but at least they'd be constrained by the Liberal and NDP parties if they tried any funny business.

We were (until recently) the only G8 with a surplus budget. Even Bono kept nagging us to support Africa or whatever (like, its our country, so shut the fuck up you self-righteous twat - we've got our own problems and you're only in it for the Nobel Peace Prize). When Harper was elected the first time, he got a minority that was not in the best position to put through the policies he wanted (i.e. he is so right wing the policies were mostly totally unpalatable to the other parties). Anyway, we had a surplus, but if his government was toppled, another government (likely a Liberal one) would inherit a surplus. In order to get rid of the surplus, he cut taxes and basically eliminated our considerable extra cash to hamstring any other party that would succeed his own if they got kicked out. Who suffered the most? The working poor and many womens groups (his track record with these groups are abominable). He would basically rather lower tax by 1%, which made no difference to anyone, than help working poor families. So it comes as no surprise that he is trying to cut funding to political parties, now that his own is in power, as a way to kill the other parties' ability to campaign and also generate some good PR as if he is trying to cut back public funds to government to help the shitty economy.

Make no mistake, if Harper could turn Canada into a country with a dictatorship, he would. He has been running his MINORITY government like it's a dictatorship and now he is paying for it, because he has pissed everyone off trying to achieve his own ends. We need to get rid of this fascist cunt. I don't even care if it takes Dion (an idiot), and the NDP and Bloc to do it - we can sort that shit out later after we stop Harper from ruining our country and its reputation a la GWB.

I think they should install Celine Dion.

OK, don't jump all over me for this, but I'm extremely leery of this constitutional coup the New Liberal Bloc are trying to pull off. It just smells of a major rush job, striking at the most opportune time, without adequate justification and preparation. Has Harper made gaffes? You bet your ass, and my support for him is solely based on economic and justice reasons. I greatly distrust the Liberals (yeah, they scrapped the deficit by gutting healthcare - thanks a lot!) and provincially the NDP are proven to be economically ruinous and idealogues unconstrained by reality. We voted in October; this group wants to run a coalition government that's bound to have a shorter shelf life than any minority - guess how thrilled the citizenry will be to go back to the polls AGAIN? Here in BC we just voted municipally in November and are going to the provincial polls again in May - and we're likely going to vote again if this coalition takes power because its components are so disparate! I'm not saying its a bad idea, but Harper needs to prorogue to settle things down, and if nothing else give all sides some times to work constructively, which is the mandate that was given. Just how well do you think the markets and our economy are going to do when run by this joint ship of fools? Hate on Harper all you want, but don't be blind to reality - he's the best of a bad lot!

SV - take a moment and breathe, k? Don't forget your pills!

I can't see either side doing a particularly good job of turning things around.

However, if Harper wants to pull some shit just to stay in power (which I think sets an unwelcome precedent, but whatever), I won't complain...but can we at least get someone to punch John Baird in the face?

I'm an ex-canadian so I don't follow these things as closely anymore...but last I heard they were looking for someone new to lead the liberals after chucking dion in a dumpster. They couldn't find a single person? not one?

Oy vey... Well. Here I go.

I believe the Tories are waiting for the economy to bottom out before announcing any grand plans, which - I think - is a wise move. Everything I've read up till now has indicated that all of the stimulus packages other G8 countries have rustled up - in haste - have done little or not enough to stem the tide of shit.

The Liberals - who were bounced from office FOR A REASON - and the NDP have no plan other than to cater to the two provinces where they are guaranteed seats. Which means we have to bailout Ontario. And shovel more money at Quebec. Meanwhile, here in Alberta, my wife has to wait two months to get an MRI.

What I have consistently failed to understand is why smart guys like Jack Layton and Bob Rae haven't realized the advantage of being in the high chair of Opposition. From there you can simultaneously pillory the government while promoting your own policies.

Who would want to govern this mess? This is a soft coup by legal means, and it will blow up in their faces just like Harper's suprise election has.

Well put, tiddo. This situation appears to be the culmination of years of cynical governing and politics across the board. The result is that we're already starting to see voter outrage finally spilling across party lines to include just about everyone involved. The Liberals are even now starting to backbite: Ignatieff's people claim that Bob Rae (both Liberal leadership hopefuls, and bitter rivals) hoodwinked them, Conservative MPs are fuming at Harper, and now the Coalition is turning to Jacques Parizeau (ultra-separatist former Quebec Premier, and noted utterer of anti-"ethnic" sentiments) for support.

I think ultimately the Conservatives will prevail, but perhaps Harper might have to go. What's clear is that just about everyone on Parliament Hill is looking pretty bad right now.

I also predict this may be the last Canadian politics-related post by Dustin, as he's probably concussed from banging his head against the desk after reading all of our wonkery.

I just have to say, this is fascinating. I'll go ahead and sound like a typical American rube, but - who knew Canadian politics was so sexy??

This is the most I've heard about Canadian politics since...ever. Thank you all. I feel so well informed. Now hush. All of you hush! You are giving me such a headache.

Canadian Politics 101 for confused Americans:

We don't have a president. In US terms, this means that Nancy Pelosi would be your leader. Guess what? Not very many Americans actually voted for Ms. Pelosi, any national leadership she has comes from the support of her party members in congress.

Not only that, but Ms. Pelosi is constrained to pick her cabinet from sitting members of the House of Reps. If she gets desperate, she can pick up one, maybe two from the Senate, but by doing so will essentially be admitting her weakness. If you look at the Dem folks in the House, that should scare you a bit; the equivalent is one of Harper's major problems.

To shore up her support in the House, she picks up on campaign financing-- Dems are doing a hell of a lot better on donations right now, so let's kill off any public financing, while keeping the business and union donations verbotten. Oh, and do some other bone-headed stuff too. Gosh, the other parties get pissed off and revolt? Quelle surprise, as we say up here.

But youth justice issues, immigration issues, economic stimulus issues, whatever, what really matters is political finance issues, and facing that, a set of very odd bedfellows indeed will quickly jump into bed together.

We are indeed in interesting times.

(Incidentally, I live in Alberta, and would happily vote for the Bloc, because aside from the whole separatism thing, they are pretty much right on most issues. Other than that, I hate them all. But I am glad we have more viable parties to detest than the US does, how boring to have to choose between bad and awful, when you could be able to choose between bad, worse, awful, truly awful, wretched, despicable, and downright evil.)

The last coalition government that occured in Canada was here in Saskatchewan in 1999 when the NDP and the Libs combined to form government by one seat (after the speaker was appointed). I would urge the parties to look closely at the consequences. Two Liberal MLA's jumped ship and the party has not won a seat in eight years and two elections since. I could go into greater detail but...

Does one really think this coalition will work. You've got the Liberal party that is in shambles and has no clear direction, add to that the NDP who, quite frankly, scare the sh_t out of me with their extreme leftist policies and the Bloc whos mandate is to represent one province. If you think its bad now, wait until we get to the "do what we want or else" phase of policy negotiations.

Now factor in the "economic stimulation" bailout (that really only affects the provinces of Ontario and Quebec), the fact that the Conservatives won a larger minority in the last election and the fact that a coalition government effectively alienates Canada from Manitoba west (and honestly we've got quite a bit of money at the moment) we are going to end up far worse than staying the course.

I don't particularly like Harper but this is just ridiculous.


I find your ideas interesting and would love to address them in this space but, more importantly...I'm in Southern Ontario and you're in Saskatchewan. Can you help me find a fucking job?? Please??

Oy! I'm with most of my fellow Canadians here, particularly Sv and Orval. Harper has lost his mind imo (what possessed him this past week I don't know. The dumbest move on the planet!). And the coalition idiots followed suit. What a mess. This is all so unCanadian, you know. Can't we just fire them ALL? Can the Queen take over for a little while? Harper annoys me to no end, but I can't believe the gall of the others to form a coalition - we just had an election AND YOU WEREN'T VOTED IN!! On the other hand, I love the ridiculousness of our country such that the Bloc has a such. Harper's known to be vindictive - I wonder if his attempt to cut funding was a way to get back at and get rid of the Bloc - he courted them during the election and, I believe, conceded some things, but Quebecers still voted mostly Bloc. Hee. I'm from Quebec originally, now Albertan. Much as the separatists drive me crazy, I have fondness for the whole Quebec thing and Quebecers. I don't know why....

If you're willing to move, go West. I appreciate that Southern Ontario is in dire straits but, really a bailout isn't going to do squat! It really hasn't helped the U.S. or the world economy as a whole.

Here, we can't even open new Tim Hortons'. You know, those buildings people put up that print money? We can't staff them. If you have any kind of skill set you can get a good paying job.

I work in municipal government and with the economic downturn you would think that we would see a slowdown in development, both commercial/industrial and residential. It isn't happening.

Seriously kushiro, go West.

Yo kushiro, west is it. I totally concur with admin. And the vacancy rate isn't as bad as it was in '05 (you can find a place to stay in Calgary) and there are signs and ads everywhere. 5 minutes online on any job site will bring up at least 500 opps. Good luck.

c, I disagree. This is typically Canadian. What other democracy driven country has legislated the ability for the opposition (or a grouping thereof)to take power without an election?

Honestly, is that democracy? "We weren't elected to lead but we're pissed so let's gang up and take it anyway?" Absolutely not.

As for Quebec, I would think that if one asked them if they wanted to secede from Confederation in this economic climate the smart Quebecois would answer...No. But we will take everything we can get.

Forgive me. I am still pissed about the debacle of the Meech Lake Accord.

No, you're right, that craziness is typically Canadian. I meant, for me, what felt like instability and insecurity in our political climate (aren't we usually boring and predictable?). And, much as I can't stand Harper, and the conservatives, it's the actions of the other parties, and subsequent activities, that's really freaking me out. I really don't think a coalition and power grab was really called for (they did do right by screaming loudly at Harper on their platform last week to). I think the opposition function better as opposition. They're so messed up and so useless for today's country and needs, I don't want them leading my country! And, as I mentioned earlier, they weren't voted in the last election either! They don't DESERVE to take power! It's appalling. And, yes, undemocractic. THAT, I think is what's freaking me out. And maybe it's just the lack of ANYONE to lead...Here's more wierdness: out of them all, isn't it odd the Duceppe is the most articulate of them all (imo). And honest; he's never lied about his agenda. And you know, as an earlier commenter mentioned, aside from the separatist bent and language lunacies, some of their social policies are the best in the country. That they take everything they can get...and Meech. Yeah. Yeah. Let's not get into that.

Um, fellow Canadian dudes, cool it with the "undemocratic" business. It is actually very democratic, it is Parliament actually showing signs of functioning as, you know, a Parliament. It hasn't done that since like forever, so it is pretty sclerotic, but it is interesting to watch.

It isn't undemocratic, it is very democratic, in that all those Liberals and NDPers and Pequistes actually got elected, and hell, the whole point of having a minority government, which we Canadians like so much, is that there are actually immediate Consequences for misgovernment. Which is what we are seeing play out.

Really Orval? I don't recall the electorate being consuted on the formation of a coalition government.

As far as I'm concerned if the opposition wants to defeat the current government that's fine. But then it should go back to the polls for the people to decide. That's a democracy, not a bunch of jerks who are willing to put this country through hell to satiate their own fragile egos.

But it won't go back to the people for a vote because, with the exception of the Bloc, the NDP and Libs will get their asses handed to them for even attempting this farce.

I'm throwing my $0.02 in with Orval here on the 'undemocratic' myth of this huge mess. When you look at it the majority of voters in this country did *not* elect the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. The majority of Canadians voted for the other political parties. A Coalition if ruled right can be a positive step for the country as it would force all the political parties to work together for what is best for Canada and its people.

Do I think that's going to happen? Hells no. But that's the way its 'supposed' to work out. You know in a perfect world where we all ride unicorns and women have beer flavoured nipples.

The main issue with the Liberals is that they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar during the Chr├ętien years. Honestly, that's nothing new in Canadian politics especially where Quebec is involved. Everyone knows the best way to keep the Sepratistes happy is to throw money at them. Their polices though tend to be more in line with the general population of Canadians (aside from the Green Shift that was more retarded than my cousin Billy).

As its already been stated the Bloc actually has a platform that is intelligent and balanced-aside from the fact that it is completely Quebec centric. I would love to see another party ape their political talking points sans that nasty separation thing. How quickly would everyone laud them for being the saviors of Canadian politics.

The NDP is no where near as 'socialist' as everyone likes to think. That's just fear mongering. Of all the parties they're the only ones with a leader who has any sort of charisma. If you want to know who the main mastermind behind all of this is look at Jack Layton. He's using the fact that Dion is a weak willed ninny to his advantage-its what Layton does best. Its also why I have a healthy dose of respect for the man. Do I think the NDP should have power? No. But they make and effective and strong balancing point.

The truthiness of the situation is that the Opposition parties have picked the wrong time for this sort of maneuvering. Politically speaking it would have been more viable to take these steps either well before Harper called that last useless election or in the new year when his lame budget was unveiled. As far as I'm concerned though A Coalition government is quite possibly the lesser of many evils at this point since it will force more cooperation between the parties. That's the point of the parliamentary system.

And Tiddo...if you think wait times in Alberta are bad you should try Ontario. At least people aren't dying in the waiting rooms out west. But if you really want to point a finger of blame for the shit that is Alberta's health care system...look to 'King' Ralph Klein himself. The Conservative premier who slashed and hacked even in a budget surplus to provide further tax cuts and incentives to big business.

Well said Miz you make very valid points. While you are correct that a majority of people did not vote for the Conservative Party, my issue is, nobody voted for the New Bloceral Party.

If they want to defeat the minority goverment that's fine. Call another election, put together your platform and run as the New Bloceral Party with whatever agreement you want.

I don't say this because I am a conservative, I would be in the same position if the Cons were trying the same thing. For the most part people voted for their MP or for which ever party's policies they agreed with most. What the hell would the government's policies be upon coalition? I have no idea.

Who knew this American-based law blog had so many Canadian readers. What I want to know is, when are we getting our apology for Celine Dion, Pamela Anderson, and Bryan Adams? Actually, I take that back. I have a weakness for cheesy love ballads. Just take Pam Anderson back, and we'll call it a deal.

Only if you promise to take the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus back Three Elle...Otherwise we'll start exporting even scarier things than old Pammy south of the border.

Admin - The thing is...The Cons *did* try to pull the same thing under the Paul Martin Liberal Government. Which is something that I find endlessly amusing as Harper whines about the unfairness of it all. What a difference four years and him being in power makes. Either way it all sucks. Too bad there's no option to just make them all spontaneously combust.

admin I don't blame you for sleeping through Civics/Grade 10 History...but the rules of Parliament state that should the governing party be defeated on a confidence motion or budget, the GG shall go to the Opposition and ask if they can form a government before the parliament is dissolved and we get to waste $300 M on another election.

And everybody, check your ballots next time : you only vote for your local MP, NOT the Pm (Harper only represents Calgary South) and NOT the party that will govern.

I am aware of the rules of parliament Groucho but my feeling on the matter is that I don't believe a party (or parties in this case) that isn't elected as the government should be able to take power. I am fully aware of the arguements that are contrary to my view and they are valid.

But ask yourself if a Liberal supporter would be happy with Layton as P.M. or visa versa. Regardless of the agreement they worked out both parties are going to have to kow tow to the other in various ways (never mind the Bloc). Both parties run the very real risk of alienating their support base which is what happened in Saskatchewan in '99. Eight plus years later the Sask Party has a majority and no Liberal has really even come close to regaining a seat in the Legislature.

Like I said before, have another election (much as I would hate to do it again) and run as the New Blocerals and see if you really do have the support of the people.

OK, for those who are unfamiliar with Canada's parliamentary system, here's some background. It will probably bore the Canadians here, so my apologies in advance. I'm going to give a somewhat simple treatment here, so, please, understand there's a lot more depth to it.

The unique thing about Parliamentary democracy is that we actually don't elect a party to govern. We elect a bunch of MPs to the House of Commons. The leader of the party or coalition of parties that has the confidence of the majority of MPs then has the right to govern. So when one particular party has the majority of seats, they can be sure to have the confidence of the majority of the Commons as a whole. That's a majority government.

However, as often happens here in Canada, one party has the most seats but not a majority of them. So they then have to be sure to reach out to other parties to maintain that majority confidence. If it appears that the minority governing party is not doing such a good job, any member can call for a vote of confidence in the leader of the governing party...basically, "hey, everybody, do we believe this guy is fit to lead? Let's vote".

What's happening here is this: there are two parties who have indicated that they will call for a confidence vote, and that if the vote results in non-confidence, they will form a coalition that they believe will have the support of the majority of MPs. Their agreement is that the leader of the Liberal party will lead the government as PM, and that the cabinet he appoints will be comprised of members of the Liberals and NDP. Where the Bloc comes in is in supplying the majority confidence required for the coalition to govern.

After a non-confidence vote, there are two things that can happen:

1) Harper resigns as PM, and the Governor General can ask the coalition to form a government. No election.

1) Stephen Harper asks the Governor General to dissolve parliament and call for an election. With this option, Harper remains PM. If the results of the election suggest that the Conservatives will not have the confidence of the majority of MPs, but one party or a coalition would have that support, he will be asked to resign, and the GG can ask the coalition to govern.

What's important here is that there is no "toppling" or "coup". The only way there can be a new PM is if the current one resigns. Then the GG can ask for the coalition to form the government.

Additionally, it should be pointed out that there would be no change in the makeup of the government we elected. As stated previously, we elected MPs representing different political parties in a certain combination. Those results stand. The MPs we elected would remain in office. The difference is who actually has the majority of support in the House.

One last thing: it's not so rare. There are lots of parliamentary governments that are led by coalitions. Many of them would never have a government formed without them. You can often find coalitions in Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Ireland, India and others. Switzerlands coalition has four parties and has existed for almost 50 years.

I am now officially the most boring commenter at Quizlaw. Ever.

Okay, new rules.

Damn the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Queen. All Canadians who would like to fight on Quizlaw are required to strip down and oil up first.