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IPB #3: Parliamentary Democracy is a Sexy Beast

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So, something odd happened this week that forced me to put my Influential Political Blogger cap back on for a bit. Canadian politics actually got interesting.

When I was young, I went through a phase where I found Canadian politics, and Canadian political history, absolutely fascinating. (For more on this stage in my life and what happened to it, you can read my essay Confessions of an Ex-Patriot).  In those days, Canadian democracy was relatively simple: we had two major political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, who tossed power back and forth between them like a tennis ball (though, these being the Trudeau years, the Liberals were obviously hogging the ball).  The NDP won my leftie-leaning loyalties early on, but their role as permanent third party was clear: they would always be a tiny, dissenting voice, keeping Parliament honest without ever wielding real power.

In fact, to someone less interested in the subject than I was, the difference between Canadian parliamentary democracy and the American system to the south would not have been immediately apparent in those years. As has become obvious over the past few weeks, plenty of Canadians don’t actually understand our political system and seem to believe that in our not-very-exciting election back in October, we “voted for a Prime Minister” the same way our American friends “voted for a President” a few weeks later.

This is, of course, quite untrue, and this misunderstanding is only possible if your parliamentary democracy resembles Canada’s during my formative years, with two powerful political parties each able to form majority governments.  Since the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament becomes Prime Minister, it’s possible, under that kind of system, to mistakenly assume that you’re actually electing your country’s leader.

I’m pretty sure most Canadians now know that’s not the case.  We elect Members of Parliament, and they form a government.  If the party with the most seats doesn’t have a clear majority, then in theory members of the other parties can get together and form a coalition to govern.  It never happens in Canada, of course, but people in other parliamentary democracies, like those Italians we all used to laugh at for their multitudinous parties and unstable governments, are very used to the concept of coalition governments.  If you have more than, say, four political parties, it’s going to be very difficult to govern without forming a coalition of some kind.  Which makes the whole structure less stable, but much more exciting.

And say what you will about the last couple of weeks politically, they have been exciting.  Judging by the Facebook groups my friends are joining, there’s more engagement and passion about the possibility of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition toppling the Conservative minority government than there ever was about the actual election campaign.

Some people are screaming that the threat of a coalition is a violation of our democratic rights — after all, “we” voted for a Conservative government, didn’t we? Well, fewer than half of us did — but more people elected Conservative members to Parliament than elected members of any single other party.  The whole point of a minority government is that it can be toppled.  The usual way to do this is to bring down the government over a vote of non-confidence, forcing a new election.  But nobody wants another election right now, and no election held now could result in anything but another Conservative minority government.

Fortunately for the three opposition parties, turns out it’s also perfectly legal to bring down the government and form a new coalition government — though most people had never considered that was an option, which is why we get the cries that our democratic rights are being stripped away. Apparently, you can do this if you can get the Governor-General to go along with the plan. Another surprise: the Governor-General actually has a job to do other than cutting ribbons and giving out Orders of Canada. Who knew? Suddenly everyone’s researching the roles and responsibilities of Michaelle Jean, who we all thought was just a pretty figurehead (much prettier than the Queen, whom she represents).

Now the GG has agreed to prorogue Parliament (isn’t “prorogue” a great word? How many of us didn’t know that word before today? Hands up, class!) which basically means the politicians get to take an early Christmas break, and the rest of us get an extra month to form Facebook groups and argue the pros and cons of bringing down the government.

I like the idea of the coalition government, even though I don’t know if the Prime Minister’s economic package was really a good enough excuse to bring down the Conservatives (my grasp of economics is much weaker than my grasp of How Our Democracy Works).  As a lifelong New Democrat who voted Liberal for strategic reasons in this election, I would like to see the two parties of the left work together, and I have no problem with them being allied with the Bloc Quebecois, who are also left-wingers even if they are also separatists (or “sovereigntists,” according to the PM, who apparently called them one thing in a speech in English and another in a speech in French, causing considerable kerfuffle). I wish Jack Layton rather than Stephane Dion were going to lead the coalition, or even that someone more charismatic than either of them would arise from the ashes — but perhaps a weak leader only emphasizes the point that Canadian politics is not about electing the man at the top, but about electing our representatives who have to work together to get the job done.

What I really enjoy, however this all turns out after Christmas, is the sudden interest and awareness everyone is showing in how Canadian parliamentary democracy works.  Even though I’m shocked at how right-wing some of my Facebook friends turn out to be, I’m thrilled that those on both sides of the debate are actually being forced to look at our political process, to see how it works.  It’s bringing out my inner Grade Nine political geek, who has been dormant for a long time.  We’re always being told how dull our politics are compared to those of the Americans, but the fact is that the twists and turns of parliamentary democracy are actually quite exciting, even sexy — especially when you realize that after 140+ years of Confederation, we can still come up with something totally unexpected.

I wonder if the current crisis isn’t pointing us the way of the future. At one point in recent years, we had five parties in Parliament, and it looked unlikely that any one party would be able to form a majority again.  The Conservatives solved that problem by merging with the Reform Party and dropping the “Progressive” from their name and from their identity, so we now have one monolithic party of the right (and some unhappy former Progressive Conservatives, like our provincial premier, who don’t feel Stephen Harper’s party truly represents them).  And as the Liberal party loses the chokehold it once had on power, we are left with three parties on the left — one of them a Quebec separatist party — and the Greens hoping that they, too, will be a power to reckon with a few elections down the road.  How long before a new “right-wing, but less right-wing than Harper” party springs up? Maybe our future Parliament looks more Italian than we’d ever imagined it might. Maybe coalition governments will be the way of the future … and we’ll all have to learn a little more about making compromises and playing nicely.  I don’t think any of that would necessarily be a bad thing.

For fun, you should try explaining all this to a fifth-grader.  Especially if you have your very own fifth-grader who listens to the news with you on the way to school.  I’d already gotten through explaining how the election worked just a few weeks ago, then we had the American elections and I tried to explain a little about how they worked and how they were different from ours. The latest constitutional crisis sailed right over Emma’s head, but Christopher asked me the other morning if Stephen Harper was still the prime minister, so I knew he’d been listening at least a little. 

I tried my best to put the concepts of “minority government” and “coalition” into terms he could understand.  But it was Chris himself who did the best job of translating the situation into schoolyard terms.  “So,” he said, “it’s like the other three guys are ganging up on Stephen Harper?”

I’m sure it feels that way to the PM at the moment.

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8 thoughts on “IPB #3: Parliamentary Democracy is a Sexy Beast

  1. That sounds a lot like MMP, what we have over here. It can be exciting if the right conditions arise, but more often than not, the coalitions are unsurprising.

  2. Very astute child. Out of the mouths of babes eh?

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