I’m a U.S. American living in Illinois but (as of last Wednesday) married to a Canadian and making plans to move to Toronto in less than two months. The past couple of weeks have been really tumultuous in Canadian politics, and as comfortable as I am with the intricacies of the U.S. political system and the generalities of many others, the process of an election in a new country has been surprisingly hard to wrap my head around. My poor American brain with its overloaded political-awareness lobe couldn’t quite deal.
Instead of trying to muddle through toward a working knowledge on my own, the Canadian in my house and I spent a couple of hours hashing out a primer on Canadian election politics for those of you who, like me, find themselves less informed than they thought they were (read: confused) on a regular basis. The point is not to cover everything, and I’m sure I’ll miss some important points, but to give enough of an overview that you should be able to follow the news from here on out on your own.
The gist is this: On March 25th, after a couple of weeks of murmurs on the matter, the Canadian government passed a non-confidence motion introduced by the Liberal party. The motion served to find the current Conservative government, headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to be in contempt of Parliament–the first time in Canadian history that such a motion has passed. The reason contempt findings are rare is that contempt is not necessarily about simple breach of privilege but can also include violations of non-codified expectations for Members of Parliament (MPs) or entire parties. In this particular case, violations of both codified and non-codified expectations were found.
The reason for this contempt motion and non-confidence vote, in a very rough summary, was a lack of transparency in financial and ethical matters on the part of Harper’s government and some key Conservative players. One glaring example was the cover-up of the cost of acquiring 65 fighter jets, which since the government fell has been revealed as a massive discrepancy in reported and actual costs, but that’s far from the only finding. The irony, of course, is that only a few years ago, Harper ran on a platform of increased ethical foundations and greater government transparency. So much for that.
The Parties: There are five major parties in Canada: The Conservative Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, the National Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), the Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois (often referred to as simply “The Bloc”), and the Green Party of Canada. A list of other, smaller parties can be found here.
The Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, are the only party whose positions tend to be both fiscally and socially conservative. Though still more liberal than most of the U.S., the Conservative government has pushed policies in the last few years that protect businesses over individuals and provide tax benefits targeted specifically to members of the upper middle class. The Conservative Party of Canada has, in the past few years in particular, been operating in ways U.S. Americans would recognize, if through a slightly more liberal filter.
The second major party is the Liberals, led by Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals are fiscally centrist and socially liberal. Ignatieff has been the target of a recent smear campaign, revolving primarily around the fact that he has spent part of the past few years on faculty at Harvard. The attack ads have also targeted his family, a move that many Canadians see as pushing it too far, even those who are otherwise not Ignatieff’s greatest fans (he doesn’t have many). The Liberals stand on their desire to continue the social programs easily recognized as Canadian: socialized medicine, multilingualism and multiculturalism, national unity, and peacekeeping. Their emphasis on fiscal stability and the means of procuring that stability, however, means that the party is considered centrist (in Canadian terms, anyway) in practice.
The NDP, led by Jack Layton, is the socialist party, initially founded from the remnants of workers’ union parties. Their focus is on reducing expenditures on non-domestic interests and promoting the welfare of citizenry by ensuring that tax dollars are spent on things like improving the quality of healthcare and education and funding small local business that help strengthen neighborhood economies.
The Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois, led by Gilles Duceppe, is a QuÃ©bec-only party which has as its main priority QuÃ©bec nationalism. Prior to the dissolution of Parliament, the BQ was the third largest party in terms of seats, and their support is important to minority governments in particular. The Bloc was started in 1991 by QuÃ©bec nationalists who defected from the Conservative and Liberal parties. Apart from their secessionist views, the Bloc’s platform is largely similar to that of the NDP.
The Green Party, led by Elizabeth May, focuses on environmental stewardship and climate policy. The Green Party does not hold a seat in the House of Commons, yet maintains consistently around 10% of the popular vote in elections. Most recently, not holding a seat has meant that May is being excluded from some of the major media aspects of the election, despite representing approximately the same proportion of the voting population as the Bloc.
For more quick information on the parties and their stances based on particular issues, take a minute to play with the CBC’s Vote Compass.
In the News: A major issue being batted around in the election discourse at the moment is the coalition. Harper has accused Ignatieff of attempting to form a coalition in the case of the Conservatives failing to achieve a majority following this election, and has called such coalition building anti-democratic. Because the government is currently working with minorities, a coalition can form to create a majority and use that majority to govern.
In 2008, the Liberals and NDP attempted to form a coalition following Harper’s attempt to eliminate federal subsidies for political parties (parties currently get a per-vote subsidy that can be used to fund the party and campaigns). While this coalition was forming, Harper prorogued Parliament, essentially shutting it down and precluding the vote.
Most other questions at hand are standard election fare, including budgetary concerns, tax reform, and maintaining or improving services.
The election will take place on May 2nd, and in the days running up to that we’ll face a short campaign process, including the televised leaders’ debates. The party who wins the most seats is given the first chance to form the government, with the leader of that party becoming the Prime Minister. If no party has a majority, it’s possible for a coalition to form, with the Prime Minister chosen in an agreement by the coalition.
The projection map below, reprinted with permission from The Defeatist blog (hi-res version here), shows predicted outcomes based on most recent data. In case you can’t read the color key, blue represents the Conservatives, red the Liberals, orange the NDP, and purple the Bloc, with lighter shades indicating that a riding is leaning that direction and darker shades indicating it’s “safe.”
As it stands, the Conservatives are set to win again, but the question is whether Canada will continue operating in a minority, as they have since 2004, or end up with a Conservative majority.
For more information:
Written in collaboration with Graham Carey, the Canadian in my house. Post Image: “Happy Canada Day” via rubenerd at Flickr