Oh, Canada! An Election Primer for the Otherwise Clueless

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.

Rally Against Stephen Harper's 2008 Prorogation of Parliament, via Tony Sprackett on Flickr.


For more on MP Privilege, Contempt, and Non-Confidence, click here to read an overview from the CBC. If you want to dig really deep, you can read the House of Commons Procedure and Practice Manual.

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 Québécois (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 Québécois, led by Gilles Duceppe, is a Québec-only party which has as its main priority Québec 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 Québec 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.

What’s Next:

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.”

March 30 Projection Map, via Jakke at The Defeatist

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:

Canada Votes at CBC

Election 2011

A slightly more in-depth summary (with history!) at The Awl

Written in collaboration with Graham Carey, the Canadian in my house. Post Image: “Happy Canada Day” via rubenerd at Flickr

17 replies on “Oh, Canada! An Election Primer for the Otherwise Clueless”

If anybody’s looking for another reason to rag on Harper (you’re in good company), there’s a proposition in the budget that’s currently tabled to allow couples to shift one partner’s income to the other partner in order to keep them in a lower tax bracket.

Which is a thing that’s only going to help the kind of family that’s already in a relatively high tax bracket (you have to be up to go down, and all) and has one partner making significantly more money than the other.

Not generally the bunch that needs tax cuts, after all. The dude really does have a hard-on for the US tax system.

Awesome wrap up, Anna (and Mr. Carey)! I wish I didn’t have this semester off from teaching (I do an intro to comparative politics course) because it’s all been so interesting.

Stephen Harper is a nightmare. It takes a special kind of man to look creepy and threatening whilst holding a kitten.

Great post! I’ll echo what others have said, it’s interesting to see this from a non-but-soon-to-be-Canadian viewpoint.

I loathe Harper. LOATHE. There have been some really good Conservative leaders in the past (admittedly, the ones I liked best were more centrist), but not this dude. I can not fathom how he gets away with outright criminal behaviour and still has supporters.

I’m a Canadian doing my MA in political science, so I appreciate this post. :)

Harper really grinds my gears. Coalition-building is anti-democratic, but prorouging government isn’t? He is so full of shit. He ran on transparency and accountability, and did exactly what I thought he would – decrease transparency and accountability. Videos of him singing with children won’t sway me either, the phony.

Urgh, I know. According to him, having a government that is made up of MPs who (together) represent the majority of voters is undemocratic? This, from the man who instructs his party members to disrupt committees and who won’t let anything get out to the media?

The stuff to make him look normal and approachable (especially the picture with the kitten, above) just highlights that his PR team is aware that he is a sociopath who can’t be left to his own devices to appear empathetic. Do people actually fall for that?

Anyways, considering how he’s taken away funding for all sorts of important programs already, I am frightened to see what he’d do with a majority.

What up soon-to-be Torontonian! I live outside the Big Smoke but commute to school and work in the city like so many others, living outside Toronto all my life has kind of skewed my view of the country.

If the Conservatives win a majority it’s going to be just awful. More rollbacks of women’s rights, evangelism flying free in Parliament, it terrifies me. Harper was already Bush’s lapdog and thinks he can still be that in the Obama era, I’m so tired of his smug face and his sad attempts to be relatable (see: hanging out with Maria Aragon the other day).

I’m really glad! I had my Canadian consultant to make sure I hadn’t missed something glaring, but mostly I just read a LOT of party briefs and tried to turn them into an overview. I was nervous that the REAL CANADIANS would be all “NO, ANNA, YOU’RE WRONG.” I’m sure I’m still underinformed on plenty of it, but it’s nice to know I didn’t end up way off-base.

Politics are my THING, and I’m really excited to explore a new system.

Leave a Reply