For most Americans, being asked to watch the inner workings of the Canadian political system probably sounds like being asked to watch paint dry.
This is a fair reaction, given that Canada is known much more for maple syrup and hockey than for newsworthy political stories. It's hard to imagine anyone getting excited by a political system which defines its own mandate by the drearily boring phrase of "peace, order and good government". So why should Americans care about Canadian politics?
Well, I would argue that Americans should be watching Canadian politics for two important reasons.
First, the entertainment value. Canadian politics over the last several weeks has been hands down the best drama on television and will provide you valuable insight into why Canada's biggest exports to the US are comedians.
Second, and more importantly, we desperately need your help. Our political system is in a state of crisis and in urgent need of the type of political renewal the US is going through.To encourage you further, I'll let you in on a national secret. Until recently, Canadians have actually been quite smug about the stability and inclusiveness of our political system versus the United States. It's true. Despite your stereotype of the friendly neighbour to the North, we are actually quite smug about our political system. We justify this political system superiority by noting:
- Canada's political accessibility (no convoluted voter registrations systems or four hour polling station line ups)
- Our political diversity (we have multiple parties across a wide political spectrum)
- And our relatively high voter participation rates (traditionally about 20-30% higher than the US).
So how did this all happen? Well where to begin? We could start with the consequences of the failed efforts by governments during the 1980s to address the risks of Quebec separating from the country. Cutting a very long story short, these failed efforts then led to the rise of specific federal political parties which defined themselves more by a regional focus than by a national one, like the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec and the Reform Party in Western Canada. We could also go through the story of the significant infighting within the dominant political party which governed in Canada from 1993 to 2006 which, over the last three successive elections, has left the party so divided and disjointed that its support has shrunk to its lowest level in Canadian history. But all this is arguable and the past is what it is. What's more important is the current political crisis and what's to be done about it.
Revenge Politics. The origin of the current political crisis begins with an extraordinary act of revenge politics by Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. His political party, the Conservatives, has just won a "minority" standing in the last federal election in October. In Canada's Parliamentary democracy, the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons governs. If that party has not won more than 50% of the seats of the House, then they govern with a "minority". This means that on any votes in the House deemed votes of "confidence" the government must find a way to win at least 50% of the votes of the House or they fall and a new election must be called. It's a tenuous hold on power and so in a minority government it's pretty common practice to govern with "cautious cooperation". But cautious and cooperative were not how Mr. Harper was feeling just weeks after failing for a second time to win a political majority for his party and smack dab in the middle of the most profound economic downturn in Canada since the Great Depression. Instead, the Prime Minister chose to use an address usually reserved for an update on the state of the economy, his fall economic update, as the mechanism for a brazen bid to cripple the operations of the opposition parties. Ignoring the economic issues completely, Mr. Harper instead proposed the elimination of a public funding feature for federal parties which has accounted for up to 60% of his opposition's operational funding. It was a direct partisan attack which the Prime Minister calculated he would be able to push through given the weakened state of the opposition after the recent election.
Coalition Pact with "Socialists and Separatists": The Prime Minister had calculated badly on his gambit and the result was to set off a series of hurried closed door meetings amongst the opposition parties which culminated in a Coalition forming. This Coalition collected around two fundamental concepts; that the opposition parties would act together to vote down the government within the week, and that they would put a Coalition government plan forward as a viable alternative to having another election. You see, in the Canadian political system, if a minority government loses the confidence of the House, it is the prerogative of the Governor General (the Queen's appointed representative in Canada) to look for alternatives within the House before calling a new election (don't worry, I'll get to the Queen in a minute). The main controversy was the proposed participants in the Coalition. At the moment, the third largest political party in the House of Commons is the Bloc Quebecois, a party specific to the province of Quebec and with the mandate of having Quebec separate from Canada. The irony of this has been spoken about at length, so I'll leave it for now, but what this meant is that the coalition being proposed therefore had to include the support of this separatist party. Further, it was to be led by Stephane Dion, the highly unpopular leader of the second largest party in the House, the Liberal Party. His major accomplishment in the last election was to drive his party's share of the popular vote to its lowest level in Canadian history and as a result had just announced his pending resignation. Mr. Dion was joined by Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party, which by US standards would likely be called Canada's "socialist" party. So, at best, the Coalition was proposing an unelected government of the strangest bedfellows.
The Prime Minister Asks to Shut Down Parliament: Facing certain defeat in the House, the Prime Minister had only one option, to avoid a vote in the House which would result in the government falling. The only way to do that would be to "prorogue" the House completely. If this word is new to you, don't worry, it was for most Canadians as well. It literally means to shut Parliament down. In order to enact this drastic action, the Prime Minister would need to take his request right to the top of the Canadian political hierarchy, to the Queen.
The Queen Decides the Fate of the Nation: You see, as a nod to our Commonwealth tradition in Canada, our actual head of state is not the Prime Minister but actually the Queen, or more precisely, the Queen's appointed representative, the Governor General. Now in practice, this position is really just a tea-party throwing ceremonial figurehead who rubber stamps all the legislation passed over from the Houses of Parliament and hands out special awards on important occasions. That said, in times of real trouble, this position actually holds some power and in this case, she held all the power to decide on the Prime Minister's request. So on this particular snowy Thursday in Ottawa, the Prime Minister put on his best tap shoes and literally crossed the street from his residence to hers to ask for the unprecedented ability to lock the doors of Parliament until his Party could get their budget together and open back up in January for a vote. After much speculation and a two hour meeting, she agreed to this unprecedented request and the Prime Minister shut down Parliament denying the Coalition the ability to bring down the government.
The Video Debacle that takes Down a Leader: In the middle of this political crisis, the Prime Minister had requested national airtime to get his key messages to the people of Canada. The Liberal Leader, the proposed leader of the Coalition, was granted a similar request. It was the opportunity for both leaders to speak directly to the Canadian people to help them to sort out the political mess and win over a confused population. The Prime Minister's address was slick, calculated and aired on time on national television. The Liberal leader's video address was late arriving and had a web-cam video quality to it akin to the Chris Croker Britney plea. It will likely go down in history as the biggest mistake of his political career and was such an embarrassment for the Liberal Party that they made the unprecedented move to remove Dion as the leader shortly after the prorogation decision and to appoint a new interim leader of the Party. The new leader, author, historian and professor, Michael Ignatieff, will remain the interim leader until the Party can officially coronate him in May, in what was supposed to have been a competitive leadership election. It was a drastic and undemocratic measure which underscores the desperation of the times and of the Liberal Party. Interestingly for Americans, Ignatieff has spent much of the last 20 years in the US and was most recently a professor at Harvard University.
So now the stage is set for Act II, Scene III. The Prime Minister has bought himself until late January before having to face his Parliament again, this time to vote on a proper annual budget. When he does this, he will be staring across the aisle at a stronger Liberal party and likely a weaker coalition (the new Liberal leader is guarded on the topic). No one really knows what will happen in this next sitting of Parliament; maybe a temporary peace, maybe a long series of threats and stand-offs leading to an eventual dissolution of parliament and a new election.
One thing is for certain, this veritable gong show in and around the House of Commons will likely only deepen the real political crisis in Canada. While this recent series of events may have been entertaining, it also served to highlight the significantly more concerning issues in our political system right now. Put simply, there is a growing dissonance between performance and expectation of performance in our elected representatives. The evidence is on every talk show in the nation but it is no clearer than in looking at the polls themselves.
The 2008 election hit a record low for voter turnout in Canada and officially had our two nation's registered voter turnout percentages cross paths, with the US actually surpassing Canada. Fewer voters than ever before are showing up to Canadian elections and an alarmingly low percentage of young voters are getting engaged in the political process. It is the exact opposite trend to the US over the last 10 years. While America is going through a political renaissance, Canada has been going through a political dark age and with situations like the current one, it's hard to imagine a fast turnaround.
So this takes us back to the main point of the article, why Americans should be following Canadian politics right now?
First, follow us for the entertainment of watching a political system producing great drama at the moment. In the process, you will learn more about us as a nation and you will be better able to laugh with our comedians as they parody our political foibles as we do with your comedians (many of whom were originally ours by the way).
More importantly though, follow us so as to offer advice on a path forward which reengages our nation in ways similar to what you have struggled though. There is no more important work for a nation than maintaining a healthy political democracy and we need help.