Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Political Crisis...In Canada?

Yes, you read the title right.

Probably had to look twice, though, didn't you?

It's just that those two ideas rarely appear together.

In the last few weeks, though, they have with some frequency.

You may have heard something about this. That is, you may have heard of it if you keep up with international news or happen to be Canadian. It is an interesting story nonetheless and one worthy of our attention.

A bit of background about the Canadian government might help clear things up. Canada's government is a parliamentary system very similar to the one in the United Kingdom (and many dominions and former colonies of the British as well as this map shows).

In systems such as the one in Canada, the "government" actually refers to the party with the most seats (most Members of Parliament or MPs) in the lower house of the Parliament. Canada's Parliament is composed of two houses, the Senate and the House of Commons and the Sovereign as represented by the Governor-General (more on this below). The Senate is largely appointed and need not concern us here.

One appointed official who DOES concern us here is the Governor-General. The Governor-General is an appointed representative of the head of state in Canada, who just happens to be this lady. The role of the Governor-General is largely ceremonial (as is the role of the Queen in Canada). One duty that is often just ceremonial is the calling and dissolving of parliament.

Now, in a parliamentary system, elections don't just happen every four years. What happens is that there is usually a time limit (which is five years in Canada) for any government in which they must call a general election. In Canada, they just held a general election on October 14 of this year. Read about it here. Before this can happen, though, the prime minister, who is currently Stephen Harper of Canada's Conservative Party must ask the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Commons and call for an election.

O.K., you say, that's great. Canada has a fascinating and British-esque form of government. "Where's the crisis you promised?" you ask, with a mixture of mild annoyance and strong boredom. Well, here it comes.

In the last election, Harper and the Conservatives didn't get a majority in the House of Commons. What this means is that they didn't win in enough ridings to gain complete control of the government. This leads to what is called a minority government, which often happens in systems where though two parties may dominate, there are other serious contenders for the votes of the electorate. In Canada, the two dominant parties are the Conservatives and the Liberals. The other parties that are represented in the House of Commons are the New Democratic Party, Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party.

Now, in a minority government, the party with a plurality forms the government, but the position of this government is never very secure because of the possibility of something called a no-confidence vote. A no-confidence vote is proposed in Parliament by the opposition to the government in an attempt to weaken a government or, in some cases, cause its downfall. If a government loses a no-confidence vote, it usually has to resign or call for a dissolution of parliament and a general election.

Back to our seems that Harper was on the verge of facing a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. Instead of going through the vote, which it seems that Harper and the Conservatives figured they'd lose, Harper went to the Governor-General and asked that Parliament be prorogued. The Governor-General agreed.

Prorogued? What the hell does that mean? It means to suspend Parliament without dissolving it (and thus needing to call new elections). The power to prorogue the Parliament in Canada rests with the Governor-General. The power to ask for Parliament to be prorogued, furthermore, rests with the current Prime Minister.

What has come of this situation? Well, the Liberals have had a leadership change to professor-cum-politician Michael Ignatieff. What this will mean for the party going forward is anyone's guess, but he seems to be a bit stronger of a personality than former head Stephane Dion.

The intervening month, observed a Canadian friend of mine, will give a chance for some heads to cool and others to roll, as they already have. I suspect he is right.

(ADDENDUM: Why did I write all of this? First, I think political dynamics in parliamentary systems are interesting. Second, it is fun to talk about anything approaching political crisis when it involves a usually placid place like Canada. Third, I hadn't written a long post about a political situation in a non-sexy foreign country in a while. I'll bet you're glad THAT drought is over.)


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

I sense evil afoot. This could be Palpatine's play for power.

Actually, I must say, I found this post to be fascinating. Sometimes, yes, I nod off during the middle of your political crises in non-sexy countries with lots of back hair lectures. I'll admit it. for some reason, though, I really liked this one. Straight-forward and kind of fun seeing those silly canucks going at it.

Will Shannon said...

Non-sexy country with back hair?


Well, they have been anything but quiet there. It has been a melee of flaming kefalotiri cheese and bozoukis in the streets of Athens this week.

Thanks for the comment. I thought it was interesting as well.