Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Accessible Politics: Canada Edition

Canada ParliamentAlright, so let's get down to business. How does the Canadian Political system work? Who are the key figures? What are the main roles? Who really holds the power? (Image: Wikipedia) All of these questions have decent answers and I'll address them one by one. I should be clear from the start that the Canadian system has very little in common with the American system. Tomorrow I'll try my best to explain the American system, but it's far more complicated.

How does the Canadian Political System work? (Who holds the power?)

Canada has a very simple system because of how Parliament works. Unlike in America, we don't vote a person for Prime Minister. When we vote on election day, we vote for a member of parliament affiliated with a specific party. The party that wins the most members of parliament seats or the coalition that wins the most seats becomes the government. The leader of this party or group of parties is named Prime Minister. A government can survive if the Prime Minister steps down, but often an election is called in order to avoid angering the public.

Members of Parliament we vote for are part of the House of Commons. This group writes most legislation and has unopposed power, typically speaking. Their opposition could come from the Senate, which consists of individuals appointed for an unrestricted term by Prime Ministers. Though they have power to oppose, they tend to support the will of the House, acting in the same figurative role as the royal representative (the Governor General).

There are some more complex things, especially related to the royal involvement, but we won't get into that.

Who are the key figures?

  • Stephen Harper - The current Prime Minister who had been leader of the opposition during the last Liberal government. His government currently has a minority of House seats, which means that it can be dissolved if the rest of the house votes to do so. Harper has yet to win a majority.
  • Michael Ignatieff - The leader of the Liberal party (the official opposition party due to having won the second most votes). Ignatieff is relatively new to political life, as he spent many years teaching at universities such as Harvard and writing in the media. Ignatieff has avoided talk of a coalition government as he wants to rebuild the Liberal party without the NDP
  • Jack Layton - Has been leader of the NDP for several election cycles. The party initially got a large boost under his leadership, but has since been in a slow decline. Layton was a proponent of a coalition government, but has yet been unable to convince Ignatieff.

There are of other figures, but these are the main power-players. Several historical figures that you should research if you are interested in this topic are: Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chr├ętien. All are relatively recent, but they are among the biggest names on the list of Canadian Prime Ministers.

What are the main roles?
  • Prime Minister - Unlike the American President, the Prime Minister is elected as a member of parliament. The Prime Minister has theoretically more power than the President as Prime Ministers can order their party to vote as a group in one specific way.
  • Leader of the Opposition - In a minority government, this role is very important as they usually hold all the swing-power needed to block legislation or vote non-confidence in the government (thus dissolving it). The leader of the opposition can also consolidate the other opposition parties in a minority government to form a majority government coalition.
  • The Governor General - is the figurative head of state, representing the monarch of England. She holds authority over the formation of coalitions, the formation and dissolving of a government, among other things. Generally, the Governor General follows the direction of the Prime Minister, but theoretically is not bound by those recommendations.

There are many other key roles, including those of cabinet members, but we won't get into that detail. If you would like more information on the details of the Canadian government I would recommend using Wikipedia's article on the Government of Canada.