Canadians just don’t get it

If the political ‘crisis’ in Ottawa proves anything, it’s how little Canadians know about our political system


In the last few days, references to the uproar in Ottawa as a “crisis” have become a media commonplace, as if the defeat of a minority government in Parliament were some nameless peril—and its replacement by an opposition coalition a subversion of democratic will. If the press is gripped by anxiety, the public is downright mad. “I voted Liberal, but I didn’t vote for a Liberal-NDP coalition,” said one caller on a Vancouver radio show earlier this week. On CBC’s The National, one citizen lamented the seemingly unchangeable fact that the governing party almost never collects more than 50 per cent of the popular vote: “When you look at that,” he sniffed, “then consider what’s going on now, I think it shows the whole system is broken.”

In fact, say constitutional experts, this weeks events shows the system is working just fine; the parties are now on a steady march toward a resolution, be it coalition government or another election. If the events of the last week have demonstrated anything, it is the shaky grasp we Canadians have of our own political system—from how the Westminster model of Parliament works, to exactly what we’re doing when we mark an X beside some stranger’s name in a voting booth. “The absolute, fundamental and core principle of parliamentary democracy is that the government must have the confidence of the Commons,” explains C.E.S. (Ned) Franks, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University. If it doesn’t, the Prime Minister can resign or ask for dissolution, he adds. “But before any of that happens, the Governor-General is entitled to determine whether somebody else enjoys the confidence of the House.”

That means the proposal of a coalition between the Liberals and NDP, with Bloc support, fits perfectly within the conventions of Parliament—however one feels about the principal players. If there’s anger, says Franks, it stems mainly from voters’ mistaken perception that they were electing certain leaders or parties when they last went to the polls: “It’s the parliamentarians who decide who the government is, not the electorate. Period.”

For that misconception, the parties themselves must shoulder some blame. Now in danger of setting a land-speed record for losing power, the Tories have resorted to casting the proposed as borderline treason, rather than the standard manoeuvres of opposition parties. The Liberals and NDP are seeking to install an “illegitimate regime,” while Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, wishes to “overturn the results of the last election,” Conservative ads and communiqués warn. The Grits, meanwhile, are painting a rumoured plan by Prime Minister Harper to prorogue the parliamentary session until he can present an economic stimulus package as “an unprecedented abuse of power” (unprecedented this Hail Mary move may be, but given that it must pass muster with a 51-year-old former television host in Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, it hardly counts an abuse of power).

Sadly, though, Canadian ignorance about our own political system predates the current tempest of rhetoric. Last summer, for example, the Toronto-based Dominion Institute conducted a multiple-choice survey that asked Canadians to identify their style of government. Fewer than four in 10 chose the correct one (constitutional monarchy), a result that executive director Marc Chalifoux found troubling. “This is part of the basic tool kit they need to be voters and citizens in a democracy,” he says. “Without that firm grounding, it’s very difficult to make an informed decision, or even an opinion. We’re seeing that right now.”

The reasons for this knowledge gap are varied. Chalifoux pins primary blame on education officials who regard a unit or two on Canadian government in high-school social studies as adequate grounding in the nation’s civics. There’s also the pervasive influence of U.S. political news, which emphasizes the leadership aspects of presidential contests. “We live beside a country that is very good about sharing its own stories and talking about itself,” Chalifoux notes.

And ignorance evidently sows confusion. In an Angus Reid Strategies poll released today, 52 per cent of respondents said they oppose either proroguing Parliament or allowing the coalition to form a new government. Yet 68 per cent rejected the idea of calling a new election, which leads one to wonder what exactly they propose the Governor-General do.

The good news is that we’re all about to get a crash course in the workings of our system—even if we don’t want it. Franks, for one, hopes the today’s machinations highlight the strengths of a political order than has served Canada well for more than 140 years. “Sometime in the not too distant future, the electorate here is going to get another kick at the can,” he says. “In the meantime, it’s Parliament’s job to create a government, and the government’s job to have the support of Parliament.

“It’s a bloody good system. It allows flexibility. It allows a change of government without a palace revolution. It stops stalemates in the House. And it allows for both the electorate and the House, if it doesn’t like a government, to kick ‘em out.”

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Canadians just don’t get it

  1. Great piece!

  2. Thanks!

    Amazing article, well though-out points.

  4. I am not sure – I think there are some people tactically opposed to the coalition because they do not like it. These same people are inclined to accept the democracy argument because it suits their preferred outcome. I realize that the law, and the governor general can show no favoritism to one party or ideology. At the same time, believing or at least accepting the flawed argument of rallyforcanada is one of the few ways the coalition can be avoided (either by scaring Liberal wets, or by providing such an overwhelming opposition that the governor general must relent – I guarantee she would not go against say, a 70-30 split).

    PS: where is that angus-reid poll? I only see yesterday’s?

  5. Very well written piece!

    I think it’s important for everyone to consider, regardless of their political leanings, that in many countries these sorts of problems are ‘settled’ by people with weapons on streetcorners. This sort of political crisis has lead to violence in many other nations.

    Canada’s system of government has served our country well in the past, and make no mistake it is serving our country well NOW too. We should be THANKFUL that our system of government allows these issues to be settled peacefully and with certainty.

  6. Great piece – but please, make the URL more easily linkable. The quotes mess it all up, especially in Facebook.

  7. This is spot on. It’s sad that this is spot on, but none the less, there you have it. I found myself presenting the same elementary lesson in the workings of our system of government. That first and above all, we elect an individual MP to represent the riding we live in. Some make that decision based on knowledge of the individual, other make that decision based on a party affiliation (room for all sorts of messes if the individual is a git), and others still vote believing it is the party leader they are supporting. Party leaders can change (Dion almost did, it’s also how Kim became the first female PM). And the responsibility is supposed to go both ways. An MP’s primary responsibility is to those what elected him/her, and not to the party.

    All that put together means that the house of commons is a collection of MPs who’ve been elected to represent their hometown. If a majority of those MPs opt to work together (in an unexpected way) to take action they feel will help Canadians, isn’t that what the system is supposed to be all about?

    From another point of view: What was stopping the Tories from making an alliance with ANY one of the “oppostion” parties? Had they done so, they would have had a much more solid mandate, rather than this near photo finish they were hoping would take them all the way home.

  8. Asking to pro-rogue parliament without showing confidence of the House might just be an abuse of power. At any rate, the vast majority of disinformation is coming from the Conservatives this time, and I think it’s important the media make that clear.

  9. Mike T.> It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to prorogue parliament. Haven’t people been saying all week how wonderful parliamentary procedure is, and how we should just accept what happens under the rules?

  10. Terry, if you can show definitive proof that the PM can dissolve parliament instead of facing a non-confidence motion, I would be more than happy to see it.

  11. If Stephen Harper does not step dow, he will have won a stay of execution buy. inevitably, he must face a confidence vote. Every day he fights back (using outright lies and distortion) he digs himself deeper.

    Man up, Mr Harper. Take the high road.

  12. An excellent article — democracy is functioning perfectly well in Canada. I’m just amazed by how many Canadians seem completely ignorant about nearly every aspect of our system of government. I’ve read (and heard) many ridiculous statements ranging from “We voted for Stephen Harper, and you can’t be the PM unless the people vote for you” to demonizing the Bloc (whose members represent fellow Canadians and are elected perfectly legally and without whose support Harper would have been toast last session) to declaring the entire thing undemocratic.

  13. Sedition must NEVER be rewarded. I hope the GG uses her prerogative and power to order an election. Let this coalition of plotters face the electorate they have betrayed!

  14. True, how our system was “designed” was for ridings to elect a representitive (MP) to sit in Ottawa and represent them… if these MPs were aligned with a particular party, they can all get together, select a leader, and the party with the most seats leads…. or some derivative there of.

    HOWEVER, while it is true that the electorate doesn’t directly choose the government (they only choose a local representative), that doesn’t mean they can’t. or that it isn’t common practice. I would wager that if one were to ask a mixed sample of voters of any political alignment, many would be more concerned/knowledgeable of the Government’s goals and policies than the goals and policies of their individual MPs.

    For example, a person may support what the Conservative government as a whole is trying to do with the country, but at home in their riding, their individual Liberal MP’s plans are more to their liking. As the system is designed, they should vote Liberal, however, they realize the bigger picture that maybe they don’t want a Liberal government running the country, so they vote for the Conservative MP in the hopes that the Tories would make government.

  15. When you play roulette with the economy, and it has been constantly coming up black, the law of averages tells you it’s eventually due for a long run of red.

    • please don’t go to a casino if that is how you think probability works

  16. There are several embarrassing errors in this story. For starters, Iris Evans delivered her first budget LAST year. The deficit for this fiscal year is $4.7-billion NOT $1.4-billion

  17. Gee wilikers…….wink wink….Why doesn’t she get some advise from Sarah Palin? Soccer Moms unite. Alberta is like the recalcitrant child who just won’t listen. Don’t forget to do your homework: you remember what happened last time you forgot to do the smart thing. I may take quite a stack of Loblaws coupons to dig out of this mess. Oh well, there’s always next time. Just wait until oil is relegated to history’s back-burner and see the mess out there. I can’t help but sense a little morbid snicker under the breath of the rest of us. Lost all your oil dough? Ah…..that’s so sad !!!!! hehehe

  18. wow. just wow. it’s just like balancing your chequebook?!!

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