October 24, 2000

It Beats the Alternative..


We in Canada are enduring a double dose of election fever; besides following the US election so closely that one would think we were entitled to vote, we've just entered our own campaign period:
the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, has called a general election for November 27.

The last federal election was June 2, 1997. Three and a half years ago.

There is no definitive mandate for a Canadian government; only the maximum is set at five years. Our governments rarely last that long, preferring to hold elections usually late in the fourth year or sometime in the fifth, whenever they feel they have the best chance of being reelected. There may be other considerations but that's understood to be the main one.

This time, however, the timing is so flagrantly self-serving that it is being brought up as an issue. The Liberal Party must cement its hold on power before the new Canadian Alliance becomes too strong.

Although there is much jockeying for position and unofficial campaigning for a few weeks preceding an expected election call, the official pre-election timetable is set by law at 36 days. This is minuscule compared to what the US goes through, with its primaries and caucuses and conventions, but it serves us well. We even usually manage to fit in a debate or two.

Canada's parliamentary system of democracy mirrors the British system, and there are some significant differences from the American:

One fact that's often overlooked is that the Prime Minister isn't the official head of state in Canada. That title belongs to the Governor General, who, although appointed by the Prime Minister, serves as the Queen's representative. Of course the office of the Governor General wields as much actual power as the monarchy does in Britain but it serves to remind us of our political heritage. Our current Governor General is Adrienne Clarkson, a former journalist.

We also have an appointed senate (not an elected one as in the US). Once appointed by the Prime Minister, a Senator has the right to that position until the age of 75.

We don't actually vote for the Prime Minister as such (as Americans vote for President) but for a representative to the House of Commons (MP - Member of Parliament) from our electoral district ("riding"). Once all the MP's are elected, the party with the most members takes power, and its leader (decided previously at a party convention) becomes Prime Minister. The leader of the party with the second greatest number of members becomes Leader of the Opposition. (He gets a slightly smaller home in Ottawa.)

Thus we don't end up with the situation that can occur in the US, where the President is of a different party than the majority of congress.

What we do sometimes end up with is a minority government, where one party has the most seats in the House of Commons but is outnumbered by all the rest put together. These governments usually don't last long and are ineffective, because they operate under the constant threat of a vote of no confidence. Anytime the minority parties want to get together and bring in that vote, they can topple the government and force an immediate election.

We haven't had a minority government in quite awhile; I think the last one was in 1979.

There is no limit to the number of times a politician can run for office; this can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. There is no definitive second in command (vice-) but an acting or "deputy" PM is chosen as necessary.

If I had written this yesterday it probably would have included yet another rant about how the US media ignores Canada. I've calmed down somewhat since then, but not before I took a small informal survey. I asked non-Canadian members of my notify list and the diary-l and journals-l discussion lists whether they had learned about our impending election through their usual news sources.

Of nineteen replies (not counting Bob, who wouldn't give me a straight answer) there were fourteen no's and five yes's; each of the five who had heard found out from a different source: CNN, ABC, NPR, AOL news (!) and the Wall Street Journal.

Since this survey is by no means scientific, I can weasel out of making conclusions; I hate to give up my preconceived notion that the US media consider us unimportant, but it's clear that there was Canadian content in the news for those who cared to notice.

On the discussion lists the question arose as to why Americans should care about what's happening in Canada (or anywhere else that isn't a threat to them). I have trouble understanding why some think that the default condition is only being concerned about local news and maybe the state and country. I wonder why they don't have more curiosity about how others live.

Perhaps the information isn't immediately directly relevant to their daily lives but over time, there must be lessons to be learned from experiences elsewhere? I for one would be nervous, living next door to such a large country, my border largely undefended, and not knowing, or caring, about its people and policies.

I know not all Americans think this way.. but I'm afraid too many of them do.

Linque Du Jour:   A Few Canadian Links

Elections Canada

Facts on Canada: the Government - a more thorough (and probably more accurate) account of how the system works; one page, thus falling within my attention span (barely).

Canadiana, the Canadian Resource Page

Jack's Canada Page

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