Monday, December 08, 2008

Canadian constitutional politics - an FAQ

Canadian politics have been interesting this past week or two - the newly re-elected Conservative party returned with a slightly larger minority share of the seats, but in its first few days rushed to present a budget that 1) could very well bankrupt at least 3 of their 4 major competitors, and so 2) was something that the majority of Parliament would never accept. It also offered basically no movement on the economy. (The funding was the first item dropped when it became clear that the budget wouldn't pass, but the opposition still pressed to defeat the governing party. For the cynical, the economy issue provides a good cover to reject the more important threat to party funding; for the idealistic, the refusal to move on the economy is reason in and of itself to reject the budget.)

But to make a long story short for those who don't follow Canadian politics... our Conservative Prime Minister invoked a power usually reserved to enter into recess after a session of many months, and will hold on to power at the very least until late January, when Parliament will resume with a new speech and budget that may or may not see the minority Conservative government lose the confidence of the other parties (a euphemism meaning that the other parties would vote to remove them from power) and either force a new election or compel the Governor General to ask the remaining parties to form a coalition and replace them. (In fact, it was a coalition agreement between two parties, and the signed support of the other, that made it appear that the Conservatives would be out of power at this very moment had they not prorogued Parliament.) And yes, that's the short version.

Anyway... the ridiculous amount of disinformation that's been flying around his past week made me feel that it's necessary to write some sort of Canadian Parliamentary Boondoggle FAQ, with a focus on the most popular and fallacious statements that are being bandied about by Conservatives and their supporters. This is decidedly unlike most of the stuff I post here, but it needs to be posted somewhere.

The key myths
The coalition agreement between the Liberals and NDP (with the signed but unofficial support of the Bloc Quebecois) that would see the coalition replace the Conservatives as Canada's governing party is illegal
The governing party in Canada's Parliament governs only so long as they maintain the confidence of the House - that is, when a majority of Members of Parliament vote to pass major pieces of government legislation. When they lose that confidence - when the other parties reject a major piece of legislation - the Governor General either dissolves Parliament and calls an election or asks the remaining parties if they can form a governing party that can garner the House's confidence. The coalition agreement that was signed anticipated a budget vote that would have seen the Conservatives lose confidence and was meant to indicate to the Governor General that yes, another governing party would have the House's confidence. It's not just legal - it's part of the procedure.
The coalition agreement is undemocratic
Given the amount of negotiation and political reorganization described above, this charge is more understandable. Insofar as it may distort the will of the people that elected these folks in the first place, sure. But given that Canadians don't live in direct democracy where our political will is directly accessed, the same complaint can be made of our entire system: our vote only elects a representative who may or may not follow through on his or her promises. A representative who might even leave the party they were running for when you voted for them and join one that you despise. Or who may decide to remain a member of their party but work with the members of other parties. That's just how the system works - and if the coalition is undemocratic, then so is the entire system.
The coalition agreement is unprecedented
It's rare, but not unprecedented. PM Borden ran a coalition government for a number of years during WWI, and a coalition government ran the country in the years immediately preceding the formation of Canada.
The coalition taking power would effectively be a coup d'├ętat
I'd like to think that this sort of hopelessly idiotic remark could only come from someone who doesn't actually know what a coup is or means. Was the constitution violated by the proposed change in leaders? Was Parliament taken by force? Was the government ejected by self-appointed military leaders? No? Then it wouldn't be a coup.

The 'Parliamentary system 101' stuff
A coalition that would install either the Liberal leader (previously Dion; potentially Ignatieff) or NDP leader as Prime Minister is illegitimate because they weren't elected Prime Minister in the last election - Stephen Harper was
Strictly speaking, nobody but the voters in Stephen Harper's own riding voted for him. Like I said above, we don't actually even vote for a particular party - we only vote for our local representative. In turn, he or she typically throws their support behind their own party leader, which is why the party with the largest plurality within a minority Parliament tends to govern. (Again, this isn't necessarily the case - though European Parliaments serve as a far better example.) That said, those same representatives are the only folks who actually choose the Prime Minister, and they're entirely within their rights to change their mind.
The coalition has no moral authority to govern because the Liberals and NDP were rejected by Canadians in the last election
Well, given that no one party received even 40% of the vote, we can fairly say that every party was rejected by most people in the country. That said, the coalition rightly points out that, combined, they received more votes than the Conservatives. And since no one is actually able to vote against a party or its leader, that's all we have to work from in determining who was 'rejected'.
The coalition itself is illegitimate because no one actually voted for it
No one actually voted for any specific party - you elected a representative, who in turn is a member of a party. But they could switch allegiances and keep the seat that you elected them to, which is the surest indication that you didn't actually select a party when you voted. Members of parliament do this infrequently, of course, but switching parties or becoming an independent operates according to the same principle - your elected official decides to alter their allegiance, which in this case would see the NDP and Bloc members decide to select the Liberal leader as their Prime Minister rather than implicitly selecting their own.
The coalition itself is illegitimate and lacks moral authority because it can only function with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois
This point usually has to do with the Bloc being a separatist party that wants Quebec to secede from Canada - it suggests that a nationalist governing party should have no part in seeking support from a separatist party. That said, the Conservatives discussed working with the Bloc in 2004 to remove and replace a minority Liberal government, and recently admitted that they that they would accept Bloc support to protect the Liberal-NDP coalition from toppling them. So this is apparently only an illegitimate move if it isn't executed by the Conservatives. Which reveals that it's just contradictory bullshit.

The more obscure stuff
The PM's request to prorogue was legitimate and the Governor General had to agree to it
It was legitimate, insofar as it's within the PM's power to request prorogation at pretty much anytime. Conventionally, though, these sorts of recesses are only called at the end of a session of Parliament (usually lasting many months) or before an election. Certainly, requesting a prorogue after only a throne speech and before any legislation is actually passed is unprecedented. It's also unclear whether the request had to be honored by the GG. While a Governor General of Canada has never denied this particular kind of request, previous GG's have denied other sorts of requests - most famously in 1926, when the Governor General refused the Liberal Prime Minister's request for an election and instead inquired as to whether the Conservative Official Opposition could replace them as the governing party. This said, an unelected official's refusal to grant the requested of an elected official probalby wouldn't look good on that whole issue of 'democracy'.
The cut to the public funding of Canadian political parties was a legitimate cost-cutting measure
The cut would've amounted to about $30 million, or about 0.01% of the total budget. Tiny, targetted cuts of this sort are almost always self-serving or purely a p.r. move. The cut itself might be a perfectly legal one, but the underlying motivations were hardly pure
The cut of public funding of Canadian political parties was legitimate because taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund political parties
In fact, nearly every Westernized country subsidizes elections with public funding - John McCain, for instance, used more than $80 million of it in the American election. The idea, naturally, is to allow any party with popular appeal a fair chance at electing members, rather than limiting access to political power to only those parties that can afford to hire people to fundraise - and who can only afford to hire them because their previous fundraising efforts were so successful, and so the cycle goes. Simply, the system of public funding rewards parties for winning support for their policies by translating every vote into money, where a system devoid of public funding would reward parties for being able to wring the most money out of the most people. I may be an idealist, but it's not hard to see where one system can easily go most horribly wrong.

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