Resolving Timeline Issues

On the Canadian Electoral System

Posted on: September 2, 2008

Everyone knows the US election is in full swing (or it will be after the Republican National Convention which may or may not occur on time depending on what Hurricane Gustav does).

North of the 49th, we’re also potentially, maybe headed for an election as well. Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks that Parliament has become dysfunctional. Over the last week or two, he’s been meeting with the leaders of the opposition parties to see what can be done. Its apparent that he hopes to call an election for the fall. Take note: the Canadian election, if its allowed, will take place before the US election. National news stations are positing October 14th.

Canwest News Services is reporting that so far:

PQ Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton met with Harper Friday and Saturday respectively. Both Duceppe and Layton came away from those meetings convinced that Harper wants a general election and was not interested in finding a compromise that would allow the House of Commons to resume sitting on Sept. 15. Liberal insiders say Dion goes in to his meeting Monday with Harper with low expectations that any agreement will be reached that would put MPs back in the Commons on Sept. 15.

So what has to happen? Here’s a bit of a history and political system lesson.*

Like most countries that are former British Colonies, Canada still has some constitutional hangovers. In this case, the Governor General (who represents the Queen in Canada) is the only one who can dissolve Parliament. Normally, when a bill fails in Parliament (and usually a money bill of some sort), the Prime Minister will make a symbolic walk to her residence and ask the Governor General (GG) to dissolve Parliament. Generally, the GG is considered a figurehead and does what the Prime Minister asks.

However, the GG plays an important role when it comes to minority governments. More often than not, the party with the majority of seats forms the government (Cabinet). Bills and laws extend from Cabinet and are approved by Parliament. With a majority government this isn’t a problem – laws are passed and we trundle along quite merrily for a few years. Parliament tows the party line (or is that toes? I always get that mixed up), bills are passed, and a bit later an election rolls around.

In a minority government situation (like now) more often than not, the party with the most seats forms government.

If the minority government falls, the GG has a couple of options. First, she can dissolve Parliament which results in a call for an election. Second, she can meet with leaders of the “opposition” parties to hear petitions on Why My Party Should Be the Government, and appoint another party to become that government.

With me so far? Alrighty, then. Here’s the history part.

Back in 1925-26, Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked the Governor General Lord Byng to dissolve Parliament. Like the current government, King was in a minority government position. The Conservatives had won the most seats but were in a minority situation. When Byng refused to dissolved Parliament, King resigned and the GG asked the opposition under Meighen to form a government.

Within a week, the new minority government lost a confidence vote and an election was called.

(you can read more about the King-Byng Crisis here)

Now, the King-Byng Crisis was important; it redefined the role of the GG and put that position more as a figurehead than an actual decision-making position. The order of the day since then has been non-interference from London on Canadian matters.

Hopefully this provides some background on the role of the GG in Canadian Politics.

Now, fast forward about 80 years, and we have almost the exact same situation again – a minority Conservative government (following a minority Liberal government). When they came in, they put in fixed election dates (I know! Amazing! Fixed election dates! Whod’a thunk?!). And now Prime Minister Harper wants an election, ostensibly because Parliament can’t function in the fall.

Well, there’s a legal question about this. Because of the fixed election date, unless the government falls in a confidence vote, its entirely possible that an election call will be illegal. But that’s one for  the lawyers.

It ultimately rests with the Governor General: in order for an election to happen, she must dissolve parliament. And you can damn well bet she’s going to ask legal advice before that occurs.

So will we be going to the polls in October? Likely, but not etched in stone. Harper always has the option of putting forth some really controversial bill, forcing a confidence vote that will fail if the GG refuses to dissolve Parliament.

Hopefully, this provides a bit of an explanation of WTF is going on in Ottawa. We’ll see later this week if there’s an election call (probably next Sunday, which sets the stage for an October 14 election).

*I’m planning a series of future posts on the various parties, current status, more detail on the system, and the leaders themselves. If anyone wants to guest post, let me know.

3 Responses to "On the Canadian Electoral System"

Thanks for the lesson – I look forward to the series.

Hey, did you know that I know all of the words to O Canada?

Yeah, GF, I think you said that once or twice 🙂

I know most of the words to the Star Spangled Banner too – I tend to get the last few lines mangled though 😛

And Katie, when are you updating, dammit?

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September 2008


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