Resolving Timeline Issues

On the Canadian Electoral System Parte the Seconde: Party Time or WTH is a Minority Government and Why Does it Matter?

Posted on: September 6, 2008

Election news update: The news services say the Prime Minister will take his symbolic walk to the Governor General’s residence and ask her to dissolve parliament on Sunday. Be ready to go to the polls on October 14.

Unless, of course, she refuses to dissolve parliament and creates a constitutional crisis.

Warning: this is quite long, so make sure you have a cup of coffee.

Before I start on this series, I should say: I’m not doing this to tell you how to vote or even influence your vote. Quite honestly, I live in BC; I don’t care how you vote. By the time we vote, the decision is already made. Also, I tend to flip my vote depending on how I feel, the issues of the day, and the alignment of the stars (KIDDING, people, KIDDING). Just vote, dammit. Have your say. I’m doing this because I think there isn’t a lot of education in Canada on How The System Actually Works. What it boils down to is this: Canadians don’t vote for people; we vote for parties. Whoever forms the government is dependent on the concentration of votes in each federal riding.

Pre-required reading: Vocabulary (definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online):

Plurality: a number greater than another b: an excess of votes over those cast for an opposing candidate c: a number of votes cast for a candidate in a contest of more than two candidates that is greater than the number cast for any other candidate but not more than half the total votes cast

Majority: the group or political party having the greater number of votes (as in a legislature)
Minority: a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control
Cabinet: a body of advisers of a head of state (2): a similar advisory council of a governor of a state or a mayor.
Prime Minister: the official head of a cabinet or ministry; especially : the chief executive of a parliamentary government.
Popular: uitable to the majority: as a: adapted to or indicative of the understanding and taste of the majority <a popular history of the war> b: suited to the means of the majority.
Power: possession of control, authority, or influence over others b: one having such power; specifically : a sovereign state c: a controlling group : establishment —often used in the phrase the powers that be
Influence: the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command b: corrupt interference with authority for personal gain4: the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways : sway5: one that exerts influence

Now, I assume most Canadians, Brits, and anyone else with a Parliamentary System of Government (as opposed to Presidential or hybrid or non-democratic), know something about this. Although, you’d be surprised. I spent today explaining to coworkers What A Minority Government Actually Means for Getting Things Done. So here you go.

The House of Commons (the main decision-making body and akin to the House of Representatives in the US) currently has 308 members; seats are assigned on the basis of population in the provinces. According to Wikipedia:

The House of Commons is composed of 308 members,[1] each of whom represents a single electoral district (also called a riding). Law requires that there be a minimum of 282 electoral districts; there are currently 308. Seats are distributed among the provinces in proportion to population, as determined by each decennial census, subject to the following exceptions made by the constitution. Firstly, the “senatorial clause” guarantees that each province will have at least as many Members of Parliament as Senators. Secondly, the “grandfather clause” guarantees each province has at least as many Members of Parliament now as it had in 1986. Finally, no province may lose more than fifteen per cent of its seats after a single decennial census.

What this means is populous provinces, specifically Ontario (106 seats), Quebec (75 seats), BC (36 seats) and to some extent Alberta (28 seats), have the largest number of seats. Between them Ontario and Quebec have a majority of the seats. By the time the election reaches the West Coast, due to the time change the election is decided. Because of this, awhile back a law was passed that news stations cannot publish vote results until the polls close in BC.

Fine and dandy, but if the polls close at 8pm in BC, at 8:00:02pm, the first results are already published from Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario. Sometimes Manitoba. And if there is a majority vote, then the election is decided.

Now here’s the kicker: a Member of Parliament does not have to get a majority is his/her riding in order to win the seat. They only have to get a plurality (the most) of votes. So if 1000 votes are cast in a riding, and Candidate A gets 200 votes, Candidate B gets 301 votes, and Candidate C gets 499 votes, Candidate C wins the seat.

With me so far?

The party that forms the government (Prime Minister – or “first among equals” – and Cabinet – other Members of Parliament who get a minister portfolio or Secretary position and are appointed by the Prime Minister) is usually the party with a majority of seats in Parliament (50% plus 1 seat) or the most (a plurality) of seats. As I stated in the previous post, the Governor General can appoint another party to become the government if he/she feels the party with the most seats is unable to Get Things Done.

Here’s the hard part: because of this system, the percentage of the popular vote (percentage of votes actually cast excluding spoiled ballots) required for a majority government is around 38%. Give or take a percentage or two.

Go ahead. Get yourself a drink (or something to smoke/eat/whatever) and go and reread that. Yes, fellow Canadians, that often means our government is not elected by a majority of individuals. Its all dependent on the concentration of votes in each riding, because the party that forms the government has the most seats in Parliament.

Generally. Like I said before, the Governor General can appoint whoever he/she likes to form the government. By convention, this is only done in the case when a single party does not get a majority of seats.

For example, if the Rhino Party gets 155 seats, it forms the government. And this is where it gets kind of fucked up.

Parties in Canada tend to tow (toe?) the party line. That means if the Rhino Party is in power, all Rhinos vote in favour of the legislation proposed by Cabinet. If the Rhino Party in Canada has 155 seats (a majority), the legislation is passed by the House of Commons and sent to the Senate for approval (usually a rubber-stamp deal), and then the Governor General for Royal Assent (a technicality due to Constitutional issues).

We trundled along quite merrily for a number of years (12? 14? something like that) with majority governments, which are considered stable because the government is guaranteed to stay in power. In Canada, this means that the government of the day still has to call elections but has up to 5 years to call said election. After 5 years of being in power, its a Constitutional requirement to have an election.

A few years back, Jean Chretien resigned from politics. There was a leadership convention for the Liberals and Paul Martin (former Minister of Finance) won the vote. More information on the various parties will be in future posts, however this is the key: at the next general election, the Liberal party ended up with a minority government.

So why does this matter?

In a minority government (a government with a plurality of seats), the government of the day must work with other parties in order to have legislation passed.

Let me repeat that: THE GOVERNMENT OF THE DAY MUST WORK WITH OTHER PARTIES IN ORDER TO HAVE LEGISLATION PASSED. This means that under a minority government, the government of the day must resign if they do not receive the confidence of the Parliament – that is, the Parliament must approve the bill (usually confined only to money or rights bills, unless the government of the day wishes to call it a confidence vote). In the late 1970’s Joe Clark became Prime Minister of a minority government and the government collapsed when he couldn’t get a budget passed because he refused to work with other parties.

I’ll get more into recent history because this is way too long already, but suffice it to say that the last two governments in Ottawa have been minority governments. We’ve been trundling along quite merrily with first a Liberal minority government, and now a Conservative one. Generally, the parties will play nicely together because at the end of the day the goals are the same – its the getting there they disagree on.

There’s not a huge reason for an election right now: there hasn’t been a confidence vote, however Stephen Harper met with the other leaders to see if something could be worked out. Apparently, it can’t. So its off to the polls.

Next up: Leaders, Parties and Politics, oh my!

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1 Response to "On the Canadian Electoral System Parte the Seconde: Party Time or WTH is a Minority Government and Why Does it Matter?"

[…] much in terms of actually forming a government; they only campaign in Quebec so as I noted in the previous post the highest number of seats they could get is 75. However if they won all those seats, they could […]

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