Parliament Hill, on the southern banks of the Ottawa River in downtown Ottawa, home of the Parliament of Canada
As Canada’s federal election campaign thunders on (largely unbeknownst, of course, to much of the world), one is begrudgingly reminded of how little the Canadian public understands about parliamentary government. In a nation so heavily influenced by the United States and all of its presidential glory, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many Canadians have a warped-enough view of their country’s system of government that they actually think they’re directly electing a Prime Minister (and not his or her party) in this election, according to an Ipsos Reid survey.
What’s more frustrating however, is that the only politicians who take the time to explain what is and isn’t acceptable, or even expected, in a parliamentary system are invariably the losers. In the 2011 election campaign, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff faced endless assaults by the governing Conservatives, who claimed he would try to form a coalition with the left-wing New Democrat Party in the event of a hung Parliament. This would be considered a given in any other parliamentary system but Canada’s, where the public’s understanding of how one becomes the PM is limited to “who wins the most seats,” rather than “who commands the confidence of Parliament.” Ignatieff insisted he would not form a coalition, but all the while defended the possibility of one as “a legitimate parliamentary option.” True as that statement was, it was widely interpreted as double-speak by the party leader, who consequently suffered defeat in that year’s election.
Fast-forward four years, and it’s now Green Party leader Elizabeth May who is reminding Canadians day after day on national television that in their system of government, the people of Canada aren’t electing ministers of an Opposition Leader or a Prime Minister, but rather individual members of Parliament who will form a government along party lines. This sound byte is repeated to reinforce the party’s policy plank of empowering individual MP’s within Canada’s deeply whipped, party-focussed system (a quirk that has arisen after several decades of highly partisan behaviour), but is interpreted instead as defeatist language coming from a minority party leader.
This language of empowering individual legislators and dismissing the looming “Americanization” of Canadian parliamentary government is important and needs to be articulated, and would surely gain more traction if uttered by, say, New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair, or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, or Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. So why aren’t they saying it? Because, of course, the idea of a more powerful head of government and cabinet is what they want. “Americanization” as a concept is appealing to them because it means voters care less about centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s office, something that voters in any other Westminster democracy would balk at.
Ultimately, the public’s lack of knowledge when it comes to their own government plays well into the Prime Minister’s hands. Nobody in Canada, for example, questioned Stephen Harper in 2008 when, on the eve of a confidence vote that would have likely brought down his Conservative government, he unilaterally prorogued Parliament for over a month, a move that is seldom invoked, and when it is, almost exclusively by the Governor General, not the Prime Minister. When asked what the Governor General even does, most people living in a country that has one (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Jamaica, to name a few) couldn’t identify the viceroy’s responsibilities (for those unfamiliar with the term, viceroy is shorthand for the monarch’s formal representative in an overseas government). According to a Dominion Institute Poll, a surprisingly large number don’t even know that such a position exists, assuming that their Prime Minister, like a President, controls the highest office in the land.
One can only imagine the mass confusion that will erupt if, on election day, Canada is faced with a seat count as close as projections currently show, with the left-wing New Democrats holding a razor-thin lead over the centrist Liberals and centre-right Conservatives, both of whom are battling it out for second place. Further, it is theoretically possible given Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system that a party could form a government despite coming in second or, depending on how close the race is, even third place. The public may question why a party that received more support got fewer seats, but providing an explanation would lead to further questions, many of which politicians don’t want to answer. If the system is unfair, some may ask, why not change it? Well, because it would be politically ruinous for leaders like Stephen Harper, who have won majorities based on vote-splitting and regional bases.
So in Canada, this leaves the parliamentary concept in crisis. In an era dominated by too-simplistic-for-its-own-good American political dramedy, parliamentary politics must either evolve to take on a more user-friendly format, or push for a better understanding of the world’s most widely-used form of democracy. Or maybe Elizabeth May will win a landslide majority and help us all understand how Canadian government is supposed to work. Stranger things have happened.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.
Disclosure: Benson Cook is campaigning for the Liberal Party candidate in the riding of Ville-Marie–Le-Sud-Ouest–Ile-des-Soeurs.