Canadian politics 101


Issue: "Lieberman vs. Gore," Aug. 19, 2000

Stockwell Day may be the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition on paper, but he cannot yet vote in the House of Commons-he must first win a seat. Alliance MP (member of parliament) Jim Hart resigned last month to make way for Mr. Day to contest the Okanagan-Coquihalla riding in British Columbia's interior. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is expected to call a by-election early this fall, although the timing is at the prime minister's discretion. The riding is considered "safe" for Mr. Day, as it would be extremely embarrassing if he lost and had to try again in another riding.

In Canada's parliamentary system, voters do not elect prime ministers directly, although the popularity of party leaders has an enormous effect. Instead, voters elect an MP from their local riding, with almost all candidates representing a registered federal party. The House of Commons has 301 seats, and the party that wins 151 seats or more forms a "majority government," with the leader of that party becoming prime minister. The next largest party becomes the Official Opposition. If no one party takes a majority, the party with the most seats forms a coalition with one or more of the other parties to become a "minority government." These are usually short-lived and there has been only one since the 1960s, the 11-month reign of Progressive Conservative Joe Clark.

Party discipline is strict because a ruling party that suffers a "non-confidence vote" (fails to pass a bill it presented) must call an election. The occasional MP who votes against his own party is usually stripped of his committee work and relegated to the obscurity of the back benches. The leader may not even sign his nomination papers when the next election rolls around. Prime ministers and their cabinets are therefore extremely powerful.

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Mr. Day's rise reflects a deep shift in the Canadian political landscape. Political power has traditionally resided in Ontario, the most populous province with over a third of Canada's 30 million residents, and secular, francophone Quebec with its continual threat of separation over language and cultural issues. While political debate in the United States revolves around the conservative/ liberal axis, in Canada for decades most discussion has been in the context of national unity.

But the western-based Reform Party put conservative issues on the agenda in the late 1990s. The fact that Mr. Day is attracting significant support in Ontario, and even polling 9 percent in Quebec, suggests that he is tapping into growing unrest among Canadians over giving up nearly half of their paychecks in taxes to finance an ever-growing welfare state.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.


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