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View From The North
September 30, 2008

Northern Rumbles: A Canadian Federal Election Begins
by Mark Wegierski

[Start of a new era?]

On Sunday, September 7, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper went to Governor-General Michaelle Jean to request the calling of an election on October 14, the Tuesday after the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday. Formally-speaking, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, and Queen Elizabeth II (represented in Canada by the Governor-General) is the Head of State. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government – the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons and a Member of Parliament (MP). In the parliamentary system, executive and legislative powers are conjoined in the House of Commons.

The Canadian system has no set dates for elections, although Harper had made an earlier half-hearted attempt to legislate the date for October 2009. Constitutionally, an election has to be called after five years, or at any earlier time that the Prime Minister wishes. Some have criticized the ability of the Prime Minister to call an election at a presumably propitious moment as an unfair electoral advantage. However, when the governing party does not hold over half of the seats in the House of Commons, an election can occur anytime when an important government bill such as the budget is defeated. When the House of Commons is in session, the opposition parties can also propose a specific motion of non-confidence, the passage of which requires the calling of an election.

The Canadian Upper House or Senate consists of senators appointed for life (or more recently, with a mandatory retirement age of 75) by the Prime Minister. This has usually meant a huge preponderance of Liberals in the Senate, although the Senate’s powers are rather minor. Proposals have been made to strengthen the role of the Senate in the Canadian polity by direct election of the Senate, with increased representation from Western Canada.

Political Parties
Since the federal election of January 23, 2006, the Conservatives have held a minority government (now at 127 seats out of 308) – one of the longest-serving minority governments in the history of the federal parliament. Harper was certainly adroit in maneuvering to maintain his government, enjoying intermittent support or merely abstention from votes among the three opposition parties:
• Liberals (95 seats)
• New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s socialist “third party”) (30 seats)
• Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatists (48 seats).

The Green Party, which received about 4 percent of the vote in the 2006 election, recently gained its first MP, a back-bench defector from the Liberals. Although the Party discipline for MPs who wish to remain within their Party is usually quite tight, the House of Commons rules permit MPs to change their party allegiance or become independents. They then vote as MPs of the party they joined or as independents; in the next general election, they would have to run under the banner of their newly chosen affiliation.

There were three independent MPs in the just-dissolved federal parliament, as well as four vacant seats. Vacancies are usually created when a sitting MP chooses to resign his seat. By-elections have to be scheduled to fill a vacant seat when a general election appears to be more than year away.

At the federal level, the country is subdivided geographically into 308 ridings from which MPs are elected. Thus, smaller parties whose votes are widely scattered across the country tend to do poorly; however, geographically concentrated parties such as the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec can win comparatively large numbers of seats. The federal electoral system has tended to produce majority governments, as 40 percent of the popular vote can in most circumstances deliver a majority (155 seats or more) in the federal parliament.

Canada has 10 provinces and three northern territories. The provinces each have their own premiers and legislatures and, in most cases, are larger than typical American states. Ontario, for example, has about one-third of the country’s population, and it is almost impossible for a federal government to be formed without winning a substantial portion of Ontario voters.

Federal Liberal Hegemony
Canadian federal politics since 1896 have basically been characterized by the electoral hegemony of the Liberal Party, with a few Conservative interludes. Until 1984, this hegemony was based on the virtually monolithic support the Liberal Party received from Quebec voters, combined with what was usually a minority of votes from English-speaking Canada.

In the 1990s, when the Bloc Quebecois emerged to capture most of the Quebec vote, the Liberals enjoyed overwhelming support in Ontario. In the 2004 and 2006 elections, the Conservatives were able to gain substantial support in Ontario and won 10 seats in Quebec in 2006; however, they remained shut out of Toronto.

Few remember today that, before the 1960s, Toronto had been nicknamed “Tory Toronto.” The reduction of what was once this conservative bastion was largely a consequence of a deliberate Liberal strategy of a multifaceted cultural war against tradition. Even today, some like to sneer at the Toronto of the 1950s, for example, by repeating the snide comment that you could fire a cannon down the city’s main street on Sunday and not hit anyone (because everyone was at church!). The Harper Tories were also shut out of Montreal and Vancouver in 2006 — two other large, very multicultural cities. Since the 1960s, the federal Liberals have rather successfully and unabashedly practiced “activist,” “transformational” politics to maintain themselves almost perpetually in power.

Given the current hostility of most of Toronto — the main media, cultural, and commercial “node” and hub of Canada – as well as of some other major urban centers — to the Conservatives, Harper faces an extraordinarily difficult challenge in this election. Ours is an age where urban centers are highly accentuated in the social and cultural landscape, with the result that the values of a few trendy and/or grungy neighborhoods in Toronto are projected onto Canada as a whole. Despite the vast hinterlands of the country, 65 percent of Canada’s population lives in its 30 largest metropolitan areas; 40 percent lives in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary; and 25 percent lives in Toronto or Montreal.

Will it ever become possible for Harper to begin to temper some of the long-term and now very deeply ingrained trends of Canadian politics? Or will there be, in the end, little more than another Conservative interlude, after which the Liberals will come roaring back to office, stronger and more confident than ever?

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View From The North is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Please forward this copyright info and links when sending to friends and colleagues.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas, Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.

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