11.29.2005

the vote

Last night Allan and I got our first view of parliamentary democracy, and it was fascinating.

Before we moved, people tried to explain the parliamentary system to me, but I never really understood it. But living here, reading the newspaper every day, and now, seeing a call for an election and the fall of a government, brought it all into focus.

Peter Mansbridge and the CBC team helped a lot, too. Few viewers could have learned as much as we did last night. We were chuckling over seven weeks being called "a long campaign". Of course, when a government is in power for 17 months, you can't have an eight-month election campaign. More generally, the CBC rocks. A news show with context: imagine that.

Here's a question we haven't had answered yet. We've heard (repeatedly) that this was the first time in 25 years that a government has fallen on a strict no-confidence vote. Got it. So how else does a government fall? What other circumstances lead to an election?

I don't have a lot to say about the personalities involved. Paul Martin is Clintonian in his constant jocularity, Stephen Harper is a talking mannequin, I continue to admire Jack Layton, and the longer I live here, the more negative my view of the Bloc Quebecois grows.

Unlike many Canadians, I'm looking forward to this campaign. It will be very educational.

21 comments:

James said...

Governments can fall if there's a "virtual" non-confidence vote -- a vote on some standard issue, like a budget or some such -- in which the government's usual allies vote against it to show they no longer support the government. When that happens, the government will usually have itself dissolved and call an election.

Amateur said...

A vote against the government's budget is always considered a non-confidence vote. That's the 'normal' way these things happen.

As I understand it the government is also free to designate any other vote as a 'matter of confidence.' It's a gamble, but by raising the stakes they try to force the opposition parties to decide whether they are really opposed to the bill, or just symbolically opposed to the bill.

Minority governments are pretty interesting! Unfortunately, a majority government can be a real monolith, since MPs almost always vote the party line. In that way it is very different from the US system.

When I lived in California, I thought the most interesting part of the US system was how the people are asked to vote on everything, and can actually make law! In the parliamentary system, the voting is more or less limited to choosing a small number of representatives.

L-girl said...

When I lived in California, I thought the most interesting part of the US system was how the people are asked to vote on everything, and can actually make law!

This is almost exclusively Californian. They are big on the referendum out there. Very few other states, if any, operate like that.

James said...

Minority governments are pretty interesting! Unfortunately, a majority government can be a real monolith, since MPs almost always vote the party line. In that way it is very different from the US system.

Minority governments are unstable, but they can be beneficial. They force the government in power to think things through more than they would if they had a majority.

When I lived in California, I thought the most interesting part of the US system was how the people are asked to vote on everything, and can actually make law!

This sounds uber-democratic, but it has some serious drawbacks. The current California legislature has control over less than half the state's budget, the rest of the spending being mandated by referrendums. If circumstances change, the only way to modify matters is through another referrendum.

Colorado (I think it was) is in similar problem come back and bite them recently. They voted a "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" in a few years back, which limited the legislature's ability to raise taxes. This is fine during prosperous times (like the late 90s), but when times get thin (like the early 00s), it becomes a problem. Infrastructure is suffering because the state can't raise enough money to repair the roads, schools, etc. Last I heard, a new referrendum to repeal the TABOR is in the works.

Lone Primate said...

From what I understand, it's the first time in Canadian history a government has fallen on a strict non-confidence motion -- which should give you some idea of the blind hunger of the opposition. When Clark's government fell in 1979, it was because his budget failed in the Commons (he was deserted by the Quebec arm of the Socreds who were supporting his government... their reward was to vanish from electoral history).

A government fails whenever a confidence measure fails. Budgets are by nature always confidence votes. But other major issues can be designated confidence motions as well. This is usually done when the opposition and a substantial number of the government's own members want to oppose something the prime minister knows, or suspects, is supported by the public. He's gambling no one wants to go to the polls and risk their seats just to be proven wrong. I recall one of the otherwise non-crucial votes last spring was deemed by Martin a confidence motion. This is always in the purview of the prime minister, since he has the power at any time to go to the Governor General, resign the government, and cause an election (though in the King-Byng Affair early in the century, the Governor General, Lord Byng, refused to play politics this way and, if I'm not mistaken, invited the Opposition to form a government instead of calling an election... that would be just about unheard of, though). Martin will be going to the GG to resign the government today, of course... but not because he chooses to.

Occasionally PMs resign the government when they see an opportunity to strengthen their hand. If they have a bare majority, or a minority, but the polls indicate they're riding high, they sometimes call an election on that basis. I believe Trudeau did this in 1974.

Masnick96 said...

Also remember that by voting on everything it also allows the electorate to decide such things as human rights and funding for mass transit, schools, etc. It can be a double edged sword. Here in Colorado we vote on just about everything....sigh.

Glad you're enjoying the Canadaian process L!

Lone Primate said...

Also remember that by voting on everything it also allows the electorate to decide such things as human rights and funding for mass transit, schools, etc. It can be a double edged sword.

I'm of two minds about this kind of thing. Of course I'm in awe of the power of democracy, but I'm also jaded by just how easy it is to appeal to people's fear or selfishness. I hate to say it, but sometimes someone's got to make the call and make it stick, and face the wrath in the polls, rather than just being the mouthpiece of the momentary will; the bending branches that sway and serve only to give voice to the moans of the winds in a storm. Where would civil rights be if they'd been put to the vote every time? Blacks would still be at the back of the buses and drinking out of rusty fountains. Would black kids have gone to decent schools in Boston, or in Nova Scotia where I came from, if the fearful parents of the day had been able to enforce their NIMBY mindsets? Government should listen... but I guess I've come around to giving a reluctant nod to Edmund Burke's advice to the votes of Bristol: that their representative owes them his (or her) judgement as well as his or her industry. It's a balancing act, of course. How well it's managed is decided in elections.

L-girl said...

Thanks for the info on parliamentary elections, guys. I understand it a lot more now.

Re democracy and referendums, I do think some things are too important to be left to the people. What a terrible thing to say - I agree. It goes against my grain to grant power to any authority over the people's will - but things like (as Lone Primate said) equal rights, or the death penalty, should not be subject to popular will.

That's why democracies need a Charter or a Bill of Rights and something like a Supreme Court to enforce them. And of course people's movements to keep those institutions on track.

Lone Primate said...

That's why democracies need a Charter or a Bill of Rights and something like a Supreme Court to enforce them.

I think this is one of the recommendations of a federal system. In a unitary system, like Britain or France, where the constitution is the sole province of a single government, rights can be more easily abridged. Unless you have a system of approval by referenda of amendments like Ireland has, there are no real checks on the power of the national government. In a federation like ours, the changes need to make sense to people in several legislatures.

Wrye said...

In Canada, the counterweight to the Burkean point of view is a populist impulse that has been most strongly expressed in the Prairies. This was what resulted in the initial creation of the NDP, and decades later, the Reform Party. [Indeed, they share many of the same voters] Since many current Conservatives are ex-Reformers, a lot of Reform's original "short leash" philosophy--politicians directly accountable to voters, enthusiasm for recalls and referendums, etc--has survived. Randy White was one of these, and his supporting the Government because that was (as near as he could determine) what his constituents wanted was in keeping with a Reformist point of view.

The million dollar question is how much of that direct democracy philosphy survives in the current crop of Conservative politicians, and what the implications would be in power. Not that they'd all necessarily be negative; but I suspect there would be a tendency to err on the side of action.

Beausejour said...

As pointed out, votes against a budget are considered 'non-confidence' votes. In theory, backbench MPs can vote against their government, but seldom ever do without making an effort to break with the government first (ie sit as an independent MP or cross the floor to sit with another party -- this latter method is how the Bloc Quebecois came into being). Or if they do, they can be guaranteed to not get their party's nomination in the resulting election. (Personally popular MPs can often come back as independents to terrorize their erstwhile colleagues).

As for the 'normal' course of action -- in theory, a newly elected government has a term of 5 years, but no one (except the loathed Mulroney government that ended in 1993) usually pushes it that far, so in practice it often seems to be 4 years long. (Sound familiar?) In Canada, 4 years is about as long as you can get away with irritating the electorate without going down to a absolutely destructive defeat.

A couple of notes on what people wrote (and maybe an answer to why Canadians dislike this 'winter' election and why most politicians, whether in power or not, are loathe to have it):

Someone pointed out the end of the Social Credit Party in 1979. The last minorty government (Joe Clark, Conservative Party 78-79) would have been saved by a vote from the 6 sitting Socred MPs who were technically their 'coalition partners' (they had been decimated themselves in the 1978 election). But Clark had denied them official party status (with this status comes access to more reserach resources and more opportunities to question the government in the House) and so when the vote came, they merely abstained from voting, ensuring Clark's defeat. In the 1979, they were wiped out. My experience as a Canadian says to me that Canadians in general like their government to be active on their behalf (unlike the general view of Americans towards their government, which is to stay out of their way). Does that makes sense? This 'core belief' is why governments take a vote against a budget as a vote of non-confidence and a reason to call an election (whereas in the US it's a reason to hold a press conference). Well, if you spend too much time on the machinations of politics (ie trying to bring down a minority government) versus doing something to help Canadians, you're seen as of little use. Canadians will argue about how much their government should do (which is really often an argument about how miuch their government should spend to do it) but they always want their MPs to be doing something 'governmental'.

This is also why political attack ads have been relatively rare in Canadian politics. There are more now, but still nothing like "JOHN SMITH VOTED TO RAISE YOUR TAXES!! AND TO EAT YOUR CHILDREN!" like we see down here). During the nasty election campaign of 1993, when the Tories were destroyed, I remember sitting in the newsroom in Halifax and seeing an attack ad on Jean Chretien, making fun of his face and saying essentially "Do you want really want a funny-faced guy running your country? Vote Tory!" I looked over at another reporter and said "was that a joke?" It wasn't -- but within an hour it wa sa lead news item, and it never ran again. Jean Chretien (who I am quite sure never had any trouble with anyone thinking he had a funny face, seeing as how he was predisposed to choke protestors and generally be a hardass) played it up a little sanctimoniously, but the reality was -- Canadians don't go for that.

Finally, you may have noticed that we don't vote for a prime minister per se -- we vote for our MP and the party with the most MPs gets to form a government, and usually its the leader of that party that becomes PM. But it doesn't HAVE to work that way.

L-girl said...

seeing an attack ad on Jean Chretien, making fun of his face and saying essentially "Do you want really want a funny-faced guy running your country? Vote Tory!"

Someone mentioned this recently, in another context. It's a worse, of course, since he has a medical condition that makes his face look that way...

James said...

Re democracy and referendums, I do think some things are too important to be left to the people. What a terrible thing to say - I agree.

"I think the reason so many folk songs are so terrible is that they were written by the people." -- Tom Lehrer

The duck thief said...

Like James said, usually the government falls because of a budget vote. I think what I heard last night was that this was the first time a government had fallen and the vote wasn't really tied to any particular issue.

sharonapple said...

The Liberals took a dip in the polls after Gomery's report -- it was the perfect time to throw the dice and see where they fly. They're all hoping that the dice will fly high... although the odds look like they're going to get the same combination.

If you're curious about your MP, you should check out this site:

http://www.howdtheyvote.ca

And on another note, I'm sad to see Jean Augustine go, especially if they're going to replace her with someone like Michael Ignatieff.... Yes, he's suppose to be a star candidate, but when he says things like how teaching his students is more important than his political commitments, I want to punch him. Yes, education is important, and it's great that he puts his students first... but it's Harvard, I'm sure they'll be fine without him. Right now, he's acting as his election's guarantied, and it's not.

sharonapple said...

"Unlike many Canadians, I'm looking forward to this campaign. It will be very educational."

Get ready also for the election stupidity. I can't believe it's barely been a day since the official start and we have this already:

1. The Bloc is angry at the Liberal party because the Liberals support CHRISTMAS LIGHTS.
http://www.blocquebecois.org/fr/default.asp
Translation here: http://calgarygrit.blogspot.com/2005/11/while-rome-burns.html

Seriously, Christmas lights.

2. Harper wants another vote on same sex marriage.
http://www.electionblog.ctv.ca/default.asp?item=114951

... Are you sure you're really going to look forward to the campaign?

L-girl said...

... Are you sure you're really going to look forward to the campaign?

Totally!

Stupid things that candidates say are how you decide who to vote for, no? Stupidity is in the eye of the beholder. That's what makes it a campaign.

Wrye said...

Um, I meant Chuck Cadman, of course not Randy White. What the hell was I drinking at lunchtime?

So...the liberals are now the champions of Christmas?

L-girl said...

"I think the reason so many folk songs are so terrible is that they were written by the people." -- Tom Lehrer

:-)

sharonapple said...

"So...the liberals are now the champions of Christmas?"

No, only of wasteful Christmas lights. I can see the environmental concerns, but it's a strange thing to get angry at another party for -- supporting Christmas decorations.

sharonapple said...

"Stupid things that candidates say are how you decide who to vote for, no? Stupidity is in the eye of the beholder. That's what makes it a campaign."

That's true.