1.17.2006

observation and question

Last night Allan and I were talking about - what else? - the election, noticing the differences between Canada's parliamentary system and the US's republic system. One difference is immediately obvious to us during this campaign season. Since Canadians vote for a party, not a person, the emphasis of the campaign is so much more on issues, and so much less on personality.

I understand that Party Leaders shape the party, that's unavoidable. But since Martin, Harper, Layton and Duceppe are all Party Leaders, vying for which party will form the government and which will sit in opposition, as opposed to who will be the head of state, the focus is not on the men themselves. Or, so much less, that to us newcomers it looks like not at all.

You cannot imagine how refreshing that is. Some of you may not realize the extent to which "the character issue" - as the mainstream media calls it - dominates American politics. In keeping with everything else in American culture, it's been trivialized to the point of the surreal. So we're left with people talking about which candidate has the firmer handshake, and who you'd rather have a beer with.

The party discipline of the parliamentary system - the less elastic party platforms - also makes it easier to vote in federal elections. When my neighbours go to vote, they vote for whoever stands for the party of their choice within their riding. (Excuse me if my terminology is clunky. Please feel free to correct me.) In the US, one votes for a specific Congressperson or Senator based on, hopefully, her or his record. In one party you have a Russ Feingold and a Joe Lieberman. If you're a liberal from Connecticut, you can try to unseat Joe Lieberman in the primaries, but if that fails (which is likely; because of the corrupt campaign financing system, incumbents usually win), what do you do on election day?

To my knowledge, those kinds of differences don't exist within a party in a parliamentary system. Again, correct me if my impressions are false.

There are pros and cons of each system, which I won't expound on. In a healthy, functioning Republic, there are probably more checks on power. Of course that doesn't apply to the US right now.

* * * *

So that's my observation; here's my question. It's actually Allan's question.

In Canada, what prevents campaign financing from becoming the corrupt system it is in the United States?

For those who don't know this, here's the Spark Notes version of how things go in the US. It costs millions and millions of dollars to run an election campaign, mostly because of the cost of advertising. Those millions are paid for by industries and corporations. When the candidate is elected, those same industries call in their chits: we gave you this money, we expect you to protect our interests.

So the people who vote have less say in how their elected official votes in Congress than the corporations who put them there.

Even half-assed attempts at campaign financing reform can't get off the ground, because the pigs don't want to push away their trough.

How is Canada's system different? If it is different, what keeps it that way?

25 comments:

Marnie said...

>here's the Spark Notes version

*polite waiter's cough, ahem* We'd call that the Coles Notes version. (Unless I'm being hopelessly outdated and/or Ontario-centric.)

I'll leave your real question to someone who knows about that kind of thing.

L-girl said...

I actually call it Cliff Notes. But I understand those are now outdated in favour of Sparks.

redsock said...

My other question was how do the various riding representatives get chosen/elected? Is it by the party? Local election?

For example, we see the signs up in front lawns for the Liberal representative for our area. How did he get chosen? Why or how would be be replaced?

***

Also, say Harper is elected and then does something really, really stupid/bad. Is there a minimum time period his government has to be in power? How soon could it fall and there be another election?

Thanks.

L-girl said...

Oo good for you, a lot of questions! I'll probably have to make a separate post out of the answers.

RobfromAlberta said...

There are limits on the size of political donations in Canada, so even large corporations aren't able to make the multi-million dollar donations that are routine in the US. Also, parties in Canada receive money from the government coffers for each vote they receive in an election (I think it's $1.50 or $1.75 per vote), so small parties with no realistic chance of winning even a single seat still receive some campaign financing as long as someone votes for them. The Green Party has been a major benefactor of this system.

RobfromAlberta said...

My other question was how do the various riding representatives get chosen/elected? Is it by the party? Local election?

The local candidates are usually selected by the riding associations, groups of party members in each riding who handle local affairs for their parties. However, the party leader has the option to override the wishes of a riding association if he or she wants to "parachute" a star candidate into a particular riding, as happened in the case of Michael Ignatieff this time. This practice has caused problems for leaders in the past since sometimes, the riding associations take exception and don't help with the campaign of the interloper.

RobfromAlberta said...

The Green Party has been a major benefactor of this system.

I should say "benefitter".

Granny said...

I'll be back later but I've read a little about the Canadian system, especially the lack of glitzy advertising and saturation.

From what I know, it sounds much better.

M@ said...

On the funding side -- each election now costs Canadians upwards of $200 million. However, political campaign contributions from any source (corporate or private) are limited, I think, to $5000. And each party receives $1.75 in funding for each vote it received in the last election.

I wasn't sure this campaign funding reform was such a great idea when Chretien introduced it -- the taxpayer spends how much!? But now I have to admit it was a visionary step. I'm not big Chretien fan but this was quite a remarkable policy.

Also, say Harper is elected and then does something really, really stupid/bad. Is there a minimum time period his government has to be in power? How soon could it fall and there be another election?

I don't think there is any minimum time that a government can govern. However, a government can only fall while parliament is in session; they sit for about 100 days a year, mainly in four sessions, I think.

But let's say the government loses a vote right away. That's not impossible at all: the first act of a government is to accept the throne speech, which is the speech that the Governor General gives on the first day. (I don't know that it's ever happened, but there were threats that they were going to vote against the throne speech after the last election.)

The thing is, there is the possibility that the Governor General could simply appoint the opposition leader to the government, instead of going to another election. This would happen if the parliament is very tight, and it's reasonably possible that the opposition could hold the government together. However, this would require the Governor General to exercise power that hasn't been exercised by the office since (IIRC) the 1930s.

This kind of situation prevailed in the mid-1800s in England, when Queen Victoria passed the government between Disraeli and Gladstone several times instead of going back to the electorate again and again. So there's precedent, if very little Canadian precedent.

It's a complicated system when things are close like this. If I'm off in any of the details here, please, someone, correct me.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

m@ is right.

There's no minimum time. If a party loses a vote of confidence (things like the budget and throne speech are automatically votes of confidence), the leader of the party is supposed to go to the governor general and ask for parliament to be disolved. As m@ mentioned, in the 1930's GG Lord Bing refused the request to disolve parliament and instead appointed the opposition. It lasted something like a few weeks or months (I'm too lazy to go look it up). There's really only a danger if the government is a minority though. A majority government wouldn't lose a vote of confidence unless it's own members voted against it.

There is a maximum time, though. A govrnment must call for an election within 5 years from the start of their term, except in times of war. Usually, we never get close to that though. It's usually every 3-4 years, generally when the ruling party thinks it's chances are best. This gets into the debate whether fixed term elections are better. The variable terms prevent those hideously long election campaigns that Americans have, but there is a bit of a "weasel factor".

When it comes to government structure though, it's a lose-lose scenario. The two systems (Republic vs parliament) have different, but equally huge flaws that can always be exploited by those savvy enough.

M@ said...

Whoo! My guess was right, it was the 30s. See what happens when you kinda-sorta pay attention in history class?

When it comes to government structure though, it's a lose-lose scenario.

Democracy is the worst governmental system, except for all the others. I'm interested in seeing exactly how Harper's senate reforms will work out; while I'm not going to vote for him, this is one of the platform planks that interests me. We shall see.

L-girl said...

Thanks everyone. Rob, glad you could chime in without the risk of being drawn into the fray.

The two systems (Republic vs parliament) have different, but equally huge flaws that can always be exploited by those savvy enough.

Made by and of humans, so therefore flawed.

James said...

Part of the reason that Canada's federal elections are freer of US-style problems is Elections Canada. There is one federal election standard, administered federally, for the whole country. In the US, every state has its own rules and regs -- which gave us, among other things, Diebold and the butterfly ballot.

Elections Canada also enforces uniform campaign finance rules across the board. In the US, there are a lot more loopholes, because there are a lot more standards (50 of them, instead of one).

Additionally, I don't think we ever made the mistake of declaring corporations to be "persons" for human rights purposes. In the US, corporations have successfully fought to have corporate campaign donations protected as freedom of speech. That is not the case here, and it makes a huge difference. A lot of the reason that corporations are running the US into the ground these days is because they are protected as "persons", legally.

Amateur said...

Of course some of Harper's proposed election reforms would make Canadian elections more US-like... I am thinking of the fixed dates proposal, which would surely lengthen federal campaigns for no good reason.

I don't oppose the idea of electing senators or reforming candidate selection, though.

L-girl said...

Two excellent points, James.

Corporations owning the govt as protected free speech - what a perversion of the First Amendment that is!

Amateur, I don't get the fixed elections either, and I agree that the Senate reforms should be considered. I don't know a lot about it yet, though. But I will. :)

RobfromAlberta said...

I am thinking of the fixed dates proposal, which would surely lengthen federal campaigns for no good reason.

I don't see this as an inevitable result. While I don't really have strong opinions one way or the other with regard to fixed election dates (indeed, given that we are in for a string of minority governments anyway, it won't happen any time soon), I understand the desire to reduce the power of the PMO and controlling the timing of elections is one of many powers PMs can wield without restraint.

orc said...

The one thing against having fixed election dates is that if you know when the election is coming up, you can set up the sort of permanent election committee to plan your election campaigns (the much-quoted "we don't introduce a product in August" comment from the US comes to mind) and do fire control on the inevitable scandals.

If your government runs the risk of non-confidence votes, you might find your carefully choreographed election season being chopped off at the knees and then having to frantically rearrange your campaign themes to fit around the circumstances that provoked the non-confidence vote.

Nerdbeard said...

What is the attraction to "senate reform"? What real, documented problems have senators caused due to having been appointed? I mean, sure, a lot of them are uninformed, pompous twits. No argument there. But why should I believe making them elected would change that?

The senate is meant to be a moderate, slowly changing foil to the bipolar Other Place. For that to remain the case in an elected senate, they'd need to be given very long terms. I would think ten years, probably more. After all, the House of Commons can go five years without any significant change to its makeup. We'd need a senate term to be much longer than at least five years for it to continue to fill the same function. If we did that, would there really be a practical difference to what we have now?

On the other hand, if we completely cease to shield senators from political pressure and force them to run for re-election whenever the lower house is dissolved, what purpose would the Senate then fill? Why not just get rid of it alltogether?

Interesting tidbit: the leader of the ruling party can be a member of either house, and we have had a PM hold office as a senator. Roméo Dallaire for PM, 2007! ;-)

M@ said...

nerdbeard, -- note that I didn't myself mention an elected senate, and I certainly don't think a senate should stand for election every time the house does.

I do agree with you on the purpose of the senate: a constant, slow-changing check on the relatively volatile house. Long terms of office would suit me fine. The main thing is to give senators a reason to get involved in parliament.

I suppose another possibility would be to tie senators geographically -- I'm more likely to care what "my" senator does on a vote. You can bet my MP hears from me, and often.

Was the senate ever an active, effective body? I remember they very nearly were in the late 80s on the free trade issue, but Mulroney showed just how irrelevant they could be, didn't he?

Maybe letting parliament vote on senate appointments would be a possibility too. At least we'd get some public debate on the people who get stuck in there.

Maybe instead of complaining I should go read the relevant bit of the CPC platform, I guess.

M@ said...

Huh. Here's what their policy says:

- Begin reform of the Senate by creating a national process for choosing elected Senators from each
province and territory.

- Propose further reforms to make the Senate an effective, independent, and democratically elected body
that equitably represents all regions.


Um, great. Okay. So we've got more ideas in this blog than you've got in total. Good to know.

I can see this is one promise they'll have no problem keeping. Nice to know.

M@ said...

Incidentally -- really sorry to split this rant into three posts -- exactly half of the references to "Senate" in the CPC platform refer to things the Senate did that they agreed with. I guess they're only effective when they disagree with the CPC, then.

James said...

Corporations owning the govt as protected free speech - what a perversion of the First Amendment that is!

How aware are Americans of the Santa Clara decision, BTW?

L-girl said...

How aware are Americans of the Santa Clara decision, BTW?

Not at all.

It is known - by thinking people of all political persuasions - that the campaign financing system is a nightmare. Many people know how much corporate and industry influence there is in the process, and how wrong it is.

It's not at all known how it got that way.

Of course, huge masses of people don't know any of this, but that's another story.

Nerdbeard said...

Thank, m@, for the clarification. I assumed that "senate reform" and "elected senate" were synonymous. I would also like to see a more active senate -- sort of. I've watched some senate hearings, and I sort of fear what might come out of that house were they to ever realize they have almost identical powers to the lower house.

Then again, they have released a number of surprisingly sharp recommendation documents in the last couple years. Probably I'm letting a few dull knives distort my view.

If Harper *does* get a majority, and then attempts to use Notwithstanding, or simply votes to enact legislation that contradicts the charter, it will be interesting to see if it's enough to goad the senate into action. IIRC, this senate held a special session so that they could vote on the SSM bill last year, and turned it around in a matter of hours. (Though don't quote me, it's early for me and my brain could be playing silly buggers on this one.)

M@ said...

nerdbeard - Yeah, typically "Senate reform" is just a right-wing feel-good sound bite. Note that the platform does nothing to improve on that.

I do know that there are plenty of senators who are diligent, hardworking, and responsible. But they are working in a system that has been ineffective for decades. I'd rather the system made the better ones more useful, and the worse ones leave.