Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Demystifying The Canadian Election - for whomever


After watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Tuesday I realized that the Canadian brand of democracy and the electoral system is probably something of a mystery to most Americans... and to more than a handful of Canadians. Samantha Bee started into it and Stewart (who actually has a pretty healthy knowledge of the Canadian system), portrayed the confusion evident in most Americans when Canada goes to the polls. So, I'll try to do a small comparison.

Riding. The same as a US Congressional District. A riding is a population area which will send one representative to Parliament. The Member of Parliament is the person who gained the most votes of all candidates running. Other similarities to the US system are campaign funding scandals, lying and smearing the other candidates.

Parliament. Similar to the US Congress. Based on the Westminster model, it is bicameral. Led by the Governor General, there is an upper house, known as the Senate and a lower house known as the House of Commons. The House of Commons is the body elected by universal suffrage and possesses political power. The government is usually formed by the political party which holds the most seats in the Commons. Parliament can be a pretty boring place... until the TV cameras switch on and then it resembles an unsupervised birthday party of three year olds. Food fights in Parliament have been outlawed. Members may call each other names but may not call each other liars.

Political Parties. There can be any number of political parties running during an election. There were four parties in the last Parliament: The Liberals, who have held power in one form or another since October 1993; The Conservatives, which is now an amalgam of three different parties; The New Democratic Party, although they're not so new; The Bloc Quebecois, a regional Quebec party intent on separating Quebec from the rest of Canada. (They haven't said where they intend to take it, and unless you speak french, you'll have trouble figuring it out from their website). With the exception of the Bloc, you might be able to sort out what part of the political spectrum each party represents. You'd be wrong... except if you think the Conservatives have a wingnut element, you'd be right on the mark. Regrettably, the Rhinoceros Party does not appear to be running candidates in this election.

The Senate. This is an appointed body loosely based on the British House of Lords. Most Canadians want the Senate completely reformed and overhauled to better represent the people. Currently the Senate is occupied by party hacks, major campaign donors and out of work former Members of Parliament, sort of like FEMA. The Senate is supposed to provide "sober second thought" on all legislation originating from the Commons. That would work if it were possible to keep all senators sober and awake. Every once in a while the senators get a little uppity and reject a Bill, (before lunch), which causes the Prime Minister to appoint even more party hacks in order to achieve the needed majority. Helluva system. Confuses us too.

Drop a Writ. This is when the Governor General, (yes... She's a hottie), on the advice of the Prime Minister dissolves Parliament and calls a general election. The term makes no sense at all, unless you realize that it originates with a bunch of drunken newspapermen. The actual term was originally DRAW UP A WRIT. This was slurred when Cubby the junior reporter asked a table full of other reporters in the pub when the election call would come. He was told, "Wen 'er ladyship takes the time ta dra'up (hic) a writ. Cubby submitted his story, having interviewed all his anonymous sources to completion and wrote Drop a Writ. OK, OK, so maybe it wasn't Cubby. But it IS supposed to be Draw Up A Writ. The Governor General is required by law to call a general election at least every 5 years. In fact, no government in Canada runs longer than 4 years with a few minor exceptions. The last government lasted 17 months.

Campaign. The same as a US election campaign only shorter. The mudslinging is pretty much the same except the Swiftboat Veterans For The Truth are replaced by the Raging Grannies. The leader of each party is selected by the party itself. We don't vote for the leader... we vote for the candidates running in our riding. (Scroll up, scroll up!). The leaders however run a campaign which is every bit as dirty, slime-ridden and nasty as if they were running to capture your direct vote. It's really very entertaining.

Voting. Federal elections are always held on a Monday and are administered by Elections Canada, an independent body which reports to the Governor General. No other election is allowed to be held on the day of a federal general election and all those eligible to vote are given time from their jobs to cast their ballots. Registration of Electors is Canada's voter registration system, also run by Elections Canada. Registration is carried out be sending Enumerators to visit every single residence in the country. Each person aged 18 years and up is registered to vote. Where someone may have been missed, a person can show up at the polling place on election day and register. Every single Canadian Citizen of age is entitled to vote. This includes incarcerated prisoners. The actual process of voting is not the same as the US. Each polling place has the same process across the country. Nothing is administered by provinces. When a ballot is received from the Deputy Returning Officer at the polling place, we go to a little booth and using the pencil provided put an X next to the name of the candidate of our choice. The ballot is then put in the box and counted manually by Elections Canada officials in the presence of scrutineers from each political party. No machines, no video terminals, no hanging chads and no dimples. And, as cumbersome as the system may sound, it's really quite efficient, producing a result within hours of the last polls closing on the west coast. Challenges to the count are by Electoral Recount (run by the Deputy Returning Officer) or a Judicial Recount (run by an independent body appointed by a federal court judge). The Governor General has the authority to nullify and election and hold the whole thing over again. (This has never happened). In fact Elections Canada works in many countries establishing electoral systems and supervising the election process. While the process may differ, the fun in getting there is almost the same.

Christmas Campaign. Well, this is a serious flaw in the system. An election can be called at any time in a parliamentary democracy. Since there are no fixed election dates, we have the dubious pleasure of exercising our franchise in January, which means the usual holiday season bombardment of ads and flyers is mixed with political ads, flyers, signs and rhetoric. It doesn't go down well with many Canadians, particularly since we don't hold our politicians in the same high regard as the US holds theirs. You do hold them in high regard, don't you?

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