A New Era in Canadian Politics

ballot boxThe federal election on October 19 dramatically changed the political map of Canada. Click here to see two overlapping maps of Canada, one showing the seats held by each party following the 2011 election and the other showing the results for 2015. In moving the cursor over the maps one sees the shift from one election to the other.

The Liberal Party under its new (and untested) leader Justin Trudeau, swept the Atlantic provinces, made major gains in Québec and Ontario, established inroads in the main urban centers across the Canadian prairies, and finished strong in British Columbia.

As a result, the Conservative Party has been confined to its traditional strongholds in Southern Ontario and the Canadian Prairies. It no longer represents all regions of Canada. And that is significant. Here’s why.

In Southern Ontario there used to be both “Blue Tories” and “Red Tories.” The Blue Tories (also known as “small ‘c’ conservatives) stood for lower taxes, small government, embraced neo-liberal economic policies, and leaned toward libertarian ideals.

The Red Tories, on the other hand, were knows as “progressive conservatives,” and argued that the wealthier members of society had a special responsibility (a noblesse oblige) to contribute to the common good. They endorsed broad social programs to assist the poor, fund education, and provide public health care. Both wings were housed within what was at that time called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

KimCampbellBut in the 1993 federal election the Progressive Conservative government under Kim Campbell (Canada’s first female Prime Minister) imploded with the PCs going from 169 seats in Parliament to just 2 seats and losing their official party status. Replacing them on the conservative spectrum was the upstart Reform Party under Preston Manning based in Alberta, which went from 1 to 52 seats in Parliament.

The Reform Party was, generally speaking, a populist party representing Western conservative interests. By 2000 it had morphed into a decidedly right-wing populist party briefly known as the United Alternative, then the Canadian Reformed Alliance Party (until they realized that it spelled CRAP) so it was quickly changed to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, and finally just the Canadian Alliance. In the 2000 federal election it campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, ending the federal gun registration program, and traditional “family values” (largely opposing gay rights and abortions).

After severe infighting within the party, Stephen Harper emerged as the leader of the Canadian Alliance party in 2002 (he had previously been its chief strategist). In December of 2003 it merged with the (eastern based) Progressive Conservative Party (which at that time held just 12 seats in Parliament), becoming known as Conservative Party of Canada in what some easterners viewed as a “hostile takeover.” In March 2004 Stephen Harper became the new national party’s leader.

Harper_2004Stephen Harper can be credited with building up the Conservative Party from the ground up; it is his creation and bears his personal stamp. Ever the strategist, and vigilant against the kind of inner-party dissidence that had plagued the earlier Canadian Alliance Party that he had headed, Harper held tight control over the party’s MPs. Everyone spoke from prepared scripts approved by Harper himself, and no one deviated from the official party line. Harper was widely seen as an impersonal calculating micromanager, and he certainly lived up to that reputation.

However, through calculated tactics, thoroughly managed messaging, and more than a bit of luck, Harper was able to revive the Conservative Party’s fortunes. After two short-lived minority governments in 2006 and 2008, he was finally able to win a majority in 2011, and began implementing his aggressively conservative platform.

Needless to say, Harper’s conservatism was very much in turn with present Republican conservatism in the United States. So closely was Stephen Harper aligned with the policies of his contemporary, George W. Bush, when he took office that some commentators have called his election loss the defeat of the last surviving Bush-era government in the West.

The writing has been on the wall for some time for Stephen Harper. When he first formed government in 2006 he made sure to appoint some leading Progressive Conservatives to key positions within his cabinet to keep peace within the party. By the time he had called the election at the beginning of August this year, his last remaining Progressive Conservative cabinet minister had resigned. Other incumbent former Progressive Conservatives declared that they would not be candidates in the election. They realized that they no longer had any place in Harper’s Conservative Party. Former Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers Bryan Mulroney and Joe Clark have been fairly scathing in their assessment of Harper’s leadership and policies.

In the wake of the election it became clear that the only long-term conservatives re-elected in Ontario were former Blue Tories; the Red Tory faction was not to be found. Overall, the moderate conservative faction has now disappeared from Canadian politics just as it has in the U.S.

During his time in government, Stephen Harper fought hard to crush his main political opponent – the Liberal Party of Canada – and he nearly succeeded. It plummeted from having 135 seats in Parliament in 2004 to only 34 seats in 2011, dropping to third-party status. The Liberal comeback under Justin Trudeau in this election was therefore all the more remarkable.

Justin_Trudeau-3After Trudeau was elected as party leader in 2013 he set about giving the party not only a new public face, but also a redefined identity. He was criticized for being absent from Parliament much of the time, but he spent that time travelling the country meeting constituents, listening their concerns, and consulting with a broad range of interested parties.

Trudeau’s strategy as leader has been to redefine the party, working from the ground up, and also to redefine how it operates, just as Stephen Harper did with the party he was elected to lead. But Trudeau has chosen a very different model than Harper. Instead of tight management and strict ideological control, Trudeau has initiated a process to make the party more open and transparent, more consultative and inclusive, and more cooperative and engaging.

In speaking with Canadians from across the country over the past two years, Trudeau has worked hard to develop a new consensus around core policy issues and fresh policy initiatives. He has shown a keen political sense (in the best meaning of that term) for identifying the chief concerns of the majority of Canadians and then shaping them into policy positions that are positive, unifying, and non-polarizing.

This was especially seen during the election campaign. During the campaign Trudeau refused to engage in negative advertising (no personal attacks on candidates or leaders – just stick to the issues) or to exploit the “politics of fear” that defined Harper’s campaign. Instead, he presented a positive message of “hope” and “change” (one which had worked quite effectively for Obama in 2008).

Whereas Harper talked about constraints and what could not be done – warning of economic dangers, the threat of terrorism, and the need to cut social programs while maintaining military strength – Trudeau’s campaign capitalized on the phrase, “This is Canada. And in Canada we can always do better.” (Sounds a lot like Obama’s 2008 refrain of “Yes, we can!”) In fact, many are saying that with Justin’s election victory Canadians are now enjoying their own kind of “Obama” moment.

Can Justin deliver?

Justin_Trudeau-2Since the election results came in a week ago, many people have been asking, “Will Justin be able to deliver on his election promises?”

Just look at the uphill battle that Obama has faced in getting his legislative agenda through congress. Look at the refusal of the Republican-controlled House (and now Senate) to pursue the initiatives he has spelled out in his State of the Union addresses. Look at the ongoing efforts to repeal (or cripple) even the programs he did manage to get through Congress before the 2010 midterms. Could the same thing happen to Trudeau?

The answer, simply put, is NO. Not a chance. And to understand why, one needs to understand a bit about the Canadian parliamentary form of government.

Like Americans, Canadians have an Executive branch of government, a Senate, and a House, but they all operate quite different from the American system.

The first thing to do in comparing the two system of government is to forget about the Executive branch. The highest-ranking Canadian official is the Governor General, who acts as the Queen’s personal representative in Canada. This person is not elected, but is appointed (normally for a five year term) by the Prime Minister. They are to be strictly non-partisan, and they fill what is largely a ceremonial role in greeting foreign heads of state, and providing royal assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Only then does it become law. But the Governor General neither proposes this legislation, not will he or she ever attempt to amend it. They simply give final assent, acting for the Queen who is the constitutional ruler of Canada.

Next, forget about the Senate. Members of the Canadian Senate are also not elected, but are appointed to their positions for life by the Prime Minister. (It’s kind of a Canadian adaptation to the British House of Lords.) Senators do not initiate legislation; only the House does that. Senators merely receive the bills passed by the House and review them (as the chamber of “sober second thought”) with the ability to suggest amendments and return the bill to the House if needed. Most of the time they do not do that, but simply ratify the bills, so that they can be passed on to the Governor General to be signed into law.

House of CommonsThat leaves only the House of Commons, which actually does function a lot like the House of Representatives in the United States. And this is the most important thing to know about the Canadian parliamentary system. The Canadian Prime Minister operates most closely like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.

Like the Speaker of the House, the Canadian Prime Minister is historically chosen by his own party members to lead the affairs of the legislative chamber. (In recent years this has been widened to a convention of party members rather than being limited to sitting parliamentarians.) Like the Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister chooses what legislation will be introduced on the floor of the House (and what will not be considered). The PM shepherds that legislation through its successive stages of debate (first and second readings) and through its final passage. All government-sponsored bills must go through committee (to be costed out and to establish their final wording) before being voted on, and the Prime Minister makes those committee appointments. So really, he holds all the cards.

One important difference between the Canadian and American systems of government is that in Canada whenever the party in power has a majority of the seats in Parliament, the opposition can do very little to hamper its operation. Neither the Senate nor the Executive branch can counter its will. This is much different than the American system.

The American founding Fathers, wary of the dictatorial dangers inherent to the British parliamentary system of government, designed an elaborate system of “checks and balances” to limit the power of any one branch of government. Canada follows the British system and does not have any such system of checks and balances. This means that the Prime Minister has far greater political power than either the Speaker of the House or the American President. On the plus side, it means that there is no danger of congressional gridlock as in the American system. On the negative side, it means that the Prime Minister is free to operate in a near-dictatorial manner if he or she wishes to do so.

A year ago I published a blog entry entitled “A Real Dictator?” comparing criticism from Republican ranks that Obama was acting as a dictator with the much more sweeping “dictatorial” powers of the Canadian Prime Minister (having in mind the way Stephen Harper operated). In that blog I summarized the powers of the Prime Minister as follows:

The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners, are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

So, returning to the question of whether or not Justin Trudeau will be able to make good on his election promises, the answer is – there is little to stop him.

He will, of course, face the same financial constraints in implementing some of his desired programs that any Prime Minister would face. He will have to face vocal opposition from his political opponents across the aisle (with no real power to alter his plans, however). And he will have to face the press and deal with public opinion. But basically, he is free to do whatever he wants (within constitutional limits) between now and when he chooses to face the electorate again in four or five years to ask for a renewed mandate.

Justin_Trudeau-1Judging from the leadership style that Justin Trudeau has consistently demonstrated in leading the Liberal Party for the last two years, I doubt that he will abuse his powers in the way that Stephen Harper was often accused of doing. Instead, I look forward to seeing him continue to operate in a manner that emphasizes openness and transparency, inclusiveness, and cooperation.

We shall see over time whether or not he lives up to the role model he has established for himself.

Photo credits: Canadian Press; Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Riziero Vertolli – Burlington Post

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

One Response to A New Era in Canadian Politics

  1. Reblogged this on MOOMOR PUBLISHING and commented:
    For us, who come from a both a parliamentary system (Ian-born and raised in The U.K.) and an American system (Gayle-born and raised in the USA) this is an intriguing analysis of the new Canadian government. It remains to be seen how history will play out. We are optimistic.

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