Friday, March 25, 2011

Election 2011: Huh? What just happened?

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has lost a vote of non-confidence in the Parliament in Canada. So a Writ will soon be dropped. What does all that mean?

Inside the House of Commons. Looks small, doesn't it.
Photo: steven_n_maher, Flickr ccl
Here's a short synopsis of what happened today, how it happened and what could happen.

Who can form a Government in Canada? 
A majority
The "Government" consists of EVERY sitting member (MP). Common usage of the word, though, refers to the "ruling party" that brings forward most, but not all, legislation. It's a bit confusing to be sure. For example, your MP is part of the Government, even though they may not be a member of the party in power. (This is why there  was such a stink raised when the last ruling party put out notice to officials to refer to the government as "The Harper Government". It actually isn't. It's the "Canadian Government.")

If after an election, a certain party has a majority, it is traditional that the Governor General (GG) asks that party to head a government for her Majesty in Canada. The leader of that party becomes Prime Minister. We do not elect a prime minister, but a party based on its policies. In majority, a governing party can pass pretty much  any legislation it wants.

A minority
In the case of the last parliament, we had a minority Conservative (Tory) government. That means the TOTAL of the other parties seats were more than the Tories. The GG still asked the party with the most seats to form a government, but to last it has to have the “confidence” of the other sitting members. Confidence is essentially what you think it means. The elected MPs are confident in the government to govern responsibly. 

To pass legislation in a minority situation enough non-government MPs have to vote with the government to make a majority to pass legislation. You should be prepared for a lot of give and take in your legislation in a minority to get things done. If a minority sits firm and won’t give an inch it is possible to make it appear that the other “unreasonable” parties caused the election. That was probably, in part, what happened this afternoon.

Confidence votes
Some votes are not linked to confidence. Others are, like budget votes or ones moved to be confidence votes. That’s what the Liberals did this afternoon. They were able to make the vote, with the other parties help, a confidence motion. It was based on the recent contempt for parliament finding against the Tories. You see, the government makes legislation, but parliament governs. Without that confidence, in a minority situation, a government is at risk of falling.

In Canada, a non-confidence motion is a motion in the House of Commons, which, if passed, means that the government has lost the confidence of the House. The parliament withdrew their confidence (ongoing support) for the Tory government. So it fell. It’s gone. Good bye. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

What exactly is "contempt of parliament"?
From Wikipedia: In many jurisdictions governed by a parliament, Contempt of Parliament is the crime of obstructing the parliament in the carrying out of its functions, or of hindering any Member of Parliament in the performance of his or her duties. Actions which can constitute a contempt of Parliament vary, but typically include such things as:
• deliberately misleading a House of Parliament or a parliamentary committee;
• refusing to testify before, or to produce documents to, a House or committee; and
• attempting to influence a Member of Parliament, for example, by bribery or threats.

This is very serious. The Harper government has the dubious distinction of being the only parliament in the Commonwealth to ever be found in contempt. Ever.

So what will happen next?
1. We have an election,
2. Or not.

I’m not saying this is probable to happen, but the Governor General does not have to accept an election as inevitable. He can, at his discretion,  1) ask the prime minister to resign and a new Tory leader take over, or  2) ask the other parties that make up the duly elected parliament to form a minority (or majority) and govern

Either scenario is entirely constitutional and within the rules of parliament. Parliamentary democracies have been governed by coalitions very successfully in the past. A coalition currently governs in the United Kingdom.

Prepare yourself for an onslaught about a dreaded “coalition” we will be hearing about ad infinitum from the Tories for the next month. But it’s perfectly legal in our system.

A writ will be dropped
But what will most likely happen is a “writ will be dropped”. Dropping the writ is the slang term for when the prime minister goes to the head of state (GG representing the Queen) and formally advises him to dissolve parliament. By convention, the head of state grants the request and issues a “writ of election” for a new parliament.

A “writ” is written order commanding the party to whom it is addressed to perform or cease performing a specified act. In this case, the Government of Canada to hold an election.

Parliamentary democracy may make your eyes glaze over but it’s fundamentally important to you as a Canadian. We do not have the same system as our friends to the south, the USA. Most Canadians probably understand democracy from their system, not ours. 

The Tories have used our lack of knowledge of how our government is supposed to run to their advantage several times over the past few years. A case in point is the “Coalition” that was so “wrong” and "against democracy" to the Tories. I’m not saying I would be in favour or one, but it’s not against our laws. No matter what Stephen Harper, John Baird and the rest will be saying over the next four weeks.

In the US two party system (essentially) you either have a majority in Congress or Senate or not. No in between except for the odd Independent here and there. The US government is divided into the legislative (Congress and Senate), the Executive (the President and Cabinet) and the Judiciary (the Courts).

Canada is entirely different, with only a legislative and judiciary, with different laws and mechanisms as to how our government may legally act. The "executive branch" is within the sitting parliament and governs at the majority's will. That's a big difference.

And that is what occurred in Ottawa today.

So, Canadians, that is what is happening. Hope it helps explain what, and a little why.


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