Thank you to Rick for inviting me to post this on the Smatters blog! I’m very happy to be guest blogging. The purpose of this series is to give my American friends a better understanding of the political system in Canada. Again, as with part one, this is all from memory, so please forgive me my lapses (and Canadians, please do correct me if I’m wrong).
Part the Second: Parliament and Parties
Canada’s federal legislative branch is the Parliament. It’s comprised of two houses – the House of Commons and the Senate. Unlike the US Senate, the Canadian Senate is appointed. Similar to the US Senate, it is rife with scandal (Google “Mike Duffy,” for example) and obstructionists (Google “Canadian bill C-279,” for example).
When Canadians vote for the Member of Parliament (MP) from their riding (a riding is akin to a Congressional district in the US), they are voting for their representative in the House of Commons. This is the only direct vote the Canadian public has for federal representation; Canadians do not elect the Prime Minister (PM) directly, unlike the election of the US President. In the case of a majority government (ie, one party wins more than half the seats in the House), the leader of the majority party becomes the PM. (Currently, PM Trudeau of the Liberal Party leads a majority government; in the previous session of Parliament, 2010-2015, PM Harper of the Conservative Party led a majority government.) In the case of a minority government, when no party has won more than half of the seats (what Harper had in his previous terms as PM), a coalition needs to be formed between several parties in order to select a PM. Deals are made, agreements are reached, and usually the leader of whichever party won the most seats becomes the PM.
In the US, we’ve had two main political parties (with shifting platforms and party identities) basically since the Lincoln/Douglass presidential race of 1860 (ie, 7 years before Canada gained its independence). Third parties (eg, Bull Mosse, Greens) and independents (eg, Ross Perot) have occasionally made waves, but it’s mostly been Democrats and Republicans running the show in the US.
The party system is much more complex in Canada. After the federal election of 2010, the New Democratic Party (NDP) skyrocketed to prominence and replaced the Liberals as the official opposition party (ie, the party with the second highest number of seats in Parliament); at one point in 2015, the NDP were expected to win the most seats in the election and form the next government. Also, the Greens have maintained one seat through the past few elections. And the Parti Quebecois (PQ), though not as prominent as it once was (or as its predecessor, the Bloc Quebecois, was) since the diminution of interest in Quebec separatism, holds seats in Parliament as well.
So why are there so many parties in Canadian national politics? Well… partly it’s due to differences in regional interests. The PQ addresses interests that are (for the most part) specific to Quebec. The NDP has broader appeal now, but most of their support base originated in the prairies.
I think there’s another reason for the proliferation of parties in Canadian politics, though, and this one should be informative for Americans interested in the development of viable third parties in the US. It’s because Canadians only vote for their MP’s, and not their PM. When a third party rises to prominence in the states, it’s usually because they’re running a charismatic presidential candidate. All of the focus ends up on a single candidate at the top. But the way to effect change isn’t by starting at the top; it’s by starting at the base. Canadians, because they only vote for their MP, have no direct influence on who their next PM is. Everyone knows who the party leaders are, but they’re not voting for them directly (unless they live in their ridings – eg, Trudeau’s riding is Papineau, Quebec; Harper’s riding was Calgary West, Alberta). They are voting for whichever candidate in their riding best represents their interests, which is why regional issues sometimes play out on the national political scene. And because minority governments (especially) are inherently unstable, relying on coalitions of parties, third party MP’s can exert substantial leverage on big issues by deciding which larger party to (temporarily) lend their support.
The lesson here, for Americans: expecting a third party or independent to win the presidency in the foreseeable future is probably not realistic. There are no third parties or independent movements with enough sustained involvement at the base to pull this off from scratch. Because of this, at the presidential level, the most valuable thing you can do with your vote is probably to use it to support whichever big party (Republican or Democrat) nominee best represents you, even if they do not represent you perfectly. If you’d like to support other parties, the local and Congressional levels are where you will have (by far) the most leverage. This is built in to the Canadian system, but not the US system. And this is why it is essential to vote in all elections, not just every four years in the presidential ones.