Canadians just don't get it

If the political 'crisis' in Ottawa proves anything, it's how little Canadians know about our political system

In the last few days, references to the uproar in Ottawa as a “crisis” have become a media commonplace, as if the defeat of a minority government in Parliament were some nameless peril—and its replacement by an opposition coalition a subversion of democratic will. If the press is gripped by anxiety, the public is downright mad. “I voted Liberal, but I didn’t vote for a Liberal-NDP coalition,” said one caller on a Vancouver radio show earlier this week. On CBC’s The National, one citizen lamented the seemingly unchangeable fact that the governing party almost never collects more than 50 per cent of the popular vote: “When you look at that,” he sniffed, “then consider what’s going on now, I think it shows the whole system is broken.”

In fact, say constitutional experts, this weeks events shows the system is working just fine; the parties are now on a steady march toward a resolution, be it coalition government or another election. If the events of the last week have demonstrated anything, it is the shaky grasp we Canadians have of our own political system—from how the Westminster model of Parliament works, to exactly what we’re doing when we mark an X beside some stranger’s name in a voting booth. “The absolute, fundamental and core principle of parliamentary democracy is that the government must have the confidence of the Commons,” explains C.E.S. (Ned) Franks, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University. If it doesn’t, the Prime Minister can resign or ask for dissolution, he adds. “But before any of that happens, the Governor-General is entitled to determine whether somebody else enjoys the confidence of the House.”

That means the proposal of a coalition between the Liberals and NDP, with Bloc support, fits perfectly within the conventions of Parliament—however one feels about the principal players. If there’s anger, says Franks, it stems mainly from voters’ mistaken perception that they were electing certain leaders or parties when they last went to the polls: “It’s the parliamentarians who decide who the government is, not the electorate. Period.”

For that misconception, the parties themselves must shoulder some blame. Now in danger of setting a land-speed record for losing power, the Tories have resorted to casting the proposed as borderline treason, rather than the standard manoeuvres of opposition parties. The Liberals and NDP are seeking to install an “illegitimate regime,” while Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, wishes to “overturn the results of the last election,” Conservative ads and communiqués warn. The Grits, meanwhile, are painting a rumoured plan by Prime Minister Harper to prorogue the parliamentary session until he can present an economic stimulus package as “an unprecedented abuse of power” (unprecedented this Hail Mary move may be, but given that it must pass muster with a 51-year-old former television host in Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, it hardly counts an abuse of power).

Sadly, though, Canadian ignorance about our own political system predates the current tempest of rhetoric. Last summer, for example, the Toronto-based Dominion Institute conducted a multiple-choice survey that asked Canadians to identify their style of government. Fewer than four in 10 chose the correct one (constitutional monarchy), a result that executive director Marc Chalifoux found troubling. “This is part of the basic tool kit they need to be voters and citizens in a democracy,” he says. “Without that firm grounding, it’s very difficult to make an informed decision, or even an opinion. We’re seeing that right now.”

The reasons for this knowledge gap are varied. Chalifoux pins primary blame on education officials who regard a unit or two on Canadian government in high-school social studies as adequate grounding in the nation’s civics. There’s also the pervasive influence of U.S. political news, which emphasizes the leadership aspects of presidential contests. “We live beside a country that is very good about sharing its own stories and talking about itself,” Chalifoux notes.

And ignorance evidently sows confusion. In an Angus Reid Strategies poll released today, 52 per cent of respondents said they oppose either proroguing Parliament or allowing the coalition to form a new government. Yet 68 per cent rejected the idea of calling a new election, which leads one to wonder what exactly they propose the Governor-General do.

The good news is that we’re all about to get a crash course in the workings of our system—even if we don’t want it. Franks, for one, hopes the today’s machinations highlight the strengths of a political order than has served Canada well for more than 140 years. “Sometime in the not too distant future, the electorate here is going to get another kick at the can,” he says. “In the meantime, it’s Parliament’s job to create a government, and the government’s job to have the support of Parliament.

“It’s a bloody good system. It allows flexibility. It allows a change of government without a palace revolution. It stops stalemates in the House. And it allows for both the electorate and the House, if it doesn’t like a government, to kick ‘em out.”

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