Congratulations! Odds are if you’re reading this and not legally a child, then you are the proud executor of a set of democratic rights and responsibilities. This means you get to vote in the upcoming Canadian federal election on October 19th. Doesn’t this sound like fun?!
I am so excited to watch loud men scream at each other on television about taxes for another 6 weeks, it is just an incredible experience.
But maybe you are not so excited! Perhaps you say to yourself, “the government blows and I hate it.” This is an understandable feeling if you have ever had some lunatic try to come into your porch to give you a colourful brochure or if you ever wasted more than ten seconds of your life watching the absolute trainwreck we call Question Period.
I totally get wanting to die whenever anybody says the word ‘politics’. I really do. But I also believe that understanding how our political system works is good both for properly articulating complaints about it and also making it suck less. Which, really, is what politics is all about – getting together as a group to figure out how to make our lives suck less. So in that spirit, here is the first in a totally sporadic series about Canadian politics called “Canadian Politics: What Is It and Oh God Why Won’t It Stop Making That Guttural Screeching Sound?”
First, we should talk about Parliament and elections.
Parliament is a legendary funk outfit but a lousy form of government. Just kidding. We all love it and it’s good. Laws are born there and it’s where they grow up and get their first kiss before they leave home to die broken and unloved in the streets.
Parliament is actually made up of the House of Commons and the Senate – the Lower and Upper Houses, respectively. The Commons is where we send the candidates we vote for in elections every 4-5 years, while the Senate is basically a retirement home for partisan hacks and/or political celebrities.
The Canadian Senate was invented by drunks in the 1860s to keep the peasants in the House of Commons from doing anything ghastly and unnatural, like establishing basic social programs or letting women vote. On a good day, Senators will rubber-stamp all the legislation put forward by their democratically elected counterparts in the Commons, and on a bad day they will kill legitimate bills and also steal a bunch of your money. And based on everything we’ve been learning from the Mike Duffy trial, it turns out the Senate is less an independent branch of government than it is an extension of the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s not really clear what good it’s doing us these days.
The Senate is an awful hive of scum and villainy, is what I’m saying. But we are also probably stuck with it forever because abolition is impossible. The Canadian constitution is a lot of fun!
Anyways. Because we actually vote for them, MPs are the people who matter… sort of. It’s the number of MPs who get elected that determines who becomes the prime minister. Despite the impression you might get from the way the Canadian media covers elections, we don’t get to vote directly for (or against) Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, or Justin Trudeau – only their parties’ candidates. The leader of the party who gets the most MPs elected gets to become the temporary king of bullshit mountain.
This gets a bit messy because no candidate actually needs to get a majority of votes in a given riding to get elected. They just need more than the other guys. So, say, a Conservative gets 29% of the votes in a riding, the Dipper gets 28%, the Liberal gets 27%, and the rest go to the Greens and assorted other also-rans. Because they got the most votes (a plurality), the Conservative becomes the MP for the whole riding despite over 70% of voters not endorsing them. This process is repeated in every riding across Canada, and this is why we sometimes (often) end up with majority governments (like Harper’s Conservatives) who get 100% of the power despite being opposed by almost two-thirds or more of the voting public.
If this doesn’t sound very democratic or empowering to you, you are right. The institutions of government set up in 19th century Canada were never meant to be particularly democratic, because the Fathers of Confederation associated ‘democracy’ with ‘America’ (and therefore ‘bad’). The longer we go without doing something to overhaul them to fit the 21st century, the worse things are probably going to get. Fortunately, every federal party except the Conservatives are promising some degree of electoral reform. So unless you are mortally scared that the Islamic State is running a recruiting centre out of a nearby donair shop, or that filling out the long-form census is a subtle form of violence, you have plenty of options.
Just make sure you pick the same ‘Anyone But Conservative’ as every other disgruntled voter in the rest of the country because otherwise the vote splits and we get another round of Stephen Harper, because the Liberals and the NDP seem to really hate each other. Or vote with your conscience. It’s a free country, I’m not going to tell you what to do.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Join us next time as we tackle the witchcraft known as the Governor General and maybe the Supreme Court or something. There is a whole world of tedious federal architecture to explore! Like the Magic School Bus, but for nerds.