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A Tale of Two Elections

07-Sep-08 10:39 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Both Canada and the United States of America are experiencing federal election campaigns as of today (with Canada the late entry).  Although there are some great differences in the process, there are some similarities in the choices the people of these two nations are facing and the outcomes of both will affect Canadians to some extent.


United States

Campaign Length

36 days (Although in 2006, the currently-governing Conservative Party created a "fixed date" election law, which it subsequently ignored in calling an election on September 7, 2008 arguing that the law didn’t apply to a "minority government situation".)

60 days (Although both major political parties in the U.S., both the Democrats and the Republicans spend and campaign heavily for months in advance of the official campaign period because of the system of primaries each party holds in every state during the year leading up to election day.)

Government Structure

  • Parliamentary federal democracy
  • Constitutional monarchy
  • Bicameral legislature
  • Elected representatives assemble lower house with government (cabinet, privy council) formed by party winning most seats, led by the Prime Minister
  • Canadian Senators are not elected, but are appointed by government instead until age 75 or retirement
  • Congressional federal democracy
  • Constitutional republic
  • Bicameral legislature
  • Elected representatives assemble both houses with government (cabinet) formed by party winning the Presidency
  • President elected by the Electoral College, to which representatives are elected from every state by means of a popular vote
  • The slate of Electoral College electors (affiliated by party) which receives the most votes in an individual state wins resulting in all that state’s delegates going to an individual Presidential candidate
Major Political Parties

  • Conservative Party (centre-right)
  • Liberal Party (centre)
  • New Democratic Party (left-wing)
  • Green Party (centre-left, environmentlist party)
  • Bloc Québecois (centre-left, Québec sepratist party)
  • Republican Party (right-wing)
  • Democratic Party (centre-right)
Political Leadership

  • Dion, Stéphane (Liberal)
  • Duceppe, Gilles (Bloc Québecois)
  • Harper, Stephen (Conservative)
  • Layton, Jack (New Democrat)
  • May, Elizabeth (Green)
  • McCain, John (Republican)
  • Nader, Ralph (Independent)*
  • Obama, Barack (Democrat)

* Nader doesn’t represent a party, but remains a relevant contender for President.

Major Issues

  • Environment
  • Leadership
  • Economy
  • Conflict in Afghanistan
  • Election Call (specifically, whether election call was necessary)
  • Economy
  • Energy Policy (specifically, gas prices / shortage)
  • Leadership (specifically, experience)
  • Health Care Coverage
  • Conflict in Iraq
  • War on Terror

What’s happened in Canada reflects the dynamics of American politics to a degree, in that the contrast (and rhetoric) between the two major political parties in each country has grown more and more shrill and tense in the past few years.  Although some apparent effort to turn down the rhetoric a notch has been made by both camps in U.S. politics, the reality remains that there’s very real animosity between them.  This was never really the case in Canada, but it’s getting to be more that way now.  And there’s more angst here than could be accounted for by opposing sides simply adhering to any concept of party loyalty.

However, these differences in ideology have resulted in two very different platforms being presented to the people of both nations: starting with the issue of the environment, but certainly not ending there.  Differences between their respective right-wing counterparts in economic and foreign policies have the Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the United States singing the same tune much of the time.  Although, there’s no doubt that Democrats in the United States could never get away with putting together an equivalent to the Liberal’s "Green Shift" policy during an election campaign.  As a leading industrial power, the American electorate faced with a taxation on carbon emissions would flock back to the Republican Party – even if it meant giving George W. Bush a third term.

One thing that Canada has never had (and we will hopefully remain without) is race politics.  At least, to the extent they appear in American politics.  In the United States, much is being made of Obama Barack being the first apparently black person to stand for the Presidency.  And although I read on one forum by an American clearly ignorant of the situation in Canada asking "why haven’t [we in Canada] had any non-white Prime Ministers?  Haven’t seen too many of those," he added.  While this is perfectly true, the fact remains that Canadian politics do remain a little overly grounded in their heritage (and, indeed, there have been no non-white Prime Ministers), Canada’s head-of-state, the Governor General is a black woman.  And while one could further argue she isn’t elected (as if that diminished the accomplishment involved somehow), the Canadian Prime Minister isn’t elected directly in any event so the comparison is a little jaded.  Minorities are under-represented in Parliament generally too, but looking at the U.S. Congress I’d say both nations still have work to do in this area.

One other difference is the fixed election date – which is an issue in the Canadian election this time around.  The Prime Minister got the Governor General to dissolve Parliament while it was still in summer recess, which itself is okay.  But this was a minority government (meaning that the governing Conservative Party didn’t have a majority of the seats in the House of Commons) and typically it’s the opposition parties that would gang up on the government to topple it.  Fearing this might happen (among other issues), the Conservatives actually pulled the plug on their own in an effort to make the opposition Liberal Party seem weaker while arguing that Parliament was being dysfunctional.  However, in doing so the government also ignored its own "fixed date" law it introduced shortly after the last election.  The law apparently provided clauses to allow the government to call an election in a minority government situation, but had made much of its law and adhering to the fixed date even with the minority government in place over the past couple of years.  Part of the Canadian electorate will inevitably feel that government broke its word, but only time will tell whether this will become a large enough issue to matter in the voting booth.

Unlike the American campaign, Canada’s election campaign was called just today and so is in its infancy.  That means, without fixed dates, our elections tend to have a lot less money spent on them – one thing I fear will change should another majority government ever be formed.  In United States, hundreds of millions are poured into campaigns over the course of the nearly two-year-long ordeal, while in Canada a few million usually is sufficient to do anything and everything that needs to be done in a campaign.  At least, up until now.

It makes a difference, too.  Especially since in Canada the Liberal Party’s membership rolls have suffered in the wake of a corruption scandal in the previous election and the party is in some financial difficulty at the moment hobbling its ability to get the message out.

That message has a lot to do with the environment this time around – the #1 issue with the Canadian electorate.  Yet on the other hand, the obvious threat to the economy that major changes in energy policy extend have many Canadians worried – particularly given weakness in the American economy which Canada has escaped up until now.  Indeed, one major reason the Conservatives caused this election could have been knowledge that the Canadian economy is about to be seriously dragged down by the failing American economy which typically makes it harder for the government to win elections.

My question to people has been "if the environment is so darned important, shouldn’t we be willing to endure some short-term financial hardship?"  Even those who consider themselves environmentally conscious are having a hard time actually making the decision to risk higher fuel prices in order to get a cleaner environment – which could be the Liberal’s undoing, since a carbon tax is the centre-piece of their platform.  Even more worrisome to the Liberals, almost 20% of those polled recently said the Conservative plan for the environment was the best one (the Liberals polled in at 21%, NDP 20% and Green Party 20%).  This was a bit shocking to me since environmental groups have been rather vocally opposed to the Conservatives’ environment policy going to great lengths to point out their "intensity targets" approach is completely irrelevant to safeguarding the environment.

So there are two very different visions being presented to the people of each country this election.  A tough fight ahead for governing parties in both countries too.  Looks like for those of us political junkies, the next couple months will be interesting indeed!

Categories: News and politics
  1. R. Ross
    30-Jan-09 11:20 pm EDT at 11:20 pm EDT

    Above I\’d made the comment that, in Canada, the government is formed by the party winning the most seats and the Prime Minister is the leader of that party. While thisis normally true, there is one key exception which has come into play in Canadian politics recently. The appointed Governor General who both serves as the representative of the Queen in Canada and is, constitutionally, the \’head of state\’ can ask the leader of the opposition party to form a government despite not having won the most seats in a general election. This would occur if the leader of the opposition has somehow won the "confidence of the House"; in other words, if (s)he has won the support of enough opposition members so that the combined numbers backing the leader of the opposition is greater than the number of seats held by the Prime Minister\’s party in the House of Commons.Of course, these circumstances can only occur in a Minority Government situation – a Majority Government means one party has won more than half the seats in the House of Commons, so losing a motion of non-confidence (as described above) is numerically impossible without some kind of bizzare revolt within the governing party itself. The Governor General would also need to deem it impractical to call a general election to resolve the matter. Such conditions occurred late in 2008 and again in early 2009 when the opposition Liberals threatened to bring down the government on a motion of non-confidence. However, the crisis was ultimately resolved when the governing Conservative party made concessions to the Liberals on the federal budget.


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