Without knowledge of how our parliamentary system works, Canadians are susceptible to well-spoken demagogues willing to subvert the system.
By Michael Cumming
Published April 21, 2011
One of the most prominent issues of the current Canadian election campaign is the idea of coalitions. Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, presents coalitions as an affront to Canadian values and all that is right about our democracy.
This absurd position, which has no historical foundation, is not countered in any substantial way by the other parties.
In Canada, the left is splintered while the right is unified under Stephen Harper. The only way that the left will assume power is to become as unified as the right.
This is made a little more difficult in the Canadian context because one of the parties on the left is the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec-only party that promotes sovereignty for Quebec.
Therefore, for the left to unify in a formal way, as a single party, would be a difficult or impossible. The only way to unify it is to do so in a virtual way - as some kind of coalition.
This is not unusual in other countries but is presented as something to be avoided at all costs by Harper.
Harper presents a coalition of the right as a natural phenomenon, while a coalition of the left as an unholy alliance. All evidence seems to point to Harper getting away with this misrepresentation.
In the USA there exists a two-party system. The hard right is now represented by the Republican Party, and the centre right by the Democrats. Both these parties are tireless in their efforts to support corporate interests, with little or no regard to political concerns to their left.
In the USA, the left is not unified under the umbrella of the Democratic Party. It is simply absent from the political party system entirely.
This 'democratic deficit' and limited range of political options in the USA makes it an anomaly compared to many other western democracies, where leftist parties do exist and sometimes have real influence in the political sphere.
Harper wants Canadians to believe they live under a similar political construct, in which the right assumes a natural right to govern while the left is effectively disenfranchised.
What favors Harper in the popular imagination is a basic misunderstanding of the parliamentary system.
In a republican system as found in the USA voters elect a president directly. The candidate who gets the most votes gets to be president.
In a parliamentary system, you elect your local member of parliament. You do not elect the prime minister directly. The prime minister is the person who manages to acquire the 'confidence of the house.' This is usually, but not always, the leader of the dominant political party in parliament.
In the USA, there are profound checks and balances on the power of a president. In Canada such checks do not exist because the role of a president does not exist.
Harper wants to be a president, but one with few checks and balances. The Canadian system is not set up to accommodate such a position. In fact, the US system is not set up for such a position either.
A parliamentary system is not necessarily superior or more democratic than a republican one, it is simply structured in a profoundly different way. It is the misunderstandings of the these differences by the voting public that Harper hopes to exploit.
In a parliamentary system, a leader in a minority situation must work with the members of other parties to get things done. If a ruling party lacks the confidence of others, the government will fall and another election will be called. This has already happened to Harper, in 2008 and in 2011.
Harper has difficulty in gaining the confidence of those with opposing political views. He does not work well with others - especially with parties to his left, which includes all other parties in Canada's parliament.
Harper is greatly offended by the idea that when he is in a minority position, he must work with members of other parties. He would prefer not to have to do this, but when in he's in a minority he has no other choice.
He proposes that the only sensible option is for Canadians to elect him to a majority, which would allow him to escape the 'bickering' and rule in a way unconstrained by consensus-building protocols. He wants a majority in order to centralize all political power in himself and to ignore all others.
Judging by his recent record, he clearly wants to set himself up as a petty dictator, but one who supposedly derives his legitimacy within the parliamentary system.
Harper wants to be a father figure, whose authority is unquestioned either by the voting public or by other members of parliament - even those within his own party. Such an overtly authoritarian and patriarchal politician is rare in Canadian history.
When Stephen Harper rails against coalitions, he misrepresents the basic structure of the parliamentary system under which he works. He is, in fact, making it up as he goes along.
Many Canadians find this political tactic disingenuous in the extreme. They are rightfully worried about the fragile state of our democracy.
Clearly, Canadians need to learn a little bit about the basic structure of our parliamentary system. Without this knowledge they will be victims to well-spoken demagogues like Harper who are willing and able to subvert the system under which they work in strikingly undemocratic ways.
this blog entry was first published on Michael's website
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