Canadian politics primer #1: parties and governments

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Canada goes to the polls next Tuesday for their third federal election in just over four years. After Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien retired in late 2003, new Prime Minister Paul Martin called an early election in June 2004, which saw the Liberals lose seats but form a minority government.

After serving in office for barely 18 months, the Martin government was defeated in the Parliament and went to the voters in early 2006, which saw the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper become the largest party in another hung parliament, forming a Conservative minority government. This government lasted until early September 2008, when Harper called an election, in anticipation of a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons.

Modern Canadian politics largely dates from the game-changing election of 1993. The Progressive Conservative government, formerly led by Brian Mulroney, was led into the election by Canada’s first female prime minister, Kim Campbell. The PC party was decimated, only winning two seats, after winning 169 in 1988. The Liberal Party won a majority of seats, forming a government.

The election saw the rise of two new parties: the western-based conservative Reform party and the pro-independent Bloc Quebecois. The combination of seat losses to Reform in the prairies, the BQ in Quebec, and the NDP and Liberals everywhere else, saw the PC government wiped off the map. Indeed, the BQ won 54 out of 75 seats in Quebec, which made them the official opposition, despite running in only one province.

There are five political parties with a significant role in Canadian federal politics today. The Conservative Party was formed in 2003 by the merger of the remnants of the Progressive Conservatives with the Canadian Alliance opposition, which had succeeded the Reform Party. The party is led by Stephen Harper, who was a Reform MP and leader of the Alliance prior to the Conservative merger. The party is the only centre-right party in federal politics.

The Liberal Party is the largest opposition party and dates back to Canadian Confederation in 1867. The party is led by Stephane Dion since the 2006 election. The party is considered slightly left-of-centre, but doesn’t have the same socialist history and trade union links of the Labour parties in Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

The New Democratic Party is a social democratic party which is the third party in most of Canada. It is led by Jack Layton, and holds 29 seats in the Parliament. It has strong links with the trade union movement. While it fills the same role as the left wings of Labour parties in anglophone countries, it has failed to become a major party, never forming a federal government in Canada. It is making a strong push in this election to overtake the Liberals, becoming the major centre-left party in Canada, as it has achieved in some provinces.

The Bloc Quebecois is a pro-independence social democratic party which runs only in Quebec. The party emerged in the early 1990s to push within Canada for more autonomy and recognition for Québécois, with an ultimate goal of independence for Quebec. The BQ has won a majority of the 75 seats in Quebec at every federal election since 1993. It is led by Gilles Duceppe, and outside of Quebec autonomy issues the party generally stands near the NDP on the far left of the mainstream spectrum.

The Green Party assumes a similar position to Green parties in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Due to Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Greens have never won any seats in federal or provincial parliament. The party has stood candidates for twenty-five years in provincial and federal elections. After first polling over the 4% funding threshold under Jim Harris in 2004 and 2006, the party has broken through another barrier under current leader Elizabeth May. The party now polls over 10% in most polls, and May was allowed into the 2008 leaders’ debate after failed attempts by the Conservatives and NDP to block May.

The party gained its first MP just before the dropping of the writs, when Blair Wilson, a former Liberal MP who had resigned from the party in 2007 over allegations of financial irregularities, joined the Green Party, although he did not have a chance to sit in Parliament as a Green before the election was called. The Greens are targetting a small number of seats. May is running against Defence Minister Peter Mackay in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova.

As an introduction to the Canadian political system for Australians, I’ve posted this primer about Canadian political parties. I’ll post another primer on the peculiarities and differences between the Canadian system and the rest of the Anglosphere. I’ll also post before election day with a summary of the election campaign, including last-minute impressions.

Welcome to the Tally Room

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Welcome to my new blog. I’ll be regularly posting about my interests, mainly political issues, with a particular focus on electoral politics and electoral systems. In the near future, look forward to commentary on the upcoming elections in Canada, New Zealand and the US, as well as the ACT legislative assembly election and by-elections in New South Wales.