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Canadian Minority Government Blues

With all the attention being paid in the press to the American presidential election campaign in recent months, occasionally my thoughts turn to the possibility of a federal election in Canada. However, with neither of the two major political parties able to capture the public's imagination sufficiently to attract enough support to be sure of winning a majority government if an election were held today, the chances of one before fall 2008 are slim to non- existent. The latest poll results show the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Liberal Party virtually neck and neck in terms of popular vote (they are separated in the polls by exactly the three per cent margin of error) so its doubtful either one of them would be willing to risk putting their popularity to the test.

I suppose that before going any further as brief an explanation as possible is required about Canada's parliamentary style of government. Unlike the American system where you elect your president independent of your representatives, our prime minister is the leader of the political party that elects the most representatives during an election. The country has been divided into electoral districts according to population known as ridings. Each riding is contested by a representative from each of the major parties and the winner is awarded a seat in the House of Commons - the Canadian parliament. The party winning the most seats forms the government and its leader becomes prime minister.

Canada currently has four political parties with seats in the House of Commons, and while the Conservatives won the most in the last election they did not succeed in obtaining a majority and formed what is known as a minority government. Most of the time when a party doesn't have sufficient seats, which translate into votes, to pass legislation without the assistance of another party they are forced to make compromises in policy if they want to accomplish anything. For if an important piece of legislation, like a budget, is defeated in the House of Commons when it comes to a vote, the government is forced to call an election.

The current Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Steven Harper has been an exception to that rule because for almost the first two years of their reign the largest opposition party, The Liberal Party, was without a permanent leader, and were not in a position to contest an election. Even now, almost a year after their new leader, Stephane Dion, was elected, they have failed to capture the public's imagination sufficiently for them to have confidence in their ability to win an election. So in spite of their status as a minority government, the Conservative Party has been able to impose their will on the Canadian public, even when their policies have run contrary to the wishes of the majority of Canadians.

While the majority of Canadians have opposed an increased military presence in Afghanistan, the government has not only extended the mission length, it has ensured that Canadian troops are used in combat situations. Furthering the public's disquiet with Canada's role in Afghanistan has been the government's attempts to play down fatalities by ending the practice of public ceremonies for the fallen upon their return to Canada. Public opinion was so against this, especially among military families, they were forced to modify that stance, but it left a bitter taste in a lot of people's mouths.

Canada was one of the first signatories to the Kyoto Accord on climate control and the previous government had passed legislation that would have seen them at least attempting to meet the minimum targets set by that agreement for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide into the environment. One of the first acts the Conservative government did upon taking power was to scrap that legislation, ensuring that Canada would renege upon its agreement. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of Canadians were and are in favour of the Kyoto Accord, if not even stronger emission controls.

One of the oddities of Canadian politics that has been the cause of confusion for any American who has cared to pay attention, is the names of our two major political parties. In the past both the Liberals and the Conservatives have had pretty much identical policies when it comes to social and economic issues. The Liberals have never been as liberal as their name suggests economically and the Conservatives have never been as conservative socially as you would think. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is a break with that tradition as they were originally the socially conservative, Reform Party of Canada who advocated a party line similar to that espoused by the Bush administration.

While they have been thwarted by the Supreme Court of Canada in their attempt to repeal same sex marriages, they have prevented the decriminalization of marijuana, and are doing their best to discredit a safe injection facility for intravenous drug users in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the only one of its kind in North America, safe injection facilities and needle exchanges in Europe have proven to be effective means of preventing the spread of disease, specifically HIV/AIDS. among this high risk population. But compassion for drug users does not jibe with the conservative "War on Drugs" policy that is part of their tough on crime agenda.

Now with Canada's economy starting to follow the American's down the toilet, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police executing a search warrant on Conservative Party headquarters to investigate alleged overspending in the last election to the tune of $1.1 million, and Bill C-10 which would give the government the ability to effectively censor any movie whose content they didn't like, Canadians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their ruling party. As recently as February 2008 polls were showing them with a large enough share of the popular vote that they could have potentially formed a majority government if an election had been called. However, with the above combined with the price of fuel at the pump continuing to rise, the dollar falling below par with the American again, food prices rising substantially, and the government seemingly content with letting the largest province in Canada, Ontario, fall into a recession, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with them.

In spite of this the chances of an election anytime soon are slim. Stephane Dion has done nothing to instil confidence in his own party that he can lead them to victory in an election. While there is no denying the man's intelligence, he is the type of person who most people seem to have difficulty warming to. Nobody is sure how his personality would play in an election and whether he can overcome the charges of aloofness that are being laid at his feet by critics and friends alike.

Unless the Liberals believe they have a very real chance of forming a government, they won't take any steps to force an election. This means the Conservative party can act with impunity; passing any legislation they feel like passing. Under normal circumstances, when one party wins the largest number of seats in the House of Commons without having a numerical majority, the country benefits because they need the support of other parties to stay in power resulting in legislation that reflects more than one ideology. Unfortunately that's not the case this time.

Knowing full well the Liberal party has been to frightened to call an election, the Conservative haven't had to compromise on any of their policies. Canadians can only hope that the supposed leaders of the opposition start to take their jobs seriously, or any chance we might have had of reaping the benefits of this minority government will soon be wasted. I don't think a minority government has ever served out a full four year term in office at the federal level before, but unless something happens soon it looks like that just might happen.

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