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Ralph Murphy

(10/2015) Canada is scheduled to hold a Parliamentary election on 19 October as the four-year rule by the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper draws to a close. At stake are 338 seats in The House of Commons. This is a system that is modeled on Britain's Westminster parliamentary system. It has been in effect as a provincial process since 1848. At electoral issue beyond war involvement abroad is the economy, which slumped into a two quarter recession this year amid a global downturn for commodities. Recent data since June, however, indicates a turnaround that may boost the incumbent's chances of retaining power that the party has held since 2006.

The politics of the second largest nation on earth by land mass had been consistently liberal, especially during the reign of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, from 1968 to 1984. Trudeau, a native of Quebec, preached national unity during a time of separatist pressures from the French speaking region. He witnessed a referendum in 1980 that was unsuccessful, but he was replaced by Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative (PC) party in 1984. This party led the Parliament through 1993.

The right wing PC party splintered after the 1993 election, becoming the Reform Party of Canada/Canadian Alliance (CA) and the more centrist Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. They remained divided and out of power through 2003 when they found common ground through the Canadian Venture Exchange. Led by Joe Clark, the Reform Party political bonding held and became the Conservative Party of Canada. This group won the elections in 2006 and 2011 professing prudent fiscal management, decreased government spending- especially to social programs, and lower taxes.

In 2011 Stephen Harper's Conservatives won 159 of the (then) 308 seat Parliament. The New Democracy Party (NDP) of Thomas Mulcair retained 95 of the lower chamber seats for the center left, and the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau, Pierre's oldest son, gathered 36 seats- also center left. Two Quebec-based parties that were both independence minded took two seats each. That movement has not been a real factor in Canadian politics since 1995 when it lost a second referendum by a single percentage point.

The economy might be a voter concern, but that downturn highlighted was only .5% in the second quarter and .8% in the first. Again summer numbers were better as commodity sales especially to the Far East increased. Canada is the fifth largest producer of the world’s oil and had been getting about $100 a barrel last year before suppliers increased world output and dropped prices to less than half that level. Mining, gas, and quarry extractions were also down in sales which Andrew Thomson of the contesting NDP seized on to blast the Conservatives, bemoaning a "lost decade" to the economy. He didn't offer a platform statement as to how he could change the world price of the goods, and the drop or stall was really just this year's concern. The last recession was seven years ago.

Harper noted the decline - one third of all sectors were affected to a degree - mostly had commodity linkages. Canada doesn't look that bad economically though they are the only G-7 member country to fall into recession during this year's first two quarters. The G-7 once contained the most advanced world economies - Canada ranked 11th last year.

Debates are scheduled this month and next between the key liberal and conservative parties. Issues include jobs, energy and environment, infrastructure, housing, and taxes. What has also faced electoral challenges in the past is the role of the British Monarch as Canada’s ceremonial head of state. The real head of government is vested in the Canadian Prime Minister who controls Parliament and its functions.

The Monarch's duties in Canada and elsewhere in the Commonwealth are largely ceremonial, but are described as the "foundation of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government". A Governor General represents England at the national level and that representative ascribes Lieutenant Governors to each of the provinces in an effort to "guarantee continued and stable government". That appears to afford Canadians a measure of relief from security pressures, but it might be worth noting that Westminster doesn't enjoy those standards in London. The stability concerns may stem from the nature of the effectively, unicameral governing style. A lower house combines the executive and legislative functions into the party in power as controlling Parliament.

Britain does not have a Constitution in the American sense. The governing style it exudes and unfortunately has exported not only to former possessions but most of the world’s Parliaments evolved from "collections of written documents, statutes, court judgements, works of authority, treaties, and conventions." It has the power to "turn out a government" but can do so on a whim without a standard as to reason.

The British Parliament has served as the model for just about every civilized democracy. The Prime Minister is executive, usually majority leader, and speaker. The tied Parliamentary judiciary is usually more independent depending on the affiliation to term as the views generally reflect political ascription when appointed. The upper chamber or House of Lords is largely ceremonial at present reflecting landed or regional interests.

America's system is occasionally derided as insuring "nothing gets done". A closer look at the "checks and balances" afforded the executive, bicameral legislature and judiciary reveal mechanisms to insure speedy passage of emergency measures such as war powers authority and reasoned debate on most of the rest. The House of Representatives appears to be more populist in decisions relating to law- perhaps due to the large number of lawmakers. In almost all the world’s Parliaments that follow the Westminster model - that decision making body would have the final legislative and executive say as to matters of law.

The American Senate can rewrite or approve a House offering and the President can then approve or veto it, but the government doesn't fall on a single legislative initiative. In the Westminster system even a single law in contention, such as a budget issue can lead to a "vote of no confidence" and a new voter mandate.

That generally doesn't happen if a single party is dominant, but where there are relatively evenly linked parties, the confrontation can routinely lead to almost primordial, floor flights and dissolution. It even happens in England that is far less structured and disciplined than the American, Jeffersonian democracy. The American approach might lead to frayed nerves and greater debate, but the parties all have input and the government itself endures.

It is surprising that the American standard hasn't been adopted more broadly abroad. It might be cultural bias. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy may have impacted the framer's thinking of "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" which approximates this issue. Canada was the first of many nations to adopt the Westminster system beyond England.

Globally, a unicameral legislature exists most everywhere. Not just in Canada, but in Germany's Bundestag, Japan's Diet and Israel's Knesset. They're thinly disguised British political systems with a ceremonial President and stark confrontation in their legislatures with a variety of parties arrayed along personality lines. These include both right to left visions of survival needs and esoteric wants for their government.

At any rate, Canada has an election coming up in mid October and other factors appear stable so Harper's "Tories" should do well. There were terrorist concerns last year in Ottawa but they have passed. The Prime Minister appears well liked and barring a continued drop in economic activity, the Liberal Party and NDP left seem to have split to non governance much as the Radical did in the late 1990's. If they unify it could be a challenge, but for now they're probable outsiders given the debate concerns being addressed. Let's see what else they have on their minds to the north of us. A referendum on the Monarchy appears behind them...

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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