Big differences in how Canadians and Americans govern themselves and elect leaders

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Donald Trump. Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

The current conflicts over resource megaprojects, pitting Canadian federal and provincial governments against Indigenous groups, show how similar this country is to the U.S.

In both the U.S. and Canada, settlement and economic development has, historically, proceeded by marginalising and often forcibly removing Indigenous people from their lands and communities. 

In more recent times, there have been efforts in both neighbouring countries to buy off and placate Indigenous communities -- a strategy that began with the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which paved the way for construction of the Trans Alaska pipeline. 

That agreement was a model for the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement in Quebec, and, in much modified form, for the many impact benefit agreements between industry and First Nations bands in Canada's North and mid-North. 

By contrast, the protracted presidential election campaign now underway south of the border underscores a number of fundamental differences between the two countries. 

A team versus individual sport

To start with, Canada uses the Westminster parliamentary system. 

Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, represented in Canada by the Governor General. It is a largely ceremonial function, but it can, and has, fulfilled the role of a constitutional arbiter or referee. 

The chief executive of Canada's government, the prime minister (PM), is the leader of the party that succeeds in commanding the confidence of the House of Commons -- almost always the party with the largest number of seats. (Canada's House of Commons is the rough equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives.) 

The prime minister is usually a member of Canada's Parliament, elected in the same way as the other 338 members. On election day last October, the only Canadians who had the option of placing an X beside Justin Trudeau's name were the voters of his Montreal constituency (or, in U.S. terms, his district). 

Throughout much of our history, Canadian parties in power have more often than not held more than half the seats in the House -- in other words, a majority. But, from time to time, we do get situations, such as the one we're in right now, where a party must govern as a minority, because it has fewer than half the seats. 

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have the largest block of seats in the current Parliament, but the four opposition parties combined have more seats. To keep power and get legislation passed, the Liberals need the support of one or more of the opposition parties. 

The very concept of a minority government is one that seems to befuddle many Americans -- in part because in their country they have only two viable parties. 

In Canada, for almost a century, since the emergence of the now defunct Progressive Party following the First World War, we have had at least three parties with seats in the House of Commons.

Right now, there are five parties in the House: the centrist Liberals, the right-wing Conservatives, the Quebec separatist Bloc Québécois, the social democratic (or democratic socialist) New Democrats, and the Greens. 

Canadian parties choose a new leader when the current one resigns, gets booted out or dies. They don't go leaderless for long. They do not wait until the eve of the next election to give themselves a leader -- which is what the U.S. Democratic party is doing right now.

The Canadian Conservatives narrowly lost the last election, a few months ago, which prompted their current leader to step down. The next election is, most likely, years away; but the Conservatives have scheduled their convention to select a new leader for this June. 

The next Conservative leader will become the leader of the official Opposition, which is the status bestowed on the second-place party. 

Sitting next to the new leader will be his party's official critics or shadow ministers. Other opposition parties are organized the same way. Each day that the House sits, the opposition leaders and critics get to hold the PM and his ministers' feet to the fire during question period. And so, in Canada we always have one or more governments in-waiting, sitting opposite the party in power in Parliament. 

The Westminster system is designed to encourage politics as a team sport -- more like hockey or soccer than tennis or golf. 

In the modern era, in both the U.K. and Canada, we have become, de facto, more presidential. Our elections tend to focus on the leader rather than the team. And since the 1960s -- mimicking the American model -- prime ministers have built up large apparatuses of power in their own offices, separate from the cabinet and Parliament.

Still, unlike ours, the U.S. political system is, by design, largely an individual sport, focused intensely on a single person: the president. As a result, the process for selecting presidential candidates has become a drawn-out, almost exhausting process. 

Primaries and multi-ballot conventions

We do not have the practice of registering for a political party in Canada. In U.S. terms, all Canadians on the voters' list would be considered independents. And we have never had primaries here. In fact, many Canadians are not quite sure what primaries are. 

In Canada, individual candidates for seats in the House of Commons are normally selected by nominating meetings of the parties' members in each riding (in U.S. terms, district). 

In the past, party leaders were chosen by national leadership conventions, to which each riding sent a fixed number of delegates. 

More recently, most parties have decided to allow all party members to vote for the new leader, by paper ballot or online.  

Still, Canadian leadership campaigns tend to be short -- no more than a few months -- and there are usually strict limits on candidates' spending. 

In the U.S., the practice of having state-by-state primaries to select most of the delegates who then choose the presidential candidate only goes back to the 1970s. Prior to that, party bosses had a big say. The primaries were, mostly, simple beauty contests, without genuine influence. 

John F. Kennedy, then a young senator from Massachusetts, won some primaries in the spring of 1960. But more important to his winning the Democratic nomination was the support of powerful backroom operators, such as John Bailey of Connecticut and mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. 

In Canada, we are used to leadership conventions that take more than one ballot to choose a leader. The conventions that selected Tom Mulcair in the 2010s, Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s, John Turner and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, Stéphane Dion in the 2000s, and Joe Clark in the 1970s all went to at least a second ballot, some to as many as four ballots. 

In the U.S., the last time that happened for the Democrats was in 1952, when they chose the governor of Illinois Adlai Stevenson. 

The other leading candidate in 1952, Tennessee senator and arch enemy of organized crime, Estes Kefauver, won 12 out of 15 primaries, and many more votes than Stevenson. But key party bosses did not like Kefauver. His crime-fighting efforts had, it seems, targeted some leading figures in the Democratic party. The bosses thought the safer and more pliable choice would be the bespectacled, self-styled egghead from a long political lineage in Illinois. 

Today's Democratic party bosses do not want Bernie

When the Democrats meet this July in Milwaukee, we might see something like a repetition of 1952. 

If, by the time of the convention, Bernie Sanders, a senator for Vermont and self-described democratic socialist, has won the most delegates via the primary route, but not the outright majority needed to win on the first ballot, the elected politicians and party officials who have "superdelegate" status will get to weigh in. 

Many of those political insiders are already saying they don't care if they divide their own party -- they'll do anything, whatever it takes, to stop Bernie. 

Veteran journalist Albert Hunt has neatly summed up the party establishment case against Sanders. 

Writing in the Washington political journal The Hill, Hunt excoriates the Vermont senator for: "His proposals to end private health insurance, to impose big taxes (on the middle class, not just the rich), to ban all fracking, [and] to give convicted murderers and rapists the right to vote …"

Sounds pretty bad, except when you examine the items on the list carefully.

Sanders proposes Canadian-style, single payer public health insurance, which would make most, but not all, private health insurance unnecessary. It would also mean that people who quit or lose their jobs would not lose their insurance. 

The reduction in cost for health insurance, and for necessary health care that is not now covered or only partially covered, would entirely offset any new taxes a Sanders government would enact.

As for fracking, it is a dangerous and reckless way to fuel the economy of today. A recent poll in Pennsylvania, a big fracking state, showed that the majority there consider fracking to be a hazard to human health. 

The final item on Hunt's list illustrates another significant difference between the U.S. and Canadian systems. 

In Canada, all citizens over the age of majority who have been or who are currently incarcerated (for any and every offence) get to vote. The non-partisan Canadian officials responsible for elections make sure the ballot boxes get to every penal institution in the country. 

The right of all citizens to vote is guaranteed, without exceptions, by our Constitution. Plus, as a policy matter, many argue that having imprisoned people take part in elections gives them a sense of being part of society, and helps with their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society. 

More important, the subject of the right to vote brings up another, even larger difference between U.S. political practice and Canadian. 

In Canada, elections are entrusted to a professional and completely non-political agency, Elections Canada. That agency makes sure every citizen over the age of 18 is on the voters' list. Canadians do not have to truck down to some government office to get themselves registered. 

Elections Canada never tries to throw people off the voters' list -- as have politically partisan officials in many U.S. states, such as, most recently, Wisconsin and North Carolina. To the contrary, the Canadian election agency conducts campaigns to encourage voting, especially among the young.

The constant need for so many Americans to fight to get, and then keep, the right to vote is something quite alien and puzzling to Canadians. 

It is true that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper brought in an odious piece of legislation, bearing the Orwellian title: Fair Elections Act. Among the act's many U.S.-style voter suppression measures were voter ID requirements that were difficult to meet for the poor, the young, Indigenous people and the disabled. 

The current Canadian government has, thankfully, rolled back most of those measures. In any event, the Fair Elections Act was mere child's play compared to the constant and unrelenting attack on the right to vote south of the border. 

In the coming primaries, and especially in the election to follow in November, the degree to which all can exercise the right to vote could be a huge factor in determining the outcome. 

As U.S. citizens get engaged in this process, they should be aware that it does not have to be this way. It is possible to run elections in which all citizens can take part without undue barriers. 

The country whose leaders talk incessantly about liberty, and which boasts that it is a pioneer in the field of electoral democracy, could work a lot harder to live up to its own billing. 

The registered Democrats of South Carolina vote in their primary on Saturday. 

Then, this coming Tuesday, March 3, 14 more states, including the two most populous, California and Texas, will hold their primaries. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

 
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