Election — A Voter's Guide To The Political Galaxy

SEE offers some quick references for non-political types

Politics, especially during an election campaign, can get confusing. But there’s no need for panic. There’s still time to make a decision and head to your polling station.

Now, we’re not offering advice on who to vote for, that’s a very personal decision and subject to far too many external and internal factors. However, if you’re not sure how the system works, we offer some short and hopefully sweet explanations of some basic concepts.

Who Becomes Prime Minister?

The leader of the party with the support of the most members of Parliament becomes prime minister.

“We don’t directly get to chose who gets to be prime minister,” says Harold Jansen, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge. “We choose who our representative in Parliament is. That’s what the election is about.”

MPs represent different areas of the country. They bring local interests to the national stage.

MPs are also members of political parties, which helps voters understand what they think on different issues, and who they will co-operate with when they get to Parliament, Janzen says.

The leader of the party with the most elected MPs gets the first crack at forming a government and becoming prime minister. Usually, this person has the support of a majority of MPs. In a parliament where the number of government MPs is smaller than the number of non-government MPs, it’s called a minority government.

Sometimes minority governments don’t have enough support to pass laws and make decisions about spending government money. Most of the time, that means an election because there’s no agreement on how to run the country.

Canada has four parties with elected MPs, so forming a government isn’t always straightforward. If the party with the second most elected MPs can get other parties to support them, then they can form a government. This is also called a minority government.

“We are choosing a Parliament, not a government,” Jansen points out.

In Canada, we don’t have a lot of experience with a second-place party forming government, so that may be why it sounds strange, he says, but it is a legitimate form of government, and a part of the Canadian system.


What’s a coalition?

Although this word can be used in many different ways, in the political context it often refers to a formal coming together of two parties.

This is a different way of forming a government than asking for the support of other parties, as in the case of a minority government.

“What sets the coalition idea apart from that is that the other party would have seats in cabinet,” Jansen says. Cabinet refers to the group of MPs the prime minister chooses to help run the government. These MPs are given specific responsibilities such as finance or foreign affairs.

In a coalition, like the one proposed in 2008, MPs from other parties are given positions in cabinet.

In a minority government, only the governing party members get cabinet positions, even though the government would still rely on other parties to pass legislation.


What’s election reform all about?

Our current system is straightforward and easy to understand. It’s called first-past-the-post (FPTP) , and on the surface it seems fair enough. To put it in terms that relate to Canadians, it’s just like a hockey game — most goals wins. But consider the following facts, from the organization Fair Vote Canada (www.fairvote.ca):

• the Green Party won 940,000 votes and elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs;

• In the Prairies, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats;

• 250,000 Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal;

• the NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37;

The fact is that a government usually wins power with the majority voting against them.

Most major nations have scrapped FPTP because it fails to provide true majority rule. In theory, a party could win all 308 seats in the House of Commons by winning every seat by one vote. Sure, that won’t happen, but it illustrates how skewed the system is. More realistically, as Fair Vote Canada points out, a party winning only 40 per cent of the votes may gain 60 per cent or more of the seats and all of the power.

Then there’s the imbalance of the population. In a country where so many of us live in two provinces, one party can win Ontario and Quebec, and lose most of the rest of the country, and still win power, leaving other regions of the country out in the cold.

So, what are the options? There are plenty that fall under the ‘proportional representation’ — or PR — banner, which is used in more than 80 countries use fair voting systems, including Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.

The basis of PR is that each vote is treated equally. Parties would be awarded seats based on their total vote total; i.e. if a party receives 30 per cent of the vote, they would get roughly 30 per cent of the seats. Under a PR system, a party like the Greens would be awarded seats in the House of Commons based on the fact they gained nearly a million votes in 2008. So, your Green vote would not be wasted.

Yes, it’s complicated, and takes a wholesale change in our thinking. But democracy is supposed to be a living, breathing thing. If other stable democracies can adopt PR, then why not Canada? 


where do I vote?

Ready to cast a ballot now? Go to www.electionscanada.ca for the candidates in your riding, where you can vote, and what identification you need.



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