By Timothy Rollins
With all the cliffhanging excitement surrounding the U.S. Presidential race, and given that it may take until before Florida finishes its tally of votes on account of absentee ballots, it's time we took a look at our friends north of the border who are in a federal election all their own.
For those of you who don't already know, I'm an American who has been living outside of Toronto, Canada since I got married in 1993. In that time, I have seen three federal election cycles come and go as well as two provincial ones, and what we are going to try to do here is take a closer look at Canadian politics and how they work.
For the benefit of my fellow Americans, an explanation is in order. Canada has a bicameral (two house) legislature in similar manner to the United States. In Canada, the Senate is made up of appointees who must retire at age 75. While there has been a call on the part of some for an elected Senate, as of now, they are appointees hand picked by the Prime Minister and rubber-stamped by the Governor General, who I might add is handpicked by the Prime Minister and rubber-stamped by the Queen. The House of Commons has 301 members who are all up for election once the writ of election is dropped, Parliament is dissolved and the Governor General (the Queen's Representative in Canada) calls for new elections. The Prime Minister can call for elections at any time during his or her tenure, but no more than five years can pass without a federal election being called. This practice provides a built-in advantage for the party in power in that they can take advantage of good poll numbers to make a run at forming a new majority. But it doesn't always work that way as some that called early elections only saw their strategy blow up in their faces.
One upside of Canadian politics is that the election season is short as compared to American politics. Unlike the U.S., where Members of Congress are campaigning full-time from one election to the next, the campaigning season in Canada is no less than 28 and no more than 36 days between the time the writ is dropped and the votes are counted. In addition, all advertising, whether it is on a bus, a lawn sign or outdoor displays of any kind, must be taken down by midnight the day after the election. Our leaders in Washington would do well to learn a lesson from our friends north of the 49th parallel.
Unlike the U.S., the Prime Minister in Canada is not elected as Prime Minister. He or she is elected as a Member of Parliament, and as leader of the Majority Party, becomes Prime Minister. The party with the second most number of members in the House of Commons is the Official Opposition. Again, unlike the U.S., where there are two parties in Congress, the Republicans and the Democrats, with the rest being Independents, Canada has five political parties. They are the Liberal Party (Grits), the Canadian Alliance, the Bloc Quebecois, the Progressive Conservative Party (Tories), and the New Democratic Party (NDP). There are also one or two Independents in the House of Commons as well, most notably John Nunziata, a former Liberal MP from Toronto who was turfed from the party for refusing to vote in favor of the budget one year when it did not provide for elimination of the much-hated Goods and Services Tax (GST) that the Liberals had promised to do away with. Chalk up one more broken promise to politicians. Some things are universal.
As it stands right now, the Liberals have a seven or eight seat majority in the House, which they risk losing because of the second consecutive call for early elections, just three and a half years into their mandate. In addition, there is a substantial amount of infighting over the long-term party leadership of the Liberals. The current leader of the Party and Prime Minister is Jean Chretien, who some feel is something of a buffoon, and to whom some of my friends and colleagues have taken to calling "The Village Idiot". Many are calling for him to step down as the leader of the Party and allow someone new to step in and take it into the 21st Century - basically, a fresher, younger face. In his Cabinet, none of which need approval to be there other than his own, Chretien has only one star of the first magnitude, and that is Finance Minister Paul Martin, a Montreal lawyer. Martin's name is the one that seems to come up the most often as a replacement in the PM's office for Chretien. Martin has done a wonderful job with the federal budget over the last seven years as Finance Minister, and that seems to be the only smart move Chretien has made over the long term he has served as Prime Minister.
Chretien is not the only 'yesterday's man' in the crowd of faces in the halls of Parliament. There is also Progressive Conservative Party leader and former Prime Minister Joe Clark to consider. He is a 'yesterday's man' as well. To understand Clark better, we need to take a ride back into history. In 1978, the Tories beat the Liberals in a federal election, but not with enough members in the House to form a majority, and as such, Clark became the Prime Minister with a minority government. In order to be effective at governing, he was at a disadvantage unless he was willing to work and play well with others, which he wasn't. Clark arrogantly and foolishly tried to govern as if he had a majority, and when the budget came up for approval the following February, he was 'fragged' by the Liberals and the NDP. The fourth party at the time, the Social Credit, abstained in the vote. As such, the Clark government fell on a vote of no confidence, and Pierre Trudeau, the man Clark had ousted from power just nine months earlier, returned to power as Prime Minister.
After getting fragged again, this time by his own party when Brian Mulroney won the leadership race for the Tories in the early eighties, Clark would stay in the House of Commons and later serve with distinction as Prime Minister Mulroney's External Affairs Minister, a position that he performed rather well. He was a good team player and went along with the wishes of the party, as well as being Mulroney's whipping boy.
After being out of public office for a while, Joe Clark once again became leader of a very decimated Tory party in the late nineties, and it was almost two years before he ran for and won a by-election in the Kings Hants riding (district) of Nova Scotia, which I might add is over 3500 miles (or 6000 kilometers) from his home riding of Calgary Centre in Alberta. Canadian law does not require you to live in the riding in order to run for a seat in it. That law should be changed - and now.
Speaking of Joe Clark, I had a chat with a friend of mine in Toronto on Wednesday. Her name is Linda Williamson, and she is the Senior Associate Editor of the Toronto SUN, and Joe Clark came up in the conversation. It turns out that Clark is a family friend of hers. While she finds Clark to be a very engaging man and one whom she genuinely likes, she agreed with me that Clark is way off the mark and has prostituted his party to the left of the Liberals in that the Tories are catering, or rather pandering to gays and other special interests seeking preferential treatment in the judicial and legal systems for the sole purpose of getting votes, which I find odd, given that the Tories went from 178 seats in 1993 to just 2 later that year after the election. I do not see a Tory majority forming again in either my lifetime, or that of my children, especially with the growth of the Canadian Alliance, which had its beginnings as a Conservative party out West that wasn't happy with the way that Tories ignoring them. It is only a matter of time before the federal Tories in Canada go the way of the dodo.
In addition, we agreed that Clark is shamelessly using his beautiful 23-year old daughter to try to gather votes for him in his home riding of Calgary Centre. A member of the Canadian Alliance currently occupies that seat, and that MP is extremely popular. Clark is the fourth horse in a three-horse race, and he surely stands to get his clock cleaned in the election just two weeks from Monday, thus once again being forced out of the House of Commons. The man just doesn't seem to take a hint.
Just as the transition from George Bush to Bill Clinton in the U.S. symbolized the passing of the torch to a new generation, so these two men, Jean Chretien and Joe Clark, should step aside and enjoy their retirement years in order that other men and women of talent, honor and integrity may have the opportunity to serve their country and serve it well. The new leader of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day, has a vision for Canada that can make it the kind of place that will alleviate the 'brain drain' that is plaguing this nation and depriving it of its best and brightest who are headed in droves to the United States in search of higher salaries, deductible interest on home mortgages and lower tax rates with no surtaxes for those making over $65,000 a year. For many, a move to the United States with the benefits listed above along with the exchange rate, effectively doubles their take-home pay. Just six weeks ago, I had a close friend move from Whitby, Ontario to Connecticut to take a job on Wall Street, and from what I have heard, he is enjoying every minute of it.
Chretien and Clark are men whose time has passed. They should accept the thanks of a grateful nation and allow others the opportunity to serve with honor and distinction.
And so to my Canadian friends, be sure to vote your conscience and make an informed choice at the ballot box on Monday November 27th.
© 2000 Timothy Rollins
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