The Canadian political landscape could not be more different to that of Britain. But since the last general election in 2017, the Canadian electoral system has become an interesting and contentious test of whether the parliamentary democracy enshrined in the constitution can still work. The Trudeau government, which has been in power since 2015, faced several significant challenges this autumn.
The major political change has been the increase in the number of parties allowed to form parliamentary parties. Previously, the Liberal-Conservative coalition formed government with the support of two smaller parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party, a coalition that allowed the Liberals to govern alone but at the cost of vast power cuts to the rest of the country. Since then, the number of parties and the opportunities to win seats in parliament have expanded significantly, greatly constraining the political manoeuvring of the ruling Liberal party.
Due to these structural changes, the entire Canadian voting system has been under the spotlight for the past couple of years, largely to question whether it is sustainable in practice. A week before the election, in October 2018, the ruling Liberal party, whose popularity has remained steady at about 38%, decided to abolish the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Previously, the Canadian federal system gave the Liberal-Conservative coalition the ability to govern a majority government without needing to reach out to any political opposition. Over the years, the Liberals, in particular, has prided itself on their economic policies and an emphasis on social justice. In contrast, the Conservatives came under severe attack by both within the Canadian government and outside when they published controversial white papers on human rights and religious freedom last year.
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All this resulted in reduced government approval ratings among voters. It was on this background that earlier this year, the Trudeau government introduced a bill called Bill C-76, the “Fair Elections Act”. The bill was passed in the House of Commons and the Senate in August. The legislation has numerous positive reforms intended to decrease voter fraud and increase transparency, but such bills have been unpopular with many Canadians who have seen them as extreme measures intended to discriminate against minorities.
In addition, the Liberals failed to pass a bill called Bill C-29, which would have abolished the controversial charter of electoral rights, which guarantees that citizens have the right to vote, a right not denied to citizens who are unable to do so.
Following the passage of Bill C-76 and Bill C-29, there was a significant growth in the number of registered voters in Canada. In a country with a population of over 35 million, some 1.4 million new voters were registered in just the last few months – mostly on account of the right to vote in presidential elections in the US.
The Liberal government faced several significant challenges this autumn.
But despite all these problems, at this stage, the Liberal party – which needs at least a majority of seats in the House of Commons to continue its rule – has improved its position from 53.9% of the vote in the last election to 59.5% in October. This improved position has allowed the Liberal party to win the support of the Bloc Québécois and the Green party, two small parties, giving the government a narrow majority of 65 seats in the House of Commons – a majority which will not be affected by the outcome of the remaining election.
What’s more, with an agreement with the Green party, the Canadian government is now able to pass new legislation without any chance of the legislature rejecting the law. Moreover, the deficit of Canada is not going to be as great as was feared – the government’s revised forecast was revised down to 1.4% of gross domestic product in 2019 from the 4.5% predicted last year. But since there is no available source of revenue, this should limit the Liberal government’s room for manoeuvre next year.
This autumn’s elections made many commentators, commentators of social media and even journalists in mainstream media express concern about the political stability of Canadian democracy. In particular, this autumn has seen the Liberal party trying to prove to Canadians that they can govern a majority government. It would be difficult to imagine anything more challenging than this to actually apply what it learned at this election.