How Canada's politics are different to Australia's – ABC News

Canadians go to the polls to elect a new federal parliament on Monday, and the election may just result in a change in government.
Canada is one of those places we don't think about a lot, yet we have so much in common: we were both British colonies, and we both adopted the British parliamentary system and combined it with federalism.

It's very much a stark black and white distinction between the Conservatives and the other parties. That's the politics in Canada now.

The major difference between our two countries now is the way parliamentary rules have developed. But according to Nelson Wiseman, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, those differences are less to do with formal regulation than operative rules. He uses the example of the removal of Tony Abbott, a sitting PM.
It's very much a stark black and white distinction between the Conservatives and the other parties. That's the politics in Canada now.
'That's virtually now impossible in Canada. That isn't anything in the Constitution, it's something that has evolved, because the leaders of our parties are not chosen by their caucuses, they are chosen by a vote of the membership.'
The other major difference is the fact that we have an elected senate and Canada does not.
'In Canada it's as in Britain, it's an appointed position,' says Wiseman. 'The governor general, on the advice of his first minister, the prime minister, appoints people to the Senate, just as the Queen does to the House of Lords. So we don't have an election to the upper house.'
Historically, government in Canada has swung between the two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. However, politics have traditionally been much less polarised in Canada than Australia. Since 1921 there have always been at least three parties in parliament and sometimes as many as five. Class politics never really took hold as they did in the UK and Australia and as a result the centre-left Liberals dominated for most of the 20th century.
But even the Canadian Conservative Party has been more progressive than Australia's Liberals. What this has meant in Canada is that there has generally been very little difference between the two parties.
'There doesn't appear to be much difference,' says Jim Bickerton, professor of political science at Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. 'One is sort of a more right-of-centre party or centre-right and the other a centre-left party historically. This was especially the case after World War II, when the two parties were both broadly supportive of the welfare state and of moderate centrist politics.'
Most Australians would recognise the name Pierre Trudeau, who was PM for 15 years, from 1968 to 1984.
'Trudeau is a central figure in modern Canadian history,' says Bickerton. 'He really did alter in a fundamental way some of the Canadian political identity, bringing in the Charter of Rights in the 1982, which has become a very important political institution here.
'He carried on a tradition whereby the Liberal Party was the dominant party, the governing party, and that continued after him with Jean Chrétien, who was his successor who governed up until 2003. The Liberals have been very dominant and they dominated by having historically a strong base in Québec amongst immigrants, French Canadians and also appealing to more centre-left voters.'
Through the 1990s and up until 2004, the Liberals were able to dominate easily because in 1993 the Progressive Conservative Party splintered into three different factions: the Reform Party, which dominated in Western Canada and was very populist; a hard-right social conservative party; and the Bloc Québécois in Québec.
'That all changed in 2003 when the right wing got its act together and the two parties merged, the old Progressive Conservative Party and the Reform Party merged and created the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper,' says Bickerton.
'When the two parties merged in 2003 it was really a takeover. The Reform Party was the bigger party, the stronger party of the two, so the old Progressive Conservative Party that was centrist and moderate, they were more or less taken over. Stephen Harper was the leader at that time and he is perhaps the most ideological prime minister that Canada has had.'
According to Joan Bryden, the old Reform Party was seen as being anti-bilingual, anti-Québec, anti-immigrant, social conservative, anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment and anti-metric, but Harper 'smoothed off a lot of those rough edges'.
'While there are still social conservatives in the party, he has staunchly refused to open any of those issues. Abortion is off the table; he doesn't want to talk about it … but at the same time the old "red Tories" have basically been run out.'
Since 2006 the centre-left vote in Canada has been divided between three parties, the Liberals, the New Democratic Party or NDP, and the Bloc Québécois.
In his first two terms as Prime Minister, Harper led a minority government, and it wasn't until the election of 2011that he was able to govern in his own right.
'He has essentially adopted the small-government, low-tax ideology of the right, a neoliberal approach to government,' says Bickerton.
'In terms of constitutional politics, he has withdrawn the federal government from a lot of social programs that it was involved with and left that completely to the provinces. It still transfers money to the provinces, but the federal government plays very little role now in things like the healthcare system or education.
'In foreign policy he has put a lot more emphasis on what you might call more militant foreign policy, much more black and white in terms of good guys and bad guys in the world.
'[His government has been] much more willing to use the Canadian military for armed confrontation in alliance with other NATO powers, and has pretty well abandoned Canada's traditional peacekeeping role in the world. We are now ranked 68th in terms of our peacekeeping, whereas we were once near the top.
'He also has promoted a big law and order agenda here, getting tough on crime. The anti-terrorism issue has really played into this for the Harper government, and they portray themselves as the party that will keep Canadians safe and secure, and the other parties as being soft on crime and soft on terrorists.
'It's very much a stark black and white distinction between the Conservatives and the other parties. That's the politics in Canada now.'
An illustration showing the political shift in Canada over the period 2004-2011.
The Liberals were wiped out in the 2011 election and reduced to the third party in parliament behind the NDP. In an attempt to turn the party's fortunes around, they recruited a new leader: the son of Pierre Trudeau.
Joan Bryden argues that Justin Trudeau's appointment has had a huge impact on Canadian politics.
'I don't think you can underestimate it; it's been huge,' she says. 'I'm not sure there would be any other person that would have been able to accomplish this.
'I think initially it was largely on the basis of his pedigree, on the family name. It started that way, but he's very telegenic, he's very charming, he feeds off crowds, he loves meeting with people, he looks them straight in the eye—there's a certain charisma or magnetism there that he has on his own.
'He has proven himself to be a better politician than many people would have given him credit for, and a better leader. He has surrounded himself with some very bright people who have come up with some interesting policies for him. He has surrounded himself with a really good team of candidates, and they made a real effort to recruit some stars. Frankly they have just spent an awful lot of time and efforts rebuilding the party from the ground up.'
The Conservatives responded to Trudeau's rise by running attack ads claiming he is not up to the job, with some success. Of course, there's another centre-left party competing as well: the New Democrats.
The NDP began as a socialist party during the Depression but became a moderate social democrat alternative aligned with unions in the post-war years.
'The party is no longer formally affiliated with labour, although it's still seen as labour's friend in Canada. Essentially it's now a party associated with environmentalism, with social movements,' says Jim Bickerton.
'We have now those two parties which are more or less tied in the polls with the governing Conservative Party at about 30 per cent apiece. It's very difficult to predict where things are going to go from here.'
The key issues during the election campaign have changed from week to week, from the trial of a sitting senator to the economy, refugees and citizenship.
Jim Bickerton says the moment all three major parties, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP are tied in the polls.
'I think if the Conservatives win the most seats, were looking at a very quick defeat in Parliament as soon as Parliament meets, and then there would be the whole constitutional issue about what happens next. Would there be coalition government that would replace the Conservatives, would there be another election? It's very difficult to tell at this point.
'If one of the other parties gets the most seats, Harper has already indicated that he believes whichever party gets the most seats should have the right to form a government.'
'It seems likely he would resign and we would end up with some kind of minority government made up of either the Liberals or the NDP as the governing party. But right now it's too close to really tell what will happen. So we may be in uncharted waters come election day. We've never really had a three-way tie like this in Canadian political history.'
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