parliament hill

How Do Canada and the United States Differ Politically? (Part 2)

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This is only my opinion, and not the representation of Saintel Daily, LLC.

When it comes to politics, there is no bigger difference between Canada and the United States than the division of powers.  You might think – both countries have a governing authority, but that’s not exactly how it works. While each country is a federation, the United States is a constitutional federal republic, whereas Canada is under a constitutional monarchy.  What does that mean exactly?  In the United States, that means that the head of state (president) and the head of the government are the same.  However, in Canada, the head of state is actually the Queen or her representative.  While the Queen herself doesn’t technically “rule” the country, that power is given to the Governor General.  The reason for this separation is to ensure that the power doesn’t go to the Prime Minister’s head and cause mass hysteria.

That’s not the only way that things differ.  The United States has a system that is based on a separation of powers.  This means, the U.S. president cannot be a member of either house nor can any member of their cabinet.  These two powers have to stay separate.  Canada’s system is based on a concentration of powers.  The Prime Minister, by contrast, must be a member of one house or the other.  To clarify, the two houses in the United States that I am referring to are the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The Canadian model uses similar wording, but they are vastly different systems – the House of Commons (Parliament) and the Senate.

Getting back to the division of powers, the two systems start to widely differ in this particular area.  In Canada, all government bills must be introduced by a minister.  It doesn’t have to be the Prime Minister, but it has to be a member of the cabinet team. The Prime Minister picks his roster (cabinet), and these are the folks that lead the different government departments, or Ministries as they are known. In order for a bill to be considered, it has to be introduced by a Minister or their representative.  Further, that person must appear before the House to defend the bill or answer questions etc. In the U.S. system, because of the separation of powers, the president (or a cabinet member) can’t introduce a bill.  Which is likely why its harder to get legislation passed here in the United States.

I want to talk in more detail about the different electoral systems, but I will save that for another post.  For now, however, I think it’s important to understand the terms for serving.  In the United States, there are rigidly fixed terms.  Elections happen on a set schedule, but what’s even more interesting is impeachment.  While, impeachment is nice, in theory, it’s next to impossible to make it happen.  In Canada, a Prime Minister can’t be impeached, but what might be just as bad is that he can lose the confidence of the House.  Because the Prime Minister is the head of the government, he or she always has to have a majority of the House of Commons vote the same way that he or she votes.  If there’s a time when this doesn’t happen, Parliament is dissolved and an election is called.

This means a couple of things:

  1. In the Canadian political system, the election dates aren’t fixed other than to say they must happen every 4 years.  There have been times when a federal election was held more frequently, and that’s a result of a vote of non-confidence.  Again – I’ll get into this more in another post as it really relates to the election process itself.
  2. The government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds for more than a couple of weeks.  Once the House passes a motion of non-confidence, the Governor-General must dissolve Parliament and an election is called right away.

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While I’m not sure that I agree completely with the Canadian way of doing business, it certainly speaks to a more fair and balanced system. The U.S. President can’t dissolve either house and honestly, impeachment is a hard sell. So would this even work in the United States?  Currently, I would say no because I think the U.S. political system is much more ruthless and people would join together, just to dissolve the house and therefore call another election.  In Canada, they have to have a majority of the Members of Parliament to vote against the Prime Minister, and that rarely happens.  If it does, the sitting Prime Minister likely only won a minority of the seats, and those votes seem to happen over things like a budget bill.  But more on that later.