Going in Circles: Caveats of Enviro Policy in Canadian Parliament

Let’s talk politics.

Specifically let’s talk about the Canadian electoral system and how it affects climate policy.

Yes! Fun!

So here in the great North we have what’s called a Single Member Plurality system, also known as First Past the Post.

Basically this means that politicians run in a region, called a riding and if they receive more votes than the other candidates in that riding they receive a seat in the House of Commons. There are 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Okay great, pretty basic, if you’re from Canada you probably learned this in grade 4. But what does all this actually MEAN for our political institution?

Firstly, it means that ‘big tent’ parties tend to rule. I.e. in SMP systems there are usually two big parties with any chance of being elected, Canada is an exception with 3 (the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP).

It also means that regionally popular parties (such as the Bloc Quebecois) can do fairly well since they have concentrated support within their ridings rather than broad, diluted support across the country (such as the Green Party).

Under the system, parties may receive a disproportionate amount of seats. For example, in the 2008 Federal election, the Green Party won 6.8% of the votes and yet didn’t win a single seat out of 308. In the same election, the Conservative Party received 38% percent of the votes and yet won 46% of the seats, giving them a majority government.

In this way, a party with concentrated support gets to form the cabinet and thus holds most of the power.

In some cases, this can be good news for the environment. Jean Chretien used his authority to ratify Kyoto even though well… other members of government including the provinces weren’t quite down so to speak.

On the other hand, that power can be used to reverse enviro policy  or downright do whatever the hell you want.

Example: Stephen Harper backing out of Kyoto (to be fair, we weren’t going to reach the targets in any case), and getting rid of previous policies like the One Tonne Challenge (a voluntary program: was it effective?) industrial regulations, energy conservation subsidies and the Climate and Partnership Funds (which accounted for the bulk of emission reductions under the Liberal program).

The Conservatives also passed the highly controversial budget bill C-38 which amended the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Act and the Species at Risk Act to name just a few.

The point is. The cabinet has a lot of power. And this can be good or bad for the environment.

But in Canada it’s mostly been bad.

Cabinet ministers aren’t the only ones who can introduce bills. Backbenchers can introduce private member’s bills BUT they’re rarely passed.

The NDP got pretty far with the The Climate Change Accountability Act in 2006. It was gonna commit Canada to 80% greenhouse gas reductions compared to 1990 levels by 2050.

Despite Conservative opposition, the bill made it through the House of Commons but was rejected by the Senate.

Don’t get me started on the Senate.

Another challenge is party discipline. MPs are expected to always speak and vote in line with their party, which is quite in contrast to the US system.

It’s also in contrast to the fact that the MPs are supposed to be representing their regional constituents.

Conservative MP David Wilks promised his constituents he would vote against Bill C-38 but ultimately party leaders decide if you can run again so he shut his trap and followed orders.

Last year (2013), Elizabeth May (Green Party) introduced “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act.” It would allow MPs to speak freely without harsh sanctions. So far the bill has received a First Reading.

Personally. I’m all for some good ol’ fashioned reform. I’m not just talking May’s suggestion against party discipline but full blown electoral restructuring. How about some proportional representation? Eh? Eh? It could force parties to form coalitions in order to form cabinet thereby preventing policy extremes. I’m not saying I have the answers. But something ain’t quite right.

And what about that Senate? Appointed officials? Ain’t that a little old fashioned?

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