On being ... empowered

By Ingrid Sapona

On Monday (May 2nd) it’s Election Day here in Canada. Though a 2007 amendment to the Canada Elections Act means we have a fixed election date (the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the previous election) -- given that we’re going to the polls in May, it’s obvious Election Day isn’t quite as fixed as it is in, say, the U.S. But never mind…

I’ve been a dual Canadian/U.S. citizen since 1994. To be honest, a few particulars about the Westminster-type of parliamentary democracy escaped my attention until I started voting here. For example, one of the biggest surprises was that you don’t cast a ballot for Prime Minister. Instead, you simply vote for a candidate as your Member of Parliament (MP) based on the party they represent. A candidate’s party is much more important than their personality because the party with the most people elected as MPs forms the government, and the official leader of that party becomes Prime Minister.

The past three federal elections have yielded a “minority” government, which means the party that won the most seats didn’t get more than 50% of all the seats. Being a minority government has many ramifications, the most serious of which relates to the fact that on most votes (all votes on important matters), MPs affiliated with a party must vote along party lines. (Most MPs have party affiliations -- in the last session only two were independent.) If MPs don’t vote the same as their party, they risk being expelled from the party.

Because of the requirement to vote the party line, when a party has a majority, all its proposals pass, which means getting things done is easy. With a minority government, however, getting legislation passed is tricky because you need the cooperation of other parties. As well, there’s the ever-present threat that the opposition will join forces to bring down the government with a vote of no confidence. That’s exactly what happened on March 25th. As a result, Parliament was dissolved and an election was called for May 2nd.

Naturally, the election is front-page news and it’s a topic of conversation -- at least in my social circle. (Of course, that could be because I often raise it.) It’s been interesting to hear my friends’ reactions when I ask about the election. For the most part, folks I’ve talked with complain that we’re having an election and have whined about the fact that this is the fourth election in just under seven years (the 5th in just under 11 years) and they think it’s a waste of money.

I find this complaint unbelievable, frankly. Of course there’s an out-of-pocket cost to holding an election, and times are tough economically, but in the scheme of things, the cost is pretty insignificant. Most estimates I’ve seen put the price tag at Can $300-$350 million -- that’s all in. Maybe not a drop in the bucket (except by comparison to the amount spent on U.S. elections) but the way I see it: What price democracy?

The complaint about being tired of going to the polls “so often” is another non-starter for me. The cornerstone of democracy is the privilege of voting -- the idea that your opinion counts. It’s not an exaggeration to say the ability to vote is why I felt it important to become a citizen in my adopted land. I suspect most other immigrants who have taken up citizenship would say the same thing. So, I’m always thrilled at the opportunity to vote, especially when I think about the millions in the world who are not so privileged.

The last complaint some have voiced is that we may end up with a minority government again and then “nothing will get done” and -- heaven forbid -- we’ll be back at the polls sooner rather than later. Though naturally I’d prefer to see the party I favour win a solid majority, having a minority government doesn’t bother me a bit. The way I see it, ending up with a minority government is just a manifestation of some sort of collective need to run in place for a while, instead of going full-steam ahead. I know there have been times in my own life when stalling -- not making a cut and dried decision -- has been the best course of action, so why should the future of a country be any different?

Clearly, I don’t understand all the complaining about our going to the polls on Monday. All I can say is it’s a shame more people don’t feel the way I do about voting: empowered.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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