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onw COLUMNISTS

Watching the US Election – Lessons for Canada

by Peter Russell

Peter RusselProbably more Canadians watched the US election last week than watched the last Canadian election. And watching us as we watched them was instructive.

The point that really jumps out is that while the race was a cliff-hanger in the US, it wasn’t even close in Canada. The commentary  in our media and on the street was hugely pro-Obama. Canadians were more fearful than excited about the election – fearful that Obama might lose.

What I think this shows about the country is how social democratic it is.

By social democratic I don't mean socialist.

Even the NDP is no longer interested in public ownership of the means of production.

What makes us social democratic is that most of us value equality as much as freedom. 

And the equality we value is not just equality of opportunity to compete for individual gain, but equality of condition and respect for those who don’t do well in the competition of the market place. That is what put most Canadians in the Obama camp.

Some may point to the Harper Conservatives as our Canadian Republicans.

But while Harper and Romney might be pretty close ideologically, there is a big difference between the federal Conservatives and the Congressional wing of the Republican Party.

The Conservative caucus in Ottawa is not dominated by Tea-Party types who want to criminalize abortion, outlaw gay marriage and protect, at all costs, the wealth of the rich.

While Romney lost because he failed to appeal to Asians, Blacks and Hispanics, Harper’s Conservatives have made inclusiveness a mark of their campaign strategy.

The Conservative Party that Stephen Harper has fashioned is definitely not a Progressive Conservative Party.

Still, its tilt to the right is just that - a tilt.

Competing on a political playing field slanted considerably to the left of the Americans' keeps it from plunging to the depths of Tea Party Conservativism.

The Hudak Conservatives in Ontario should take note of this.

They may already have reached the limits of what a union-bashing, government-shrinking approach can garner in Ontario.

In the US election, the union vote went solidly to Obama.

Unions are much stronger in Canada. So is social democracy.

There are no doubt also lessons here for those competing  to lead the Ontario Liberal party.

There is also an important constitutional point that becomes evident when we think of the follow up to the US presidential election.

Under the American Presidential/Congressional system, the winning presidential candidate’s party does not become all powerful. Though Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, won a majority in the Electoral College, he and his party will have to deal with the Republicans in Congress, who still have a majority in the House of Representatives and strong bargaining power in the Senate.

And isn’t that how it should be when you consider how evenly Americans are divided between Democratic and Republican approaches to policy?

President Obama and his Congressional supporters will have to reach out and shade their positions a little to get anything done in Congress. The policy that results will be more inclusive and more democratic.

Now contrast this with the way our Canadian system of parliamentary democracy functions. Here, at the national level, we have a prime minister whose party gained less than 40% of the popular vote but who acts like a President who swept the country.

Mr. Harper gets away with this because our first-past-the-post, simple-plurality electoral system gives a party that is supported by far less than a majority of the electorate a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

As a result our prime minister can govern without any need to reach out to the parties supported by 60% of the electorate.

We Canadians are not about to trade in our  parliamentary system of democracy for the US Presidential/Congressional model.

But we should see the need for reforming our electoral system if we are to have government that reflects the will of the majority. 


Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : November 13, 2012

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