Dear neighbour, about what's going on in Canada

Neil Macdonald explains the Canadian crisis to American dog walkers

My dear American neighbours,

I see the political crisis in Canada has finally made it into the Washington Post's Foreign Briefs column.

So, anticipating a flood of interest from all of you at the dog run in the morning, let me try to give you some idea of what's happening up there.

A few weeks ago, we had an election in Canada, a couple of weeks before yours, actually. A political party known as the Conservatives won.

Well, sort of. They didn't win in the sense that most of you understand winning. I'll get to that in a second.

They also aren't what most of you would consider conservative.

They support what you call socialized medicine, they believe in protecting a Canadian-controlled banking system, they believe in government as a vehicle for transferring wealth between regions, and they've actually muzzled party members who tried to make abortion a campaign issue.

In fact, instead of making his Sunday trip to church a photo opportunity, our Conservative leader refuses to discuss his faith in public. (Like many Americans, he's an evangelical Christian).

Different kettle of fish

So our Conservatives are a bit different from yours. Down here, you'd probably call them Democrats. And fairly liberal ones at that.

But, as I said, they won our last election, which is a pretty low-key affair compared to yours. The campaign lasted a few weeks instead of two years.

What's more, they won with only 37 per cent of the vote. Now, you can do that in Canada because our Parliament has three other political parties: The Liberals (again, pay no attention to the name, they tend to adapt their worldview as needed), the Bloc Québécois (a Quebec party that says it wants to break up the country, but hasn't actually done much about it for many years), and the NDP.

I'm not quite sure how to explain the NDP. The other parties like to call them socialists. 

Some of their more doctrinaire members would like the government to nationalize or take a large financial stake in things like banks and manipulate the national economy by spending huge amounts of public money. You know, the sort of thing President George W. Bush has been doing this year.

I know, I know, it's confusing.

Funny old world, isn't it?

So. The Conservatives won our election and formed something called a minority government.

That means the Conservatives can basically be tossed out of office by the opposition parties whenever they feel like it, which usually happens after a year or two. Then there's an election.

This time, though, the opposition parties decided to throw out the government before it really even started governing. But instead of forcing another election, the opposition parties made a deal: they formed a surprise coalition and now they want to take power without consulting voters again.

Americans might have a hard time understanding this sort of thing, but it happens all the time in places like Israel and Italy.  Wait, though.  Uh, wake up. We're getting to the really interesting part.

The CBC connection

To take over, the opposition parties have to convince our head of state that they can govern effectively. President Bush is your head of state, at least until Barack Obama moves in.

But our head of state isn't elected. It's the Queen. And she's represented up there by someone called a governor general, who is appointed. Voters don't have anything to do with it.

Except for not being elected, a governor general is a lot like your vice-president. Sort of ceremonial. Our governors general travel a lot, cut ribbons, declare holidays for school kids and try to set a good example.

The current office holder, Michaëlle Jean, used to be a CBC reporter. Like me.

Actually, the one before her was once a CBC reporter, too. So were two others in the recent past. In our country, any CBC reporter can dream of becoming head of state.

Letting a journalist decide

Like your vice-president, sometimes a governor general becomes unbelievably important. Right now, for example. Sooner or later, this former TV reporter is going to have to decide who runs Canada.

Now, the Conservatives aren't taking this state of affairs lying down.

They've been talking about shutting down Parliament for a while until they can think of some way to prevent the opposition parties from throwing them out. But they can't just do that. They'd have to convince the Governor General to let them.

It's all very dramatic, you have to admit. Right? Don't you? Hello?

I mean, we Canadians don't have all those big-mouthed cable anchors that you have, but you can imagine what they'd do with a situation like this.

It's the economy

Wait a second. I forgot to explain why all this is happening. Bear with me.

You see, Canada's economy is in trouble. Just like everybody else's.

So when the Conservatives won, most people expected them to turn on the spending taps, the way every other country in the developed world is doing.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for some reason, decided not to.

In fact, last week he had his finance minister announce that the government intends to run a surplus in its next budget. Meaning the government intends to take more in taxes from Canadians than it needs to run the country.

(I know President Bush has never run a surplus. But Canadian governments have, every year for more than a decade, even when the supposedly spendy Liberals were in charge.)

Anyway, in the middle of an economic crisis, Harper's plan didn't go over well with the three opposition parties and they saw their chance.

So that's what's happening.

Actually, if you think about it, our prime minister is doing exactly what President Bush keeps saying he'd like to be doing, instead of authorizing another trillion or so every week in new bailouts.

Maybe it's not such a funny old world after all.