Many of the country's legislative practices derive from the unwritten conventions of and precedents set by the United Kingdom's Westminster parliament; however, Canada has evolved variations. For example, party discipline in Canada is stronger than in the United Kingdom, and more parliamentary votes are considered motions of confidence, which tends to diminish the role of non-Cabinet Members of Parliament (MPs). Such members, in the government caucus, and junior or lower-profile members of opposition caucuses, are known as backbenchers. Backbenchers can, however, exert their influence by sitting in parliamentary committees, like the Public Accounts Committee or the National Defence Committee.
Currently, the Senate, which is frequently described as providing "regional" representation, has 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister to serve until age 75. It was created with equal representation from each of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime region. However, it is currently the product of various specific exceptions, additions and compromises, meaning that regional equality is not observed, nor is representation-by-population. The normal number of senators can be exceeded by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, as long as the additional senators are distributed equally with regard to region (up to a total of 8 additional Senators). This power of additional appointment has only been used once, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to add eight seats to the Senate so as to ensure the passage of the Goods and Services Tax legislation.
The House of Commons currently has 308 members elected by a plurality of popular votes in separate constituencies (ridings) for mandates that cannot exceed five years. This fixed mandate has been exceeded only once, when Prime Minister Robert Borden perceived the need to do so during World War I. The size of the House and apportionment of seats to each province is revised after every census, conducted every five years, and is based on population changes and approximately on representation-by-population.
The election of a local MP gives a seat to one of the several political parties. The party that gets the most seats normally forms the government, with that party's leader becoming prime minister. The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the general population, although the Prime Minister is directly elected as an MP within his or her constituency.
Canada's parliamentary system empowers political parties and their party leaders. Where one party gets a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, that party is said to have a "majority government." Through party discipline, the party leader, who is only elected in one riding, exercises a great deal of control over the cabinet and the parliament.
A minority government situation occurs when the party that holds the most seats in the House of Commons still holds less than the opposition parties combined. In this scenario a party leader is selected by the Governor General to lead the government, however, to attempt to create stability, the person chosen must command the support of at least one other party.
Federal-provincial (or intergovernmental, formerly Dominion-provincial) relations is a regular issue in Canadian politics: Quebec wishes to preserve and strengthen its distinctive nature, western provinces desire more control over their abundant natural resources, especially energy reserves; industrialized Central Canada is concerned with its manufacturing base, and the Atlantic provinces strive to escape from being less affluent than the rest of the country.
In order to ensure that social programs such as health care and education are funded consistently throughout Canada, the "have-not" (poorer) provinces receive a proportionately greater share of federal "transfer (equalization) payments" than the richer, or "have," provinces do; this has been somewhat controversial. The richer provinces often favour freezing transfer payments, or rebalancing the system in their favour, based on the claim that they already pay more in taxes than they receive in federal government services, and the poorer provinces often favour an increase on the basis that the amount of money they receive is not sufficient for their existing needs.
Particularly in the past decade, some scholars have argued that the federal government's exercise of its unlimited constitutional spending power has contributed to strained federal-provincial relations. This power, which allows the federal government to spend the revenue it raises in any way that it pleases, allows it to overstep the constitutional division of powers by creating programs that encroach on areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal spending power is found in s. 102 of the Constitution Act, 1867. A prime example of an exercise of the spending power is the Canada Health Act, which is a conditional grant of money to the provinces. Delivery of health services is, under the Constitution, a provincial responsibility. However, by making the funding available to the provinces under the Canada Health Act contingent upon delivery of services according to federal standards, the federal government has the ability to influence health care delivery. This spending power, coupled with Supreme Court rulings — such as Reference re Canada Assistance Plan (B.C.) — that have held that funding delivered under the spending power can be reduced unilaterally at any time, has contributed to strained federal-provincial relations.
Monarchs, Governors General, and Prime Ministers are now expected to be at least functional, if not fluent, in both English and French. In selecting leaders, political parties give preference to candidates who are fluently bilingual.
Also, by law, judges from Quebec must hold three of the nine positions on the Supreme Court of Canada. This representation makes sure that at least three judges have sufficient experience with the civil law system to treat cases involving Quebec laws.
The predominant and lingering issue concerning Canadian national unity has been the ongoing conflict between the French-speaking majority in Quebec and the English-speaking majority in the rest of Canada. Quebec's continued demands for recognition of its "distinct society" through special political status has led to attempts for constitutional reform, most notably with the failed attempts to amend the constitution through the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord (the latter of which was rejected though a national referendum).
Since the Quiet Revolution, sovereigntist sentiments in Quebec have been variably stoked by the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 (without Quebec's consent) and by the failed attempts at constitutional reform. Two provincial referendums, in 1980 and 1995, rejected proposals for sovereignty with majorities of 60% and 50.6% respectively. Given the narrow federalist victory in 1995, a reference was made by the Chrétien government to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998 regarding the legality of unilateral provincial secession. The court decided that a unilateral declaration of secession would be unconstitutional. This resulted in the passage of the Clarity Act in 2000.
The Bloc Québécois, a sovereigntist party which runs candidates exclusively in Quebec, was started by a group of MPs who left the Progressive Conservative (PC) party (along with several disaffected Liberal MPs), and first put forward candidates in the 1993 federal election. With the collapse of the PCs in that election, the Bloc and Liberals were seen as the only two viable parties in Quebec. Thus, prior to the 2006 election, any gain by one party came at the expense of the other, regardless of whether national unity was really at issue. The Bloc, then, benefited (with a significant increase in seat total) from the impressions of corruption that surrounded the Liberal Party in the leadup to the 2004 election. However, the newly-unified Conservative party re-emerged as a viable party in Quebec by winning 10 seats in the 2006 election, meaning that Quebecers' electoral choices are now more complex.
Western alienation is another national-unity-related concept that enters into Canadian politics. Residents of the four western provinces, particularly Alberta, have often been unhappy with a lack of influence and a perceived lack of understanding when residents of Central Canada consider "national" issues. While this is seen to play itself out through many avenues (media, commerce, etc.), in politics, it has given rise to a number of political parties whose base constituency is in western Canada. These include the United Farmers of Alberta, who first won federal seats in 1917, the Progressives (1921), the Social Credit Party (1935), the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (1935), the Reconstruction Party (1935), New Democracy (1940) and most recently the Reform Party (1989). The Reform Party's slogan "The West Wants In" was echoed by commentators when, after a successful merger with the PCs, the successor party to both parties, the Conservative Party won the 2006 election. Led by Stephen Harper, who is an MP from Alberta, the electoral victory was said to have made "The West IS In" a reality. However, regardless of specific electoral successes or failures, the concept of western alienation continues to be important in Canadian politics, particularly on a provincial level, where opposing the federal government is a common tactic for provincial politicians. For example, in 2001, a group of prominent Albertans (including Harper) produced the Alberta Agenda, urging Alberta to take steps to make full use of its constitutional powers, much as Quebec has done.
The Liberal Party of Canada, under the leadership of Paul Martin, won a minority victory in the June 2004 general elections. In December 2003, Martin had succeeded fellow Liberal Jean Chrétien, who had, in 2000, become the first Prime Minister to lead three consecutive majority governments since 1945. However, in 2004 the Liberals lost seats in Parliament, going from 172 of 301 Parliamentary seats to 135 of 308, and from 40.9% to 36.7% in the popular vote. The Canadian Alliance, which did well in western Canada in the 2000 election, but was unable to make significant inroads in the East, merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada in late 2003. They proved to be moderately successful in the 2004 campaign, gaining seats from a combined Alliance-PC total of 78 in 2000 to 99 in 2004. However, the new Conservatives lost in popular vote, going from 37.7% in 2000 down to 29.6%. In 2006 the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, won a minority government with 124 seats. They improved their percentage from 2004, garnering 36.3% of the vote. During this election, the Conservatives also made major breakthroughs in Quebec. They gained 10 seats here, whereas in 2004 they had no seats.
This was the second minority government in Canada federally since 1979-1980. That government, led by Joe Clark, lasted only seven months. The situation, however, was different. The Clark government was elected in part because many voters did not want to support the Liberal party, but they did not expect that the Progressive Conservatives would win enough seats for a minority government.
Minority governments are not always short-lived. While they have not generally lasted four years, there have been minority governments in the time before 1979 that were fairly stable and able to pass legislation. Minority government situations in Canada may become somewhat difficult to manage though, as in the past there were only three parties that had a significant number of seats in parliament (fourth parties were at times represented in small numbers), although the third party has changed over time. This meant an alliance between the governing and third parties would have a solid majority. Since the 1930s, the third party was usually the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or later the New Democratic Party, which was created when an alliance was formed between labour unions and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The Social Credit Party of Canada was the third party at times. Before this, there were other parties that had significant influence; such as the Progressive Party in the 1920s.
No such governing coalition was able to form in the 38th Parliament.
A good part of the reasoning behind the change in funding was that union or business funding should not be allowed to have as much impact on federal election funding as these are not contributions from citizens and are not evenly spread out between parties. They are still allowed to contribute to the election but only in a minor fashion. The new rules stated that a party had to receive 2% of the vote nationwide in order to receive the general federal funding for parties. Each vote garnered a certain dollar amount for a party (approximately $1.75) in future funding. For the initial dispersement, approximations were made based on previous elections. The NDP received more votes than expected (its national share of the vote went up) while the new Conservative Party of Canada received fewer votes than had been estimated and has been asked to refund the difference. It should be noted that the province of Quebec was the first province to implement a similar system of funding many years before the changes to funding of federal parties.
Federal funds are disbursed quarterly to parties, beginning at the start of 2005. For the moment, this disbursement delay leaves the NDP and the Green Party in a better position to fight an election, since they rely more on individual contributors than federal funds. The Green party now receives federal funds, since it for the first time received a sufficient share of the vote in the 2004 election.
Commonly, two national debates receive nationwide coverage during an election, one in each official language. Both debates are broadcast in translation, so it is possible to watch either debate without a working knowledge of the language of the debate, although part of the meaning can be lost. People who are bilingual enough to understand both the English- and French-language debates without need of translation will get a better idea of the substances of the two debates and the differences between them if they decide to watch both debates.
Currently only the parties represented in Parliament participate in the debates. The Green Party, however, has argued that it should also be allowed to participate. Its share of the vote has increased greatly, due in part to the new funding formula, in part because it ran in many more ridings than in previous elections (it nominated candidates in every riding in the 2004 and 2006 elections), and in part to increased popularity. Thus the argument goes that if there is sufficient national support to earn official recognition as a party (i.e., one that is granted funding based on getting 2% or more of the national vote) it should also be allowed to debate on the same level as the other officially recognized parties.
Also, having received 6% of the vote in British Columbia and based on past precedent, the Greens will have a stronger case for being included in the debates in future elections. The Bloc Québécois was allowed to participate in debates on the basis of its support in Quebec - even before it had elected any MPs in a general election (the only Bloc's MPs at the time had either switched parties or won in by-elections). Furthermore, on the basis of anticipated support, the Reform Party of Canada was included in debates despite only having a single MP. Therefore, past party performance or number of seats is not how participants are chosen.
In 2007, news emerged of a funding loophole that "could cumulatively exceed the legal limit by more than $60,000," through anonymous recurrent donations of 199 dollars to every riding of a party from corporations or unions.