Lesson #23 : Comparative Government — Part II

I thought I would spend today’s JuicyLesson clarifying some of the issues I raised yesterday.

The appointed Senate has less power than the elected Commons and this is as it should in our democratic political system. That being said, the Senate is also referred to as the Upper House. Why?; and why is the more powerful House sometimes called the Lower House? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

The Canadian Senate is derived from the British House of LORDS. The Lords are mostly aristocrats, hence the name Upper House for the House of Lords in the U.K. and the Senate here.

The predominant colour in both the House of Lords and the Senate is red, the colour associated with royalty, while green is dominant in the Commons and represents colour of the grass on which the “Commoners” sit. The Lower House, the House of “common people” as distinct from the aristocrats in the Canadian upper house, has more power than the Senate because the Commons is elected and the Senate is not. As I said yesterday in a democracy, elected bodies must be dominant within the power structure. Even though all bills passed by the Commons have to be approved by the Senate (and v.v.), the appointed Senate never exercises its theoretical power to veto laws proposed by the P.M. and his cabinet and passed by the elected House of Commons. The terms “Upper House” for the Senate and “Lower House” for the House of Commons are just labels, meaningless in terms of the actual operations of government.

For example, the elected House alone has the power to originate money bills with the appointed Senate only being able to delay the passage of these bills for two months, I believe. After that these bills automatically become law regardless of whether they have been approved by the Senate or not. In other words, when it comes to money bills, the Senate has the power to exercise a suspensive veto only.

In both systems, the legislatures are bicameral. However, whereas the House and the Senate in the USA are both ELECTED, only one of our Houses of Parliament is elected (The House of Commons). The other “camera” (from the Latin for “room”), the Senate, has it’s members APPOINTED by the British monarch on the advice of the Canadian Prime (=most important) Minister. The fact of the matter is that the P.M. appoints Senators through the Queen and cabinet ministers through David Johnson, presently our Governor General.

When I said yesterday that the Prime Minister and his cabinet are indirectly elected, what does that mean?

In the case if the Prime Minister, he is first chosen as a head of his political party. If his party gets more seats than any other in an election, this person becomes P.M. Unlike the President who is directly elected, the P.M.’s name is only found on the ballot in one single constituency. It is therefore theoretically possible for a P.M. to lose while his party as a whole wins an election. The same thing can happen in the U.S., but for a different reason since the names of all Presidential candidates are on every ballot in the entire country and because the President does not derive his power from the legislature like the Prime Minister does.

In the case of the cabinet, its members must first be elected to the Commons. Then their party must win the election. If those two preconditions are fulfilled, and then the M.P. Is selected by his/her party’s leader, he/she becomes a cabinet minister. This post is not won by direct election. No one knows when they go to the polls who will be in the cabinet. We vote more for parties in Canada than we do for individuals. In the last election, the Conservatives won a majority of the 308 seats in the Commons. Stephen Harper, the head of the Conservative party became the Prime Minister. He then chose his cabinet, the ministers, from amongst the the Conservatives in the House. The United States works differently; we will look at the American system in more detail in Sunday’s JuicyLesson (#24).

Issue of an extra component to the legislative process in the U.S.A.: the President, part of the executive, can veto laws which have already been passed by both the House and the Senate. Congress, too, has veto power over presidential legislation sent to it for approval. Remember that the executive branch of the U.S. government is not part of the American legislature; in Canada the executive branch is part of the Commons and derives its power from the legislature. Since Conservatives have the majority of seats in the Commons, it is guaranteed that any bills presented for a vote to this body will pass due to the system of block voting. Block voting means that all members of all Commons’ parties must vote as a block on most bills. Block voting doesn’t exist in the United States; often we see southern Democrats voting on the same side as southern Republicans. In other words, the “right” sticks together against Democrats and Republicans from the north, both of these groups leaning more to the “left”.

Possibility of conflict over bills between the American executive and legislative branches which could never happen in Canada. Why is this true? Part of the answer to this question has just been given. Stay tuned for Sunday’s JuicyLesson and the rest of this response.

Have a great week-end.

Peace out.

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