Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Daily Strike-2/19/09-Oh Canada!, SPECIAL Vocab

Good Thursday evening and welcome to the Daily Strike! Obama took his first international trip today, and yes, it was to our friendly neighbors up North.

OBAMA TO CANADA: The President today traveled to Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General Michelle Jean (she's a representative of Queen Elizabeth II, who sure enough, is still the Head of State of Canada) and liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. Obama and Harper talked about a number of things. They discussed Afghanistan, though Obama didn't pressure Harper to rescind his goal of getting all Canadian troops out of there by 2011. The two also discussed trade, with Obama assuring Harper that the U.S. will support expanding trade with Canada, not decreasing it, as he implied during the Democratic primary campaign. They also discussed energy and the economy.

The visit probably helped Harper much more than it helped Obama. Harper was forced to suspend the parliament last year because he was about to be ousted from his position over a budget dispute. Obama is very popular in Canada.

He helped his popularity by surprising people at an Ottawa market by making a few purchases on the fly, including a maple syrup cookie. The Canadian website (which the Strike sometimes goes to for hockey news) was marveling at how Obama tried to pay with Loonies (one dollar in Canadian currency) instead of U.S. dollars.

CALIFORNIA: Quickly disposing of other items: We haven't talked too much about state politics here, but the situation in California got crazy rather fast. Because of Prop. 13, an anti-tax ballot initiative passed in 1978, it takes 2/3rds of the state assembly to approve any tax increase. Why does this matter? California has a huge budget deficit, and was facing the potential of massive layoffs of state workers. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had been negotiating closely with the Democratic majorities in the state assembly and senate to enact a passage of tax increases and spending cuts as part of a new budget. Republican lawmakers wouldn't play ball for a long time, and because their votes were needed to get the necessary 2/3rds majority, they held a good deal of negotiating power. Up until yesterday, legislators were one vote short of a compromise, but couldn't get another Republican to sign on. It's not a surprise either, considering that the Republican senate leader was stripped of his title after agreeing to a tax increase during negotiations (talk about ideological purity!). The impasse was finally broken today when one Republican defected and decided to support the budget. You can thank Abel Maldonado of the Central Valley. Still, the budget cuts $15 billion from public education funding, which will make the already strained public school system even worse. Hopefully Obama's stimulus package will help to ease some of that pain.

SPECIAL VOCAB: Today, after a long hiatus, we bring you another vocab word. And since today was a slow day politically, we'll leave this country and stay with today's theme: Canada. Yes, today's term is "Canadian Parliament." Canada's government is a parliamentary system. It's head of state, as I mentioned above, is Queen Elizabeth who governs through the Governor General. The Governor General position is largely ceremonial. The real power lies, like in other parliamentary systems, in the House of Commons. The House of Commons has 308 members, elected from individual districts (called "ridings"). Unlike the United States, the executive and legislative branches in Canada are both vested in the parliament. After an election is held, the new members of parliament must form a government. Since there are multiple parties, oftentimes the "winning" party will not earn a majority of seats. Either they can combine with another party to form a governing coalition, or they can govern in a "minority government," which means that they form a government despite only holding a plurality of seats. Currently, the Conservative party has 143 seats, the Liberal party has 77 seats, the "Bloc Quebecois" (a group conservative group devoted to the sovereignty of the Quebec province) has 49 seats, and the center-left New Democrat party has 27 seats. The remaining two seats are held by independents. For those of you scoring at home, even if the two "left-wing parties" came together, they would only hold 104 seats, far short of the conservative party's total.

The leader of the governing party is the Prime Minister (currently Stephen Harper). The cabinet is made up of members of parliament from the governing party.

So basically, once your party has a plurality of seats, it can do pretty much whatever it wants. Since only a majority of the parliament is required to pass legislation, and executive power is vested in the parliament, there are no checks and balances (not like we do it here in America!). No vetoes, no filibusters, no shenanigans.

Oh yeah, except for the stupid Canadian Senate. This 105 member "upper chamber" must approve legislation as well, though in practice, they are mostly deferential to the House of Commons. The Senators in Canada are appointed by the Prime Minister and can serve until they are 75 years old. Apparently, there have been several movements to abolish the Senate, because many Canadians feel that the institution is unnecessary and undemocratic, but it still exists.

So what happened last year that threatened Stephen Harper's run as Prime Minister? In September, the Canadians held a federal election in which the conservative party gained seats, though they still did not have a outright majority in the parliament. After the election, the conservatives presented a controversial budget that drew the ire of all opposition parties. The parties were so angry, in fact, that they decided to come together and try to oust the parliament. The parliament can vote to dissolve the government in what's called "a vote of no confidence," which mandates new elections. If the two liberal parties were to combine with the more conservative Quebecois party, they would have had the votes to dissolve the parliament. So Stephen Harper, in desperation, asked Governor General Michelle Jean to "prorogue" (or suspend) the government to resolve the dispute. Jean consented to the request, and Harper had enough time to come up with a budget that the liberal parties could accept.

So there you have it. Those hockey-loving Canucks have an interesting system of government. And that's today's vocab.

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