I got a fascinating letter from a reader about a story that really adds to it. First, the story from the 28 September 2008 issue:
Gerry Ritz, Canada’s Federal Agriculture Minister, has apologized for his gallows humor after a breakout of listeria, which has been traced to contaminated cut meats and cheeses. “This is like a death by a thousand cuts — or should I say cold cuts?” Ritz cracked during a conference call updating scientists and bureaucrats on the outbreak. When told of yet another death, this time on Prince Edward Island, he replied, “Please tell me it’s [opposition M.P.] Wayne Easter.” Ritz said his “couple of spur-of-moment offhand comments” were made during “a highly stressful time,” but admitted his jokes “were tasteless and completely inappropriate.” Easter has called for Ritz to resign. (Toronto Star) …But where is the outrage of Ritz trying to take the jobs of news commentators and late night comedians?
A Premium subscriber in Canada wrote to say that Easter isn’t just an opposition party M.P., he’s Ritz’s official critic. I wasn’t familiar with that concept, and asked him to explain. Magnus in B.C. did, and it’s so fascinating I’m reproducing it here.
In Canada, we have more parties than in the US — this upcoming election, we’ve actually got five MAJOR political parties, all of which are likely to get seats in our House of Commons. We have the Conservatives, a moderately right-wing party; the Liberals, a centrist party; the NDP, a left-wing party; the Bloq Quebecois, a separatist party; and the Green Party, a left-wing party. There are also numerous fringe parties. The party with the most seats names the Prime Minister, the leader of Canada. We’re having an election on October 14. Some call the elections in Canada “interesting”; others, a gong show.
You’ve no doubt noticed that if there are five parties, that means that there’s not always a party with the most seats. In that case, we end up with a “minority government”, where any bill passed must have the assent of at least two parties before it can be introduced. It makes for a less efficient, but more balanced, government. Before the election was called, the conservative party held a minority government. We use a “first past the post” election system, where the person with the most votes wins their riding. (That person can, and often does, have less than 50% of the popular vote.) The raw count from those ridings are used to determine the governing party in Canada directly, without the use of an Electoral College.
There are always opposition parties — the full title is “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. As the title implies, their job is to oppose the government in anything they do, and their loyalty to the country is never in question. (I’ve heard that in some countries, questioning the President or the government can bring your loyalty or patriotism into question! What a quirky notion!)
In the governing party (the one who chooses the Prime Minister) Ministers are appointed. A Minister has a portfolio, which is their job while they’re the Minister. The Industry Minister is in charge of Canada’s Industry; the Agriculture Minister is in charge of Canada’s agriculture, and so forth. They are ultimately responsible for any problems that arise while they’re holding the portfolio. In the case of Gerry Ritz, he’s responsible for the tainted meat from Maple Leaf. The idea is that if they had enacted better laws, the problems would not have happened.
The opposition party/parties appoint(s) “Critics”. For _every party_ and every Minister, there is a Critic. In the case of Gerry Ritz, he’s got *three* Agriculture Critics watching his every move. It is their duty and privilege to make the Minister answer for any misfortunes, laws, or actions that happen during their term. In the extremely rare case where a party gets an overwhelming lead, they will invite the leaders of the opposition parties to sit in the House and appoint their own members as Critics. This happened once at the provincial level.
I’m not sure how this will work with another party elected. Perhaps there will be four critics. Nevertheless, the critics are an integral part of Canada’s political system. They make it extremely difficult for the government to get away with anything in secret.
This may be old news for those in a parliamentary system, but it’s completely different from the U.S., where the press — the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth branch of government) — is supposed to do that watchdog function. Sometimes it does it well, and other times …uh… less well.
It would be interesting to debate which method works better — you can post your comments below. The most amusing aspect of this to me: even though it was unknowing, I really was right on about the critic taking work from news people!