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November 29th, 2006

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08:40 pm - Parliamentary System vs. Presidential System (aka Canada vs. USA)
So last night, in my POL 1101 class, I actually learned something quite useful and also something that's been bugging me for quite awhile.  What are the differences between Canada's Parliamentary System and the USA's Presidential System?  Most of us know the two systems are different, we have a Prime Minister, they have a President, we have a Members of Parliament and they have a Congress.  Both systems are democratic, so exactly how different are they?  And where do these differences lie?  So, I'm going to make a post on the two systems and perhaps someone who might have been pondering the same things will find this helpful.  First off, some abbreviations and terms to define:

Prime Minister = PM
Member(s) of Parliament = MP
Governour General = GG


Executive = The executives are basically the group of people at the top of political power in the nation.  They help set and execute laws and administer government departments and agencies.
Legislator(s) = Those who pass legislation/bills.
Cabinet = The head of government departments (ie.  Department of Defense, Department of Public Safety, etc.) make up the Cabinet.  They are picked by the PM/president and not elected.  In Canada, they are called "Ministers" (Minister of Public Safety), in the USA they are known as "Secretaries" (Secretary of Defense).
Legislation/Bills = These are the issues debated within governments and, if passed, are written into laws.
Parliamentary dissolution = The break-up of the current government followed most likely by a general election.
General Election = Basically a federal election.
Separation of Power = the separation between the legislative and executive branches in each system.
The party = A political party.  In the case of Canada, the 3 main ones are Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP; in the USA the 2 main ones are Republicans and Democrats.

There are 3 branches to every nation's government systems; Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.  We're only going to focus on Executive and Legislative and see where the similarities and differences lie.
Ok, let's first start with the Canadian Parliamentary System.  The Canadian system is also referred to as the Responsible Government.  Here's what a diagram of it looks like:

The Crown, usually the Queen, in this case the Governor General who is a representative of the Queen, the PM and the Cabinet, as you can see, makes up the executives for Canada.  For the Legislators, it includes the PM, Cabinet, House of Commons, and the Senate.  Let's take a quick look at each of them and how they're selected:

Governour General - the representative of the Crown in Canada.  She/he is the head of state and also in charge of the Canadian military (technically).

PM - elected by the people "indirectly".  See section "How the Prime Minister is elected" below for more information.

- selected by the PM.  Cabinet ministers MUST have a seat in the Parliament, traditionally in the House of Commons, but technically it can be the Senate too.

House of Commons (sometimes called the House)
- elected by the people.  They are called Members of Parliament, or MP's, and each  is elected from a specific region in the country.  There are 308 seats in the House.

- Historically, the Senate was known as the Upper House, or the House of Lords and only nobles and aristocrats could sit in this House.  Nowadays, the members of the Senate are selected by the PM.  There is a designated number of seats for specific regions in Canada.  There are 105 seats in the Senate.

So, how did Canada's "Responsible Government" come about?  Well, it starts with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain.  Before that revolution, the monarchy (aka the Royal family) had absolute control over everything.  The Glorious Revolution shifted the power and placed that power in the hands of the PM and Cabinet. This put a check on the monarchy's power, especially in the area of money-related issues such as nation spendings, taxation, etc.

In Theory
Now where's the "separation of power" between the legislative and executive branches?  Well it's pretty obvious that the government (in this case, used to represent the party currently in power) does not represent the entire population of Canada.  Therefore, in theory, the opposition (party with the 2nd most number of votes in the last election is called the opposition) is supposed to represent the rest of Canada that the government does not.  Now here's the important thing, if a bill or legislation is debated in the House of Commons, and rejected, the opposition has the ability to enter a "Motion of Confidence", this is usually tied to a bill involving money or taxation.  If the "Confidence" of the House is lost, the government MUST be dissolved and a general election MUST be called.  This ability by the opposition to basically throw out the government is the key point to "Responsible government".  Because it is usually the Cabinet that puts forth bills and legislations to be discussed, and the approval theoretically depends on the decision of the MP's in the House of Commons, this is technically the "separation of power" in the Canadian government.

The Senate is NOT a chamber of Confidence, meaning that it does not hold the power to dissolve the government as the House of Commons does, however, bills have to be approved by the Senate before it can be set in stone.

This all works well when the government is a minority and bills can be rejected (a minority government means that the ruling party does not have at least 51% of the seats in the House of Commons.  This is possible because there are more than 2 political parties in the Canadian government), however, what happens when the government has a majority in the House of Commons?  A majority government in Canada means that the current party is ruling with at least 51% of the seats in the House, so if a bill is purposed, it can be passed with no obstacles in the House.  This is especially problematic since the PM and the Cabinet members also have seats in the House of Commons or Senate.  In this way, the "separation of power" becomes blurred.  This is sometimes referred to as a "fusion of power" (fusion of the executive and legislative branches).

How the Prime Minister is elected
Canadians vote for the PM in an indirect way.  On our vote ballots, we vote for MP's and not the actual PM.  The party with the most MP's that gets voted becomes the ruling party and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister.  Canadian elections are not fixed to a specific time-frame and are dependent purely on when the PM decides to call for one.


Now onto the American Presidential System.  The USA system is known as a System of Institutional Checks and Balances.  Here's the diagram:

So, let's once again see how each of these branches are selected:
President - the president is elected by the people "directly" in an "indirect" way.  See section "How the President is elected" below for more information.  He is the commander and chief of the nation, including the military.  He does NOT have a seat in the Congress

Cabinet - selected by the president, however, unlike the Canadian system, they CANNOT be a member of the Congress, in other words the Executives and the Legislators are completely separated.

House of Representatives - elected by the people every 2 years.  There are435 seats in the House of Reps and each member represents a specific region.  These regions are chosen based on population density.

Senate - also elected by the people.  Every 2 years, 1/3 of the seats are up for re-election.  There are 2 senators per state making a total of 100 seats.

Congress - the House of Reps and the Senate makes up the what is known as the Congress.

Committees - the members of the House and the Senate are broken up into committees.  They are proportional to party-representation in the House or Senat (ie.  If 60% of the members in the House of Reps are Democrats, then the Democrats will get 60% representation in each House Committee).

Because the USA gained their independence from Britain through a war (The War of Independence), they loathed the British Parliamentary System, believing that the Executives had too much power.  Thus, they wanted to create a completely new government system, one that would place a "check" on the power of the Executives.

In Theory
In the American system, the President CANNOT initiate bills or legislation, only members of the Congress can (however the President can get a member of the congress to do so for him/her).  As mentioned above, since the President and his/her Cabinet cannot be members of the Congress, there is complete separation of power between the executive and legislative branches of the government.  Since all bills MUST be passed by Congress, the Congress has the ability to check the power of the President and the Cabinet.  Also, the national budget HAS to be passed by Congress before it can be implemented.  The President does, however, have what's known as the "Presidential Veto" (America likes these veto's don't they?).

Presidential Veto
The Presidential Veto is basically if a bill has been passed by Congress, the President can "veto" it.  Then the bill has to return to Congress and re-voted upon.  If the Congress can get a 2/3 majority to still pass it, then the bill gets passed even if the President does not consent.

There is no such thing as a "Motion of Confidence" in the Presidential System.  That means the American system is not one of "Responsible government"  (still a democracy though).  This also means unpopular presidents' cannot be unseated (and I think we've all experienced why that's a bad thing with this current president).  Also, because the Executive and Legislative branches are so separate, it can result in a gridlock where as it did with one of Preside Bill Clinton's budgets'.  The Congress would not approve it and so civil servants went unpaid for a few weeks until finally a resolution was found.

How the President is elected
Presidential elections are held every 4 years in the USA.  The American citizens vote for their president "directly" in an "indirect way".  What this means is that when Americans go to the ballot box to vote, instead of like Canadians who must vote for their MP and through their MP represent which party they prefer in power, voters get to choose directly the president.  However, the USA uses a system of "Electoral Colleges".  There are 538 electoral college votes in all of America and the amount of electoral colleges in each states depends on the number of Representatives it has in the House of Reps and its Senators.  If one party wins the majority of the electoral college votes in one state, then all the votes in that state belongs to that party.  This caused much controversy in the 2000 election of Bush against Gore.  By a simple majority, the majority of votes was in favour of Gore.  However, in Florida, Bush won a majority of the 24 electoral college votes thus making all 24 votes go into his party, making him the victor.

So...which system's better?  I don't know, they've both got their good and bad parts (as does everything else).  But like I've said before, as long as the interest of the people is placed at the forefront of a government's agenda, it can be a dictator and the country will still flourish.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:December 1st, 2006 01:16 am (UTC)
Well,we learned about this in our comparative politics class recently and it would be fair to say that the American system is a sound system for maintaining th integrity of a federal system; there are so many checks and balances in their system that the government can be characterized as a giant bureaucracy, and is very democratic in the sense that members of the House of Representatives (HOR) are not obligated to their parties as MPs in the HOC are in Canada (party discipline and party whip). The HOR and Congress are accountable to their constituents and are able to represent and address the needs of their peoples. American federalism would benefit from adopting Canada's "responsible government" and "confidence of the House", instead of fixed elections and terms (this would be a viable solution to removing Bush, make government more accountable to the people, and reinforce the "rule of the people").Thanks for stimulating the brain, and good luck studying for finals (I know I'm trying!)!-Banish the Queen!-James
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Date:December 1st, 2006 05:24 am (UTC)
I think the "very democratic" part is subject to debate there James, I think both systems have some major issues with representing the voice of the people, they're both more like games for the political elites. Besides, so many checks and balances doesn't necessarily mean a good thing if you want things to get done quickly and efficiently. They're good in the case of Bush since there's more of a chance that any retarded thing he comes up with will get stopped (though that didn't stop the Patriot Act from going through, major job failure on the part of the Congress), but if you do get a president that does (heaven forbid) want to pass bills that benefit the people (like say, public health care), and the Congress decides to be retards (much too possible in the USA), then I'd say we have a problem.
Date:December 2nd, 2006 05:09 am (UTC)
Of course I'm speaking theoretically; no system, no matter how idealistic (American federalism) it is, is perfect. In theory, the American system ensures the integrity of democracy with its fragmented system; I agree with you that checks and balances can act as impedements to any proposal with potential benefits to actual people, but american federalism is more democratic in the sense the HOR reps vote of conscience (or better put in the favour of their constituents) rather than MPs here which are disciplined in line with their parties.cheers-James

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