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What your charity needs to know about the Federal 2012 Budget.

April 2nd, 2012 Comments off

People across Canada are talking about the Federal 2012 Budget introduced on March 29, 2012. If you’re a board member of a registered charity, there are important changes you need to know. How about snuggling up on the couch tonight and immersing yourself in the 498 page document? No? Ok then, we’ll tell you some of the things you need to know.

New for charities in the Federal 2012 Budget:

–          rules and sanctions regarding political activities by registered charities;

–          rules about gifts to foreign charitable organizations;

–          GST rebate for literary organizations in the acquisition of books for free distribution;

–          promoter penalties related to charitable donation tax shelters.

For further details on all of these items, check out the Budget Brief.

The Canada Revenue Agency has released a series of FAQs on changes proposed by the Federal Budget to gifts to foreign charitable organizations and transparency and accountability.

And in an interesting twist, Budget 2012 included an announcement about phasing out of the penny. Following the example of other countries, donations of “old coins” are being suggested. Although the details of this are not yet clear, it is something that your charity should keep an eye out for. For more information about this, check out this backgrounder.

Stay tuned to Charity Central’s newsletter, blog posts, and Twitter feed for more information on the impact of the Federal 2012 Budget.

 

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Alternative Voting Systems

May 10th, 2011 Comments off

Recently, we had a federal election here in Canada, and many people noticed that when all was said and done, the distribution of seats in the House of Commons didn’t very closely match the distribution of votes that each party received.  There is a good reason for this, and it has to do with the voting system we use here in Canada, a system known as “First Past the Post” or “Single Member Plurality”.  Given the recent election here in Canada, as well as the fact that people in the UK recently engaged in a referendum about whether they should change their voting system (they opted not to), we thought our readers might be interested in a brief overview of how our system works, what some of the alternatives are, and the history of alternative voting systems in Canada.

Single Member Plurality

Here in Canada, we use a system based on the Westminster parliamentary system found in the United Kingdom.  The Single Member Plurality system (also known as the “winner take all” system) has the advantage of being very easy to understand.  Basically, Canada is divided up into 308 geographical areas (known as “ridings”), and voters in those areas cast a ballot for the candidate that they feel would best represent them.  The candidate in each riding who garners the most votes is declared the winner and becomes a Member of Parliament.  There are a number of advantages to this system, not the least of which is that it is very simple.  People cast one vote, and that vote is directly accounted to a single candidate.  Moreover, it allows people to vote for a person who is explicitly responsible for the area that they live in, giving a sense of direct representation.

There are, however, some downsides to this system.  Because a candidate only has to get more votes than every other candidate to win, the winner doesn’t necessarily have to get the support of the majority of the voters in their riding.  Here is an example from the 2011 election:

Party Candidate Votes Percentage
Conservative John Baird 25,226 44.7
Green Party Mark MacKenzie 2,279 4.0
NDP-New Democratic Party Marlene Rivier 11,128 19.7
Liberal Anita Vandenbeld 17,790 31.5

Notice that Conservative candidate John Baird received the support of less than half of the voters in the riding, but because he received a plurality of votes (more votes than anyone else) he was declared the winner and will represent all of the voters in the House of Commons.

While this might seem somewhat unequal on a local level, the difference is even more pronounced if you look at the results across the entire country.  In our political system, the party that wins the largest number of seats is generally the party that forms the government, especially if that party wins a majority of the seats, as the Conservative Party did in 2011.  But, just as a candidate can win a riding without the support of the majority of voters, so too can a party win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons without the support of the majority of Canadians.  In the 2011 federal election, the popular vote each party received is as follows:

Green Party: 3.9%
Conservative Party: 39.6%
Liberal Party: 18.9%
NDP: 30.6%
Bloc Quebecois: 6.0%

But the actual percentage of seats that each party won was very different:

Green Party: 0.3%
Conservative Party: 54.2%
Liberal Party: 11.0%
NDP: 33.1%
Bloc Quebecois: 1.3%

In fact, if the seats in the House of Commons were distributed proportionally to the votes that each party received, the House would look very different:

Image by Bryan Beca. Click for full size

Read more…

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Contempt of Parliament? What does that even mean?

April 13th, 2011 Comments off

In the past few weeks, we have heard a great deal about “contempt of Parliament”.  This is because, for the first time in Canadian history, and apparently in Commonwealth history, an entire government has been found to be in contempt of Parliament. Naturally, the question that arises is: what does that actually mean?  Many Canadians had not ever heard the term before. As is often the case with matters of the legal sort, the answer is a bit long and we have to step back a bit to look at the greater context. Shall we?

In a parliamentary system (which Canada has), members (“Members”) of the House of Commons, the Senate and provincial/territorial legislative assemblies (the “House”) have something called “parliamentary privilege” . This concept was handed down to us from the British system (sometimes called the Westminster system) that we inherited under the Constitution Act 1867 (formerly known as the British North America Act). In fact, it is right there in the Constitution Act 1867 (“CA 1867”) – section 18, to be precise.

In a nutshell, parliamentary privilege (also sometimes called “absolute privilege”) is a kind of immunity which grants Members protection against civil or criminal liability for actions done or statements made related to one’s duties as a legislator. The Supreme Court of Canada once described it like this:

“Privilege” [...is] the legal exemption from some duty, burden, attendance or liability to which others are subject. It has long been accepted that in order to perform their functions, legislative bodies require certain privileges relating to the conduct of their business. It has also long been accepted that these privileges must be held absolutely and constitutionally if they are to be effective; the legislative branch of our government must enjoy a certain autonomy which even the Crown and the courts cannot touch.

In other words:  in order to do their jobs, they need a little leeway.

Then, there are two basic kinds of privilege:  individual privilege and collective parliamentary privilege. Individual parliamentary privileges include: freedom of speech; freedom from arrest in civil action; exemption from jury duty; the exemption from appearing as a witness;  the freedom from obstruction, interference, intimidation and molestation. Collective parliamentary privileges include: the power to discipline; the regulation of the House’s internal affairs; management of employees; authority to maintain the attendance and service of Members; the right to institute inquiries and to call witnesses and demand papers; the right to administer oaths to witnesses; and the right to publish papers containing defamatory material.

Ever wondered why politicians can say such nasty things inside the House: things they would never say outside the House? Now you know.

So what exactly does this have to do with contempt I hear you ask? Well, one of the most important rules about when parliamentary privilege applies is that no privilege can exceed the powers, privileges and immunities of the imperial Parliament as it stood in 1867, when the first Constitution was written (that what it says in section 18 of CA 1867). So…. there are limits (and we have known what those limits are for quite some time).  A member cannot push it too far. Result: if s/he does push it too far, there are consequences.  For example, if a Member violates a privilege, s/he can be in “breach of privilege” and s/he can be disciplined by the House. In addition…here it comes… if a Member goes beyond the limits of privilege, s/he can be determined to be in “contempt”, and disciplined by the House.  Also, if the government as a whole goes beyond the limits of privilege, it can be determined to be in “contempt”, and disciplined by the House.

In other words: a little leeway, yes;  too much leeway, no. The reasoning: too much privilege would actually get in the way of the House doing its job. So:  you guessed it, it is the oh-so-Canadian question of “balance”, yet again.

In some Commonwealth countries, this “contempt” is included in criminal law. In Canada, the issues stay within the House. Specifically, the rules about it can be found in the House of Commons Procedures and Practice Manual (the “Manual”) and similar documents relating to the Senate and provincial/territorial legislatures. Here is an excerpt from the House of Commons Manual:

Any disregard of or attack on the rights, powers and immunities of the House and its Members, either by an outside person or body, or by a Member of the House, is referred to as a “breach of privilege” and is punishable by the House.  There are, however, other affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges. Thus, the House also claims the right to punish, as a contempt, any action which, though not a breach of a specific privilege, tends to obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its functions; obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of the House in the discharge of their duties; or is an offence against the authority or dignity of the House, such as disobedience of its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its Members, or its Officers.  [...] The rationale of the power to punish contempts, whether contempt of court or contempt of the Houses, is that the courts and the two Houses should be able to protect themselves from acts which directly or indirectly impede them in the performance of their functions.

The result: there is no specific list of things that amount to contempt. We just know that if a Member/government goes beyond privilege, they might be found in contempt. This is how a lot of the law works, really:  you have to have a little direction, but you don’t want to tie your hands too much, as you want to be able to examine each case on its facts, and you want to leave yourself some flexibility to deal with new types of things you could not have anticipated in advance (in 1867 – who knew about Twitter?).

That said, actions which can amount to a contempt of Parliament vary, but typically include such things as: deliberately misleading (i.e.: lying to) the House or a parliamentary committee; refusing to testify  before, or to produce documents to, a House or committee; and attempting to influence a member, for example, by bribery or threats. The penalties for contempt of Parliament can include jail time, and, in the case of a minority Parliament, usually result in a vote of non-confidence.

OK…so given how much politicians are known to “spin” things, this contempt sanction should come up all the time, right? Wrong.

The use of the contempt is actually quite rare (if you are interested, the footnotes in the Manual contain the short list).  Think about it: nothing would get done if this were used all the time. There is, in essence, an acceptance by all sides that this is not be used as a knee-jerk reaction or a partisan tactic: it is to be used only in the most serious of circumstances.  This has to do with the very core of democracy, and it is not to be used lightly. As noted in the Manual:

The reluctance to invoke the House’s authority to reprimand, admonish or imprison anyone found to have trampled its dignity or authority and that of its Members appears to have become a near constant feature of the Canadian approach to privilege.

Even the procedures around how this finding gets made ensure that a concern about possible contempt is treated with the utmost care. Specifically, it has been the practice of the House in such instances to refer the matter to committee for investigation to determine if a contempt has been committed and therefore not prejudge the findings of the committee.

That is what occurred in this case. It started with a request from the House finance committee asking to see detailed cost breakdowns for jets, and the impact of corporate tax cuts and crime bills on the federal treasury.

Initially, the government said it could not release these details because they were protected by cabinet confidence, a principle that allows information to be kept secret and exempts it from access-to-information laws. The Opposition argued that once a government announces its intentions publicly, the information is no longer protected by cabinet confidence. On March, 9, 2011, the Speaker issued a report declaring two possible charges of contempt of Parliament. The first was against the Minister responsible for the Canadian International Aid Agency. It alleged that the Minister added the word “not” to a funding memo for an aid agency, resulting in the request being denied and lied about in testimony before a committee. The Speaker also ruled that Cabinet itself could also be in contempt of Parliament for not disclosing the cost of its crime policies and new fighter jets. He sent this report to a committee, which, on March 21, 2011, ruled that the government was in contempt of Parliament.  More specifically, it found that the government’s failure to produce all documents that had been requested from it or to provide a satisfactory explanation for withholding them impedes the ability of Members of Parliament (MPs) to carry out their duties, thereby resulting in contempt. On March 25, 2011 the finding of contempt then led to a vote on a motion of non-confidence, which resulted in the conclusion of the 45th session of Parliament, and caused the government the first to fall on a charge of contempt.

So why does this matter?  Either way you cut it, this was an historic vote. Only five other non-confidence votes have happened in Canada’s history, according to information on the Library of Parliament website. This is the first time it has occurred because a majority of MPs voted that they believed the government was in contempt of Parliament. It is a rather large moment in Canadian history and it is our obligation as citizens and voters to understand it.

Respecting Parliament is key to making Parliament work.  As voters, the question for each of us is: in that eternal Canadian question of balance, where is the line? At what point does “spin” become disrespect? The answer may be different for each of us. The point is, we need to think about it and decide. That is the beauty of our democracy!

For more information:

http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-2.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/03/25/pol-defeat.html

http://www2.parl.gc.ca/marleaumontpetit/DocumentViewer.aspx?Sec=Ch03&Seq=4&Lang=E

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A few words about coalitions….

March 28th, 2011 Comments off

Well, the parties are off and running and an election is on its way. As part of this, there has been a lot of talk about “coalitions”. A lot of that talk seems to imply that a coalition is a bad thing, or an unusual thing, or a scary thing. In truth, none of these things are true in and of themselves. A coalition is a normal part of our parliamentary system. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing. Let’s discuss.

The question of who forms the Canadian “government” at any given time is a question of how our members of parliament organize themselves: it can be a majority government, a minority government, or a coalition. When Canadians vote in a general election, they do not vote for a Prime Minister, nor do they vote for a government. Instead, Canadians vote for a member of parliament (“MP”) to represent their riding. This is integral to the system. In fact, the Constitution Act 1867 does not mention the prime minister or political parties – the focus in on MPs. Each MP gets a “seat” in the House of Commons. Currently, in all, 308 MPs are chosen. How MPs organize themselves is entirely up to them. This is why MPs are able to sit as independents. In fact, it is possible for there to be 308 independents. It just so happens, however, that most MPs have organized themselves into groupings known as parties. This simplifies the process of forming government, but it does not change the constitutional emphasis on individual MPs.

Once all of the MPs are elected, the Prime Minister (“PM”) is actually appointed by the Governor General (“GG”). The GG is the representative of the Queen, who, technically, is Canada’s head of state (in other words, the PM is not the head of state). The Prime Minister then chooses from among the MPs to appoint the members of the Cabinet. Once this is all organized, there is just one basic requirement: the government must at all times enjoy the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. In other words, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet can only remain as the “government” of Canada for as long as they have the support of a majority of the MPs.

If the majority of MPs are from one political party, the government is said to be a “majority” government. In such a case, it is generally expected that government will at all times enjoy the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. To help this process, the GG generally appoints as PM the leader of the political party that controls more than half of the seats in the House. However, when there is a “free vote” (a vote where MPs do not have to toe any party lines), it is still possible – even in a majority – for the government to lose the confidence of the majority. That would normally trigger an election.

If no party has the majority of seats there is, instead, more than one potential government. In such a case, the GG has to choose as the Prime Minister the Minister that is most likely to be able to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. In such a case, it is usually the leader of the political party who has the largest number of seats in the House (even though that number is not a majority). This is called a minority government. This is what occurred, among many other times, in 1921 (King), 1962 (Diefenbaker), 1965 (Pearson), 1972 (Trudeau), 1979 (Clark), 2004 (Martin) and most recently, in 2006 and 2008 when Stephen Harper was chosen as the leader. However, creating a minority government is not the only option. It is also possible for more than one party to formally partner together to create a larger number of MPs. This is known as coalition. In other words, a coalition government is a government with cabinet ministers from more than one party. This has occurred in Canada on the federal level (1864-1867 and 1917-1920), at the provincial level (for example in Manitoba in1940, in Ontario in 1985, and in Saskatchewan in 1985). It happens in other countries, too (for example: Germany, Ireland and Switzerland).

In all of this, there is one thing that remains constant: both a minority government and a coalition government need the support (be it formal or informal) of at least more than one party to do any work, because in both cases no one party has a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The only difference, really, is that in a “coalition”, the support is in the form of a formal agreement. In a minority government, on the other hand, the support occurs on a vote by vote basis (sometimes one party votes with the minority, sometimes a different one, sometimes all of them). In other words, anytime and every time there is a minority government, there are coalitions of sorts, because, by definition, a minority government cannot win any vote unless it has the support of MPs from other parties. And, on any confidence vote, if there is not a majority, the government falls. That is just how the math works. And that is what Canada’s current minority government has been doing since 2006: every piece of legislation that was passed in the House of Commons since 2006 (over 135 of them!) also had the votes of non-conservative MPs.

What can we take from this?

  • “Coalitions” (be they formal or informal) happen.
  • They have happened on numerous occasions (and to some of the biggest names in Canadian political history).
  • They have been successful on numerous occasions.
  • They are neither good nor bad per se.
  • They can serve a very real purpose of essentially forcing generally opposing parties to work together.
  • The current government has engaged in them (seeking and getting the support of all of the other parties, depending on the issue).
  • The current government has used the concept to do its work (example: over 135 bills were passed).

Result: coalitions are not to be feared. They are just part of our parliamentary system, like a lot of other things.

So, instead of worrying about coalitions in and of themselves, go look into the issues that matter to you. And be sure to vote. Voting is also part of our system – and nothing works without that! Citizens of other countries are literally fighting to the death for democracy. We already have one. Let’s make the most of it!

For more information, see the following articles.

http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/coalition-governments-canada

http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/house-commons-introduction-canadas-premier-legislative-body

http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/opposition-canadian-house-commons-role-structure-and-powers

http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/edmonton/Graham+Thomson+Quit+complaining+Just+vote/4508349/story.html

http://www2.parl.gc.ca/Sites/LOP/AboutParliament/Misc/DemocracyInAction/Democracy-e.asp

http://www2.parl.gc.ca/Parlinfo/compilations/parliament/DurationMinorityGovernment.aspx?Language=E

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What would the Christmas season be without some Constitutional shenanigans from Ottawa?

January 14th, 2010 1 comment

They’re at it again! Just when you thought that you had heard everything that you might ever want to know about prorogation… there is more to be learned. Shall we?

Shortly before Christmas, Parliament was adjourned. On December 30, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, to ask her permission to end the parliamentary session by proroguing Parliament (the second time in as many years that he has made this move). She agreed. A new session of Parliament is now set to begin on March 3, 2010 (whereas before, the old session would have just reconvened on January 25, 2010.)

As we learned last year, prorogation is a perfectly legal and legitimate action in parliamentary democracy.  So what is all the fuss about? Well, as is always the case with law, there is the letter of the law … and then there is the spirit and intent of the law. And not everyone agrees on the latter.

The arguments, in a nutshell, are as follows.

Facts both sides agree upon

  • Prorogation is legal.
  • This prorogation leads to an almost three month break.
  • The prorogation leads to all current work in both the Parliament and the Senate being shut down and having to start afresh in the next session.

One Side

  • It is only a difference of a few weeks from the original date that Parliament was to reconvene. The time span in question is not unreasonably long and well within the norm.
  • Prorogation is a routine action in our democracy and has already occurred 104 times in the past 140 years. The government is simply using an established political tool.
  • The government will use the extra time to put together the next steps of Canada’s economic recovery plan, and present it in a throne speech and budget. This is an urgent and pressing matter.
  • The government also needs the extra time to deal with, and properly represent Canada at, the Olympics.

The Other Side

  • Over two dozen bills will be left hanging and will need to be started from scratch. This is a bad example of fiscal management in a period of economic uncertainty.
  • Since this occurred just as Parliament asked for documents relating to the Afghan detainee scandal, it can be interpreted as the government trying to avoid scrutiny (and during a time when Canada will be on the public stage).
  • Prorogation is being used in a way that it was not intended, in order for the government to have an easier time passing its laws later, after it has appointed enough Conservative senators to create a majority in the Senate.
  • Being the government means governing the country; it does not mean governing only if and when convenient and comfortable, and having a few urgent issues does not mean a government can ignore all else.

So – you be the judge! Is this becoming a pattern that fundamentally changes the face of Canadian democracy?

For more information on prorogation, please see the following resources:

From the November /December 2009 Parliamentary Democracy issue of LawNow magazine (Volume 34, Issue 2):

Canadian Legal FAQs – Prorogation of Parliament

The Parliamentary Cycle

The Parliament of Canada

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