Cablegate: Elections in Canada: A "How to" Primer

DE RUEHOT #0305/01 0592045
P 282045Z FEB 08





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. Ottawa 257
- - B. Ottawa 221 and previous

1. (U) Summary: In Canada's parliamentary system, governments
must retain the "confidence" of the House of Commons to govern. The
Governor General may dissolve the House of Commons -- on the advice
of the prime minister - if a sitting government fails to win a
"confidence" measure. Minority governments, such as the current
one, are especially vulnerable to such defeats. During a federal
election, the Prime Minister and Cabinet remain in place, but the
Commons ceases to meet and all pending legislation dies. New
elections usually take place about 36 days after dissolution in all
"ridings," with the Governor General then calling upon the leader of
whichever party wins a majority, or the largest minority, to form a
new government. There are strict limits on campaign financing,
spending, and advertising. The current government under Prime
Minister Stephen Harper faces at least four upcoming confidence
measures by the end of March. If it survives them, it might remain
in office until October 19, 2009 under a 2007 law that established a
fixed date for elections on a four-year cycle. Canada's free and
fair elections set an outstanding model for the world; Elections
Canada has organized over 400 international democratic development
missions in 100 countries to share its expertise. End summary.


2. (U) Canada inherited a parliamentary system from the United
Kingdom, in which the leader of the political party that wins a
majority of seats -- at least 155 out of 308 -- in the House of
Commons becomes the Prime Minister and forms a Cabinet. In the
event that there is no majority, the Governor General (representing
the Queen) asks the leader of the party that wins the largest number
of seats (even though still only a minority) to form a government.
(The ruling Conservatives currently have 126 seats, the Liberal
Party 94, the Bloc Qubcois 49, and the New Democratic Party 30.
There are four Independents and five vacancies.) The Governor
General dissolves Parliament on the advice of the prime minister
when a ruling government loses a vote of "confidence" in the House
of Commons, i.e., on significant fiscal bills, the Speech from the
Throne (the government's overall policy blueprint), and on any other
major bills or motions that the government may designate as
confidence measures, or at any other time the prime minister may
advise. Since passage of new legislation on elections in 2007, the
Governor General must also call for new elections on a fixed four
year cycle for the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar

year following the previous federal election. The first such
election will be on October 19, 2009 if the government of Prime
Minister Stephen Harper survives all upcoming confidence votes

3. (U) To call a new federal election, the Governor General signs
a Royal Proclamation ordering separate writs (orders) -- called
"dropping the writ" -- authorizing Elections Canada (a non-partisan,
independent agency that reports to Parliament) under the Canada
Elections Act to conduct elections in each of the 308 federal
"ridings," the Canadian equivalent of a U.S. Congressional district
or a constituency. The Governor General sets the date of the
election and the date when Parliament will reconvene. The campaign
must last a minimum of thirty-six days, and polling date must fall
on a Monday, although it may fall on a Tuesday if the desired date
is a public holiday. There is no maximum length for these
campaigns, but the custom is to stick to thirty-six days.
Qcampaigns, but the custom is to stick to thirty-six days.


4. (U) Political parties must register with Elections Canada, have
a minimum of 250 members, and field at least one candidate. In the
2006 federal election, there were fifteen registered parties, of
which only four won seats. The Bloc Qubcois runs candidates only
in the province of Quebec. Approximately 5 per cent of candidates
run as independents. Elections Canada conducts the election, trains
and funds election officers, and monitors financing and other rules.
Voter turn out in the 2006 election was 64.7% (60.9% in 2004).


5. (U) There is no limit on the amount of money that parties and
individual candidates may raise, but total election spending is
capped. Parties and individual candidates are subject to separate
limits that vary according to the number of voters in each riding.
For registered parties, the formula is C$.70 (adjusted annually for
inflation) multiplied by the number of registered electors in each

riding in which each party is running a candidate. In the 2006
federal election, the total spending cap per party was
C$18,278,278.64. For candidates, the formula is C$2.07 for each of
the first 15,000 electors in the riding; C$1.04 for each of the next

OTTAWA 00000305 002 OF 003

100,000 electors; and C$0.52 for each of the remaining electors (all
figures adjusted annually for inflation). Only Canadian citizens
and permanent residents may donate to registered parties, to a
maximum of C$1,100 per individual per calendar year; contributions
in cash are limited to C$20 to allow Elections Canada to track
financing. Tax credits are available for political donations. The
law prohibits all donations from corporations, trade unions, and
other associations.

6. (U) Parties that receive at least 2 per cent of valid votes
cast nationally, or 5 per cent in the ridings they have contested,
are entitled to a refund of fifty per cent of their eligible
election expenses from public funds. Candidates who receive at
least ten per cent of votes cast in their riding are eligible for
reimbursement of sixty per cent of their election expenses. In
addition, registered parties that receive 2 per cent of valid votes
nationally, or 5 per cent in ridings they have contested, are
eligible for an ongoing annual allowance of C$1.75 for each vote won
(indexed to inflation) in the previous federal election.

--------------------------------------------- ------

7. (U) Elections Canada regulates and allocates media broadcasting
time -- both paid and free -- in consultation with the political
parties. Broadcasters are legally required collectively to provide
429 minutes of paid time in prime time periods at subsidized rates.
Networks that receive public funding (e.g., CBC) must collectively
also provide free time at least equal to the time they provided in
the previous election (654 minutes in 2006) and divide it among the
parties. No party may exceed a 50% share of regulated broadcasting
time, but parties may buy extra time at the discretion of
broadcasters at market rates. All election advertising expenses are
subject to the maximum spending cap per candidate and party.
Election advertising and the broadcasting of previously unreleased
public opinion surveys is prohibited on election day.

8. (U) Election advertising by third parties is limited to
C$179,400 per organization and to C$3,588 per riding. Third parties
-- defined as a person or group, including an unincorporated trade
union, trade association, corporation, or other group of persons
acting together by mutual consent for a common purpose -- must
register with Elections Canada upon incurring C$500 in
election-related advertising expenses. Such advertising must
identify the third parties and state that they funded the ad. Third
parties must also appoint a financial auditor for election
advertising expenses over C$5,000, may not accept anonymous or
foreign-sourced funds, and must submit detailed financial accounts
-- including names of all donors -- to Election Canada of all
election advertising spending within four months after election day.

9. (U) The Conservative Party and Elections Canada are currently in
litigation in the Federal Court of Canada over Elections Canada's
decision to disallow expense claims for election advertising for at
least thirty-eight Conservative candidates in 2006. Elections
Canada alleges that the Conservative Party transferred more than C$1
million -- in so-called "in-and-out" transactions -- between itself
and its candidates' campaigns to buy advertising that actually
promoted the national party, although candidates subsequently filed
for reimbursement under personal campaign expenses. If the
Conservative Party cannot prove that the expenses were legitimately
incurred by its candidates, the payments will push the national
Qincurred by its candidates, the payments will push the national
Conservative campaign over the spending cap, put the party in
violation of the Elections Act, and subject it to a maximum fine of
C$25,000. Any party convicted of the serious charge of willful
collusion to exceed expense limits also faces possible
deregistration. The Conservative Party denies that it broke the


10. (U) Canada practices a "single-member plurality" or
"first-past-the-post" system, in which the candidate with the most
votes in each riding wins the seat. All Canadian citizens aged
eighteen or over are eligible to vote. Elections Canada maintains a
permanent voters' list -- the National Register of Electors -- with
information (name, address, gender, and date of birth) that it
continuously updates based on federal, provincial, and territorial
data sources. Citizens may choose not to be included in the list,
but then must register for each election at a polling station or
with an election official by providing evidence of eligibility.
Voters do not register as members of a political party and there are
no fees to vote. Voting is by secret ballot. Elections Canada
appoints an impartial returning officer in each electoral riding to
rent space for polling stations, hires non-partisan poll clerks to
staff the stations, and oversees the conduct of the election. On
polling day, each political party may also assign one representative
to each polling station as a "scrutineer" to observe the election.

OTTAWA 00000305 003 OF 003

11. (U) On election day, polling stations are open for twelve
consecutive hours, with hours of voting staggered across time zones
to allow the majority of results to become available at
approximately the same time nationwide (9:30 p.m. EST). Election
results from other ridings or regions are blacked out until all
polls close in that riding. Elections Canada officially validates
results within seven days of the election, returns the writs six
days after validation, and publishes the results, at which point
they are considered official. The House of Commons reconvenes on
the date set by the Governor General in the initial Royal
Proclamation, or at a later date if so authorized in a new
Proclamation on the advice of the prime minister. There is no rule
regarding how quickly Parliament should meet after an election, but
the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires that Parliament
sit at least once every twelve months.


12. (U) The prime minister and Cabinet continue to exercise their
duties throughout a campaign and election. If the party of an
incumbent prime minister wins the election, the prime minister and
Cabinet do not need to be sworn in again, with the exception of
ministers who change portfolios or new ministers appointed to
Cabinet for the first time. If the governing party loses the
election, the prime minister and cabinet remain in office during a
transition period, the length of which is negotiated between the
incoming and outgoing governments (usually ten to fourteen days).
The outgoing Cabinet resigns en masse immediately prior to the
swearing-in of an incoming Cabinet.


13. (U) Canada upholds a high standard for free and fair
elections. It is in the first tier of Freedom House's index of
countries that protect and promote the political and civil rights of
their citizens, including organization of truly democratic
elections. Since 1980, Elections Canada has organized some 400
international democratic development missions in 100 countries.

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