In one sense, the Constitution of Canada is very old and, in another sense, it is very new.
The Constitution Act of 1867 (formerly called the British North America Act 1867 and still known informally as the BNA Act), is a major part of Canada's Constitution. The Act created a federal dominion and defines much of the operation of the government of the country including its federal structure, its bicameral legislature, the justice system, and the taxation system. The British North America Acts, including the 1867 Act, were renamed in 1982 with the patriation of the Canadian constitution to Canada.
A key feature of the Canadian political system is the difference between the largely French-speaking province of Québec which has a large measure of autonomy and the rest of Canada which is overwhelmingly English-speaking. At times, the political pressures inside Québec for the province to secede from the remainder of Canada have been very powerful but currently seem to be more dormant.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
Like Australia, Canada is a constitutional monarchy so the Head of State is the monarch of the United Kingdom, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch exercises power through a Governor-General at federal level plus Lieutenant Governors at provincial level and Commissioners at territory level. The Governor-General is advised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and by convention acts on this advice.
Since Canada has a large cultural cleavage between Francophone and Anglophone citizens, the position of Governor-General is assigned alternately to a French speaker and an English speaker.
For all practical purposes, however, the head of the executive is the Prime Minister who by convention is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. Currently this is Stephen Harper who heads the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is a key feature of the Candian power structure and, over the years, the PMO has been seen as more and more powerful.
The Prime Minister appoints a Cabinet which by convention usually consists of at least one minister per province. As in the British model of government, Ministers generally come from one of the two chambers of the legislature and, if they are not already in the Commons or the Senate, they will quickly be elected or nominated respectively. Again as in the British model, the size of the Cabinet is a matter for the Prime Minister and therefore fluctuates from the lower 20s to almost 40.
The Cabinet is referred to either in relation to the prime minister in charge of it or, more formally, the number of ministries since Confederation in 1867. The current cabinet is the Harper Cabinet, which is part of the 29th Ministry (membership of the Cabinet and the Ministry may not be identical).
Like the United States, Canada is one of the few countries that locates its parliament and government in a political capital that is not its major city, so it is in Ottawa and not Toronto.
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
In the Canadian political system, the lower chamber is the House of Commons which takes its name from the lower house in the British political system. The Commons consists of 308 members known as - like their British counterparts - Members of Parliament (MPs).
Members are elected by the first-past-the-post system (as in Britain) in each of the country's electoral districts which are colloquially known as ridings (constituencies in Britain). Seats in the House of Commons are distributed roughly in proportion to the population of each province and territory, but some ridings are more populous than others and the Canadian constitution contains some special provisions regarding provincial representation.
The maximum term of MPs is four years but it is common for a general election to be called after a lesser period.
As in the British political model, the House of Commons is much the more powerful of the two chambers. Although all legislation has to be approved by both chambers, in practice the will of the elected House usually prevails over that of the appointed Senate. The processes and conventions of the Commons reflect very much those of its British namesake.
The House of Commons chamber is located in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
In the Canadian political system, the upper chamber is the Senate which takes its name from the upper house in the American political system.
The Senate consists of 105 members appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each of the four major regions receiving 24 seats, and the remaining nine seats being assigned to smaller regions.
The four major regions are the province of Ontario (24 seats), the province of Québec (24 seats) , the Maritime provinces (10 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and four for Prince Edward Island), and the Western provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta). The seats for the province of Newfoundland & Labrador (six) and the territories of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut (one each) are assigned apart from these regional divisions.
Québec senators are the only ones to be assigned to specific districts within their province. Historically, this was adopted to ensure that both French and English-speaking senators from Québec were represented appropriately in the Senate.
Senators may serve until they reach the age of 75.
Although the approval of both chambers is necessary for all legislation, the Senate rarely rejects bills passed by the directly elected Commons.
Currently only Alberta holds elections for the selection of its senators. But the Conservatives are in the process of trying for a fifth time legislatively to reform the Senate. The latest effort would set a non-renewable nine-year time limit and prescribe a process where provinces and territories could elect senators who would then be considered for appointment.
If the necessary legislation is passed and survives the court challenge that Québec is promising to mount, Canada’s Senate will start to look and act very differently than it has for the past century and a half. Opponents of change fear that a more legitimised Senate would act as a challenge to the House of Commons and could result in the sort of legislative gridlock that one sees in the American political system.
The Senate chamber is located in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
There are only five political parties represented in the current legislature:
The Conservative Party which is on the Right of the political spectrum
The New Democratic Party which is a social democratic party of the Left
The Liberal Party which is somewhere between Centre and Centre-Left
The Bloc Québécois which only operates in the province of Québec and favours secession of the province from the rest of Canada
The Green Party which only holds a single seat
In Canada, especially in recent years, party discipline has been very strictly enforced with all MPs expected to vote in accordance with party policy - even more rigidly than is the case in the British House of Commons. This practice of extreme party discipline is rather new and has had some commentators say that it is the era of "prime ministerial dictatorship".
The Liberal Party - colloquially known as the Grits - has dominated federal politics for much of Canada's history, holding power for almost 69 years in the 20th century, more than any other party in a developed country. However, in the General Election of May 2011, it suffered terrible losses and, for the first time in its history, was pushed into third place. The party is now led by Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was Prime Minister for almost all the 16 year period 1968 to 1984.
Traditionally the first-past-the-post electoral system, as used in elections to the House of Commons, is associated with majority governments. For many years, the Liberal Party was seen as the natural party of government and won majorities in the general elections of 1993, 1997, and 2000. Latterly, however, Canada has had a succession of minority governments as a result of a failure by any one party to gain an overall majority in the elections of 2004, 2006 and 2008. This changed in 2011 when Canadians elected a majority Conservative Government.
The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court and final authority on civil, criminal and constitutional matters.
The court's nine members are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice and serve until the age of 75. In recent years, a real effort has been made to make the court geographically representative. Therefore the convention is that three judges come from Québec, three from Ontario, two from Western Canada and one from the Atlantic provinces.
Since 2000, the court has been led by the Right Honourable Madam Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the first female Chief Justice.
Each province operates its own individual court system. The country's legal system is based mainly on English common law but, in the province of Québec, it is modelled on French civil law.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a bill of rights entrenched in the Constitution of Canada which forms the first part of the Constitution Act 1982. The Charter guarantees certain political rights to Canadian citizens and civil rights of everyone in Canada. The Charter applies to government laws and actions (including the laws and actions of federal, provincial, and municipal governments and public school boards), and sometimes to the common law, but not to private activity.
The courts, when confronted with violations of Charter rights, have struck down unconstitutional federal and provincial statutes and regulations in whole or in part.
Canada is huge territory - the second largest in the world - and understandably operates a federal political system. This divides governmental responsibilities between the federal government and the ten provinces. The key to understanding Canadian politics is an appreciation of the complex interplay of power between the federal centre and the provinces.
The provinces are Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Québec and Saskatchewan. All the provincial legislatures are unicameral and operate in parliamentary fashion similar to the House of Commons at federal level. As with federal elections, the voting system is first-past-the-post.
Canada's three territories - the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon - also have legislatures, but these are not sovereign and have fewer constitutional responsibilities than the provinces and some structural differences.
The 10 provinces and three territories come together in the Council of the Federation, the creation of which was announced in December 2003 in Charlottetown. The Council was created by Premiers because "they believe it is important for provinces and territories to play a leadership role in revitalizing the Canadian federation and building a more constructive and cooperative federal system".
A constant tension between the federal centre and the provinces is the desire by the provinces for a greater share of the revenues from federal taxes.
A more particular tension is between the French-speaking province of Québec where there is a significant separatist sentiment and all the other English-speaking provinces. This situation was aggravated in September 2012 with the election of a minority Parti Québécois administration in Québec on just 32% of the vote.
I have visited the legislatures of Britain, Canada and the United States and, while Canada is geographically adjacent to the USA, the Canadian parliament has the look and feel of the British model and not the American one. On the other hand, the political systems of the Canadian provinces have many parallels with those of the American states.
Canadian politics will always be massively influenced by two key factors: one internal, once external.
The internal factor is the balance of power between the legislatures: that is, the relationship between the federal centre and the provinces generally and between English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Canada more specifically. Neo-conservatives want to restrict the role of the federal government and Québec separatists want the province to stand alone.
The external factor is the relationship between Canada and the United States, especially on economic and trading issues but sometimes (especially at times of international crisis) also on more geo-political issues. The USA has been described - by a Canadian - as "Canada's best friend whether we like it or not".
Politically Canada is one of the most respected nations in the world. It has a mature and stable system of democracy that recognises the rights of minorities in the nation and has a vibrant civil society (including a lively trade union movement), while externally it uses its diplomatic power - in contrast to the economic and military power of its neighbour - to influence constructively international relations and agreements.
The General Election of May 2011 was seismic in its outcomes:
The Conservative Party - which had formed the previous two governments on a minority basis - was forced into this election by a vote of no confidence, when it was found to be in contempt of parliament because of a range of public expenditure measures, and yet it managed to win an overall majority of the seats.
The New Democratic Party - which is a centre-left body - did spectacularly well by increasing the number of its seats from 37 to 102 (including 59 out of 75 seats in Québéc Province), making it the official Opposition for the first time.
The Liberal Party - which has always previously come first or second - had a disaster with its seats falling from 77 to 34 which put it in third place.
The Bloc Québécois - which supports separatism for Quebec - did spectacularly badly when its seats fell from 47 to 4.
Therefore, Canada is now in uncharted territory in its federal politics. The uncertainty was only increased when, only months after his spectacular election success, NDP leader Jack Layton died of cancer.