There is a lot of misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, out there when it comes to just what kind of government countries have, and how they work. Although understanding the types of government is pretty simple, it doesn’t seem to be an explanation properly given to people.
What government does the U.S. have?
The most powerful and influential country in the world, the United States of America, formed over 200 years ago, has a “constitutional federal republic” … or at least that’s what people consider to be the best description of the U.S. government, as there is no absolute term decided on for the American government.
To understand “constitutional federal republic” you need to understand the three words used here.
“Constitutional” means there is a document which has rules for what powers and rights the government has, what rights and powers the citizens have, and what their relative powers are to each other. These things are written briefly in the document, and they get more understanding when a problem comes up. If there is a disagreement about whether a person has the right to do something or whether the government can stop them from doing it, it goes to court and lawyers fight for each side of the argument. A group of judges then vote on what the Constitution says about who gets to do what. These decisions are never absolute; if someone wants to challenge them afterwards, they can do so. On some issues, interpretation of constitutional rights seems to go back and forth.
“Federal” means the U.S. is a “federation” of states, which means each state is independent in many things, and doesn’t have to defer to what the national government says, but in other things they are bound to do what the national government says. The state government and national government often disagree, and they have to settle disagreements with law (or in some cases physical acts like protest and violence).
“Republic” is probably the most important thing for people to understand when it comes to the U.S. governmental system, because many people think America is a “democracy,” which it isn’t and never was. The people get to pick their representatives, such as their congressmen and presidents, and they pick them democratically through votes, but from that point on their representatives get to decide for them — the people don’t democratically vote on policies or legislation.
Another way of describing the U.S. form of government might be “bound-by-a-set-of-rules-that-can-be-challenged-as-to-their-meaning with-separate-and-often-opposing-state-rights-and-national-rights people-vote-for-representatives-who-from-then-on-decide-things-for-them-as-long-as-they-are-in-office.
Another important thing to know is that the President isn’t the most important part of federal government. The Congress, a group of representatives from every state and from both political parties, makes almost all decisions by their own vote. You can see what this is like by visiting a city council meeting in your own city or town. The mayor there doesn’t decide; he merely presides and carries out some special functions, is the “head” of the government and the main “face” of the city, and has some special powers. But you will see that all the city council representatives do the work of finding things that need to be addressed in the city, doing the research, presenting them to the group, suggesting solutions, bringing in experts to develop solutions, assessing the things brought before the group by other members, and then voting on decisions. That is to say that the President isn’t the most important part of government; what is most important is a group of representatives, as well as the process of their government.
What government does the Canada have?
Less important on a global scale, but just as important or more so to people who live in Canada or who deal with Canada, is the Canadian government. If you thought the description of the U.S. government was long, though, Canada’s is worse: Canada has a “federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy; a Commonwealth realm.” You were hoping it would be easier, right? It isn’t though, so suck it up and get it under your belt, and you can use the information to understand Canada for the rest of your life, rather than always being missing the peices that will let you understand what’s going on.
“Federal” means Canadian provinces are in some ways independent to decide things for themselves and in other ways beholden to what the national government says, and these two things sometimes clash.
“Parliamentary” means the federal government is composed of people who discuss and vote on legislation in a group, a group called “Parliament.”
“Democracy” means citizens vote for which political party gets seats in Parliament. During a national vote, people vote for one party, represented in their region by a party member. Whichever party gets the most votes in each region of the country gets a seat in Parliament representing that region. Whichever party gets the most seats overall in Parliament gets to be the government of Canada, and whoever is the leader of that party gets to be Prime Minister.
“Monarchy” means there is a king or queen of the country and “constitutional” means that this person and her subjects (citizens) have rights and powers defined in a document.
“Commonwealth realm” means that Canada, like the UK, Australia and New Zealand, are part of what used to be called the British Commonwealth, and all are under Queen Elizabeth.
Another way of describing the Canadian form of government might be “provinces-and-federal-governments-have-their-own-rights-that-sometimes-clash Canadians-have-representatives-who-then-discuss-and-decide-for-them representatives-are-voted-for under a “still-show-ceremonial-subjection-to-former-British-Commonwealth-rule under-the-Queen; the-same-as-UK-Australia-and-New-Zealand.
It is important to note that the Queen doesn’t come into play much in Canadian government. Her role is mostly to do with ceremonial things, and even in those she is represented in Canada by a Governor General, who is picked by the Canadian Prime Minister and approved by the Queen. The more important roles of the Queen, such as its power to “dissolve parliament and appoint a different parliament” and “sign bills into laws” are done when the Canadian government asks it to.
Another point is that Parliament has two parts. I didn’t tell you that earlier because it would’ve made it more complicated. But the part of Parliament citizens vote on is called the “House of Commons” while there is another part called the “Senate.” However, the part citizens vote for does all the work of legislating and deciding. Once they’ve decided, legislation passes through the Senate (a bunch of people who act as a calm, sober second step in Canadian legislature, and who are picked by Canadian government rather than voted for) and they cross t’s, dot i’s, and make sure the legislation looks proper and pass it on to the Governor General who signs it into law.
U.S. and Canadian governments: How are they different?
Over 200 years ago, the U.S. wanted to be free from British rule, and they fought a war to become independent from Britain, which they won. They wrote a constitution and formed their own federal government, composed of representatives and a President. Canada didn’t want to fight Britain, and stayed a Commonwealth nation subject to Britain. America is independent and Canada is merely autonomous — step by step over the decades Canada peacefully became mostly separate from Britain / the UK. That’s why Canada’s government has a part that does the actual work of government and is mostly democratically elected — just like the U.S. — and another part which is ceremonial, which is the remnant of it’s status under the Queen. U.S. states have more power relative to the federal government than Canadian provinces; Canada’s federal government has more relative power. Another difference: Canadian governments don’t always have a majority of seats, because there are more than two main parties who get seats — they just need to have more seats than any other party in order to rule. And another difference: while the U.S. made the three branches of government separate in order to check each other, in Canada the executive and legislative branches are intertwined both federally and provincially, while the judicial branch is independent.
By Justin Munce, publisher of TheSpeaker.co