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Alberta's fixed election periods law: Hypocritical, cynical, impractical or all of the above

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Alberta Government House Leader Dave Hancock

Alberta Premier Alison Redford's unfixed-fixed election dates bill is touted as a way to make this province's elections just a little bit more fair to everyone.

As the Calgary Herald blandly stated in a story on a related topic, as if it were an undisputed fact, the Conservative government's legislative scheme of having a three-month fixed-election period has the goal of putting "all political parties on equal footing in campaign planning."

In fact, Bill 21, a.k.a. the Election Amendment Act, 2011, does nothing of the sort, and it's hard to believe levelling the proverbial playing field was the intention of its drafters.

Indeed, combined with the vagaries of buying advertising and former premier Ed Stelmach's election-speech muzzle law, the vague and confusing third-party advertising provisions of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act of 2010, it has the opposite effect.

Whatever the Conservatives' goal may actually be, one can plausibly argue that the election period bill is a cynical effort to tilt the playing field even further in favour of the governing party.

Conservative propaganda touts the bill as a sensible compromise between the benefits of a fixed election date (what benefits? – ed.) and vagaries of weather and happenstance that know no date.

"There needed to be some flexibility that any future premier needed to have," extemporized Government House Leader Dave Hancock in the St. Albert Gazette, presumably while keeping a straight face. "If you are in a particularly bad winter, you might want to have a later election date."

Oooh! Alberta's not like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, both of which have fixed election date laws that actually fix the election date, insofar as that is possible in Canada. But then, there's never any bad weather in Saskatchewan in November, or in B.C. in May. Right?

Actually, whatever reason the Alberta government finds to move some future election date, it's unlikely to be bad weather. There's nothing Conservative parties in Canada like better than plenty of snow on election day, and this Alberta political party is no exception. Inclement weather suppresses the vote and gives the party with the most corporate bucks the best chance of moving its supporters to the polls.

However, Bill 21 introduced an interesting new wrinkle to the art of election manipulation -- especially when combined with the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, the unconstitutional but as-yet-unchallenged provincial law that suppresses the right of third parties to use advertising to criticize the government during the election campaign. (All we need to do now is ban criticizing the government after the election and we'll have the place in a full neo-Con "free-speech" lockdown.)

This limits criticism of the government during the election period, leaving the field to cash-poor opposition parties and the deep-pocketed governing party.

Meanwhile, Redford's new rules let the government pretend to have imposed a fixed-election date while retaining the entire advantage of being able to pick the precise moment of the election and spring it on the opposition.

This is the way our system works, warts and all, and has been argued in this space before, it is essentially impossible to change it because Westminster-model Parliamentary democracy is enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.

To repeat the civics lesson: Our system of government is called "responsible government." This phrase means that the ministry (that is, the cabinet) is responsible to the Legislature (that is, in Alberta, the Legislative Assembly). If the Legislature votes no confidence in the ministry, the government must fall and either an election must be held or the Crown's representative (the Lieutenant Governor) must ask the Opposition if it can form a government.

So fixed election dates -- or for that matter, three-month fixed election periods -- are simply impossible to legislate or otherwise guarantee in the responsible government system. Anyone who is paying attention, and that obviously includes Premier Redford and the other advocates of this legislation in her party, knows it.

What is irritating about the Redford "fixed-period" law, however, is not the fact it's a meaningless gesture that the government can ignore with ease whenever it suits it, but the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to change the system while doing nothing of the sort.

Also annoying is the way it illustrates how no one in the paid media seems to understand the English language any more. Examples of this are legion. My local community rag, for example, announced in a headline: "Fixed election dates will be flexible." This is a good one, akin to saying "Monogamists may now take multiple spouses." But that's a current event to write about another day…

In addition to retaining the traditional surprise factor in favour of the government, Bill 21 tilts the playing field even further against opposition parties -- especially those on the progressive side of Alberta's political equation that rely on donations from ordinary citizens not huge corporations to finance their campaigns.

It's hard to believe this is not intentional. Examples:

-    Advertising: Now political parties need to book billboards, TV time and newspaper space for a full three months -- because if you don't book you don't get the space, simple as that. This is expensive and impractical, especially for small parties with limited budgets. Of course, it's no problem for the government, they know when the gun's going to go bang, so they can tie up available ad space, just like before. Plus, of course, they have sufficient money to buy it all if need be.

-    Campaign space rental: Same problem. Now opposition parties have to rent campaign space for the full three months. At up to $4,000 a month for appropriate office space, times 87 ridings, this can burn through a limited campaign budget pretty quickly.

-    Candidate leaves of absence: Parties that rely on working people for quality candidates now have another problem -- the need created by Bill 21 to arrange very long leaves of absence for their candidates. Employers will resist the longer periods, and many candidates will feel they can't afford to go without pay that long.

-    Volunteers: Bill 21 also makes it harder to get volunteers -- no problem for corporate-financed parties like the Conservatives and the Wildrose Party that can buy the help they need, but a major issue for everyone else.

In other words, Bill 21 is either the all-time exemplar of unintended consequences, or it's a manipulative and cynical attempt to do one thing while trying to fool voters into thinking the government is doing the opposite. I know what I think.

Either way, it's another broken promise by the Redford Government, a list that is growing rather long these days.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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