Get ready for an unnecessary election

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Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland after introducing Budget 2021. Image credit: The Office of the Prime Minister

Ottawa insiders are nearly unanimous in the view that we will have a federal election long before the end of 2021.

Thirteen members of Parliament who do not plan to run again gave their official goodbyes last week. They obviously assume they won't get another chance.

The NDP member for Nunavut, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, gave the most memorable speech. She told fellow MPs, and all Canadians, she had to carry her MP badge with her all the time while on the Hill. That's because security guards who saw an Indigenous person roaming the corridors of Parliament would regularly harass her.

Qaqqaq understandably seemed anxious to wave goodbye to Ottawa and all its charms -- but should the rest of us be so keen to have this minority government dissolved?

We have a fixed-date election law

As for the looming vote, media and political people talk about it in a matter-of-fact and nonchalant way. They never mention that the very idea is, at heart, utterly outrageous.

In 2007, Parliament passed an amendment to the Canada Elections Act -- the purpose of which was to assure a fixed day for elections; the third Monday in October, four years following the previous election.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper explained that a fixed date would "prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage."

The fixed date would create a level playing field among parties, Harper (and many others) argued. It would remove one tactical arrow from the quiver of the governing party.

The very next year Harper disrespected his own law when he triggered a premature election.

When Parliament enacted the fixed-date provision, few noticed that it included a huge escape hatch. The amendment still allowed governors general (meaning in effect, prime ministers) to dissolve Parliament and precipitate a vote at their "discretion."

The clear intent of the fixed-date law might have been to make sure early elections would be held only when utterly unavoidable, such as when governments lost votes of confidence in the House, as in 2011. That is not, however, how it has worked in practice.

The truth is that political parties in power will inevitably use the tools they have at hand to their advantage -- whatever the original intent of those rules. Harper did it in 2008 and, if we are to believe the chorus of insiders, Justin Trudeau is now preparing to do the same, perhaps as early as this summer.

In a way, Harper might have had an excuse in 2008. He led a minority government in a House where the other parties were all at least somewhat to the left of his.

When Harper claimed he would have difficulty gaining enough opposition support for any legislation his government might want enact, he had a point -- if a bit of a weak one. After all, Harper could have put water in his wine and sought consensus with the opposition where possible.

But Trudeau does not even have Harper's weak and self-serving rationalization.

The current prime minister only needs the support of one of the three opposition parties with official status to pass any legislation. Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats have made it clear they have no wish to bring down the government and force an early election -- at least not while we are fighting a rearguard battle against the pandemic.

Throughout this challenging period New Democrats have worked hard to play a constructive role. They have heeded their late leader Jack Layton's dictum by pursuing "proposition rather than opposition."

On income support programs, aid for students and the disabled, and numerous other matters NDP members have sought to enhance and improve government legislation, not block it.

Today, both Bloc and NDP MPs say they will vote for the government's overhaul of the Broadcasting Act, Bill C-10, which would impose content requirements on internet broadcasters analogous to those traditional broadcasters must respect.

If there is an early election C-10 will almost certainly die, putting to waste all the energy and effort many have put into it, going back to the Yale report of early 2020.

Right now, the government is focusing on only a few pieces of legislation it must push through before the House rises for the summer. Notably, there is the bill to implement a number of the short-term measures in the 2021 federal budget.

Much else will die or remain undone.

Motive for majority is power, not good government

To all appearances, the Liberals are willing to abandon a good portion of their agenda in the interest of trying for a majority while the polls look favourable.

Beyond the actual legislative agenda there are huge challenges the government has promised to deal with which will simply have to wait.

Among those are a fair deal for precarious gig workers and the numerous measures still required to fully respect Trudeau's solemn promise to fulfill each and every one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

Elections are not cost-free. A federal election two years or less after the last one will be costly in many respects. Mostly, a premature vote will be entirely unnecessary.

We have a functioning parliament right now, where at least some of the parties have been negotiating compromises and cooperating to provide good government. That is what happens, as a rule, in such stable and relatively well-governed countries as Germany, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and New Zealand.

It is true that, given our first-past-the-post electoral system, we in Canada get majority governments more often than not. But we have a multi-party system here. We are definitely not a carbon copy of the two-party United States.

In fact, Canada's combination of a vast and diverse geography, of distinct linguistic characteristics, and of a deeply-rooted political culture that fosters more than two parties often delivers parliaments where no party holds more than half the seats.

We long ago learned how to make that work.

Going back to the early 1960s, many minority governments were among our most effective and productive. Our universal healthcare system, contributory pension plan, the federal ministry of the environment, a federally-owned oil company, and our one-time national housing program were all the work of minority governments. 

The current Trudeau minority will likely be remembered for its vigorous attack on the harsh economic consequences of COVID-19.

Try to imagine what the current Liberal government would have done had it a majority when the pandemic struck. It is dead certain its measures would have been far less bold, far more deferential to corporate imperatives, and significantly less concerned with the fate of the poor and marginalised.

If today's Liberals salivate after a majority, it is not because they believe they can provide more effective and accountable government that way.

It is rather because the Liberals fear more revelations along the lines of the WE affair or the military sexual misconduct scandals that saw House committees make moves to hold the government accountable for once. They are sick and tired of having to fend off impertinent and probing questions from opposition MPs.

The drive for a majority is about power, control, and the capacity to evade accountability. It has nothing to do with good government.

If we do have an election in the coming months, voters will have to decide if the Trudeau government deserves to be rewarded with a majority.

More to the point, would a majority government better serve Canadians -- all Canadians -- than a minority? 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: The Office of the Prime Minister.

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