Some Canadians are wondering how there can be a fixed date election law, which states elections must be held every four years and not sooner, and yet, in less than six weeks’ time, we will have an election a month short of a mere two years after the last one.
We do indeed have a fixed date law. Parliament passed it in 2007.
The law was a Stephen Harper Conservative government initiative, a populist idea going back to the halcyon days of the Reform party. It states federal elections shall take place on the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the last election.
The intention of the law, as Harper put it at the time, is to prevent governing parties from using the scheduling of elections to their partisan advantage. There is a huge loophole however. The law provides that Governors-General still have the right to dissolve Parliament at their discretion. And when the law specifies the prerogatives of the Governor General it means, in effect, the powers of the prime minister.
Following the election call some erroneously suggested there was a provision in the law for an early election when there is a minority government. Not true. The law does not utter the words majority or minority.
Others stated, equally erroneously, that the current case was the first time since the fixed date law came into force that a government pulled the plug on itself. In fact, Stephen Harper, the author of the law, did so a mere year after it came into effect, in 2008. He claimed he had no choice but to trigger an election because the opposition refused to play ball with him.
Still others made the opposite erroneous claim that in all cases of premature elections since the advent of the fixed date rule, governing parties have taken the initiative to dissolve Parliament and precipitate an election. Again — not true. In 2008, the election was Harper’s doing, but in 2011 we had an early election because the Conservative government was defeated on a Liberal motion of non-confidence.
Since 2007 we have had five election calls. In two of those cases they were on the date provided by the fixed date law; in three, they were early. In only one of those cases did the election happen prematurely because a minority government was defeated in the House.
In the 2008 vote, Harper did not seem to suffer much as a result of triggering a premature election, contrary to his own law. He did not win a majority as he had hoped, but he did increase his seat count, and claimed a moral victory.
When the opposition threatened to vote non-confidence in his new government, mere weeks after the election, and form an alternative coalition government, Harper and his allies successfully convinced many Canadians such an outcome would be a case of the losers snatching victory from the winners.
Defying fixed date law could hurt Trudeau
The current campaign, which has just gotten underway, is the only one since 2007 in which the fact of a party triggering an early election is, at least for the time being, a hot political issue. That’s because we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and, more important, the Liberals cannot point to a single piece of legislation they would like to pass that the majority of opposition members would block.
Most Canadians know that far from being dysfunctional, the House of Commons has worked effectively during the pandemic.
The Conservatives kept their opposition muted. The Bloc Québécois found occasions where it could support the Trudeau government. And, most important, the New Democrats acted as true legislative partners for the governing Liberals, supporting them, overall, while making constructive and positive suggestions in certain key cases.
After all, we Canadians are supposed to elect a Parliament, not an all-powerful, one-party dictatorship. Our House of Commons is not a kind of U.S.-style electoral college, whose only role is to anoint the leader and then go into hibernation.
Canada’s House is supposed to be a legislative and deliberative body, where, through their elected members, all Canadians have a say.
The first-past-the-post system, which Justin Trudeau once solemnly promised to replace, delivers majority governments more often than not. But, in Canada, we do also quite frequently get Parliaments in which no party has a majority of seats.
Some of those Parliaments have produced lasting and important results for Canadians. Among those results are the Canada Pension Plan, our universal health insurance system and all of the many measures related to the COVID-19 crisis.
In the current campaign, both the Liberals and Conservatives are trying to claim voters have only a binary choice. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole says as much. There is only one alternate government, he says; his party. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau focuses all of his firepower on the Conservatives, trying to convince voters that their choice is between his party, which would make vaccines mandatory for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, and the Conservatives, who would not.
However, despite Liberal and Conservative efforts, there are early indications, from both local and national polling, that the New Democrats and their leader are connecting with a lot of voters.
Some observers had believed that in borrowing New Democratic policy ideas, such as a national childcare plan, and making them their own, the Liberals would render the New Democrats irrelevant. The opposite appears to have happened. Many voters, at least at this stage, appear to buy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s argument that the best way to get progressive policies is not to give Trudeau’s Liberals a majority. It is to elect as many NDP MPs as possible.
Consider what Liberals have done with majorities in the past
It is possible a good part of the Canadian electorate does not view elections the way too many media folks and pollsters do: as winner-take-all horse races. A good many voters appear to understand that on September 20th we elect a Parliament to represent and advocate for all of us. That is not the same a choosing an all-powerful one-partly dictatorship.
At some point in the campaign, if NDP polling strength persists, we can expect Justin Trudeau to turn his fire on the party to his left. But he won’t argue against NDP policies. He has adopted too many of those.
What Trudeau will say is that a vote for Singh is a vote for the true enemy, O’Toole. In other words, he will call on progressives to vote strategically, or, more accurately, tactically.
Many of us have long memories, however.
We can remember when New Democratic voters did flock to the Chrétien Liberals in the 1990s. First, those voters wanted to get rid of the Mulroney Conservative government; then, they voted out of fear of the hard-right Reform party that had replaced the Conservatives in much of Canada.
The result was a Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin government that turned its back on progressives and danced to the tune of the Reformers and their Conservative allies in Alberta and Ontario. It was a government single-mindedly devoted to slashing the public sector and social spending — on healthcare, housing, higher education, unemployment insurance, culture and broadcasting, and development assistance. In many ways the Chrétien government’s policies were no different from those of the Preston-Manning-led Reform party.
For the better part of a decade, the Chrétien-Martin majority governments provided austerity-focused small-c conservative governments, finely attuned to the voices of big business, but indifferent to the voices of the young, the poor and the marginalized.
The majority Liberal governments of that time — somewhat like the current Liberals — also fostered a sense of entitlement among their friends and allies, most dramatically characterized by the sponsorship affair, where Liberal insiders and bagmen exploited a national unity program for their own financial benefit.
And so, when Justin Trudeau asks for a majority, voters should bear in mind what happened in the past when they gave his party the majority of seats in the House.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.
Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter