Dispelling the myth of fixed election dates

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois looks down at the end of her last news conference, April 16, in Quebec City.

It’s been clear for some time that Canada has a latest-date election law, not a fixed-date election law

Your editorial of April 21, “Ottawa in frenzy over wide reports of early election,” at least goes some distance in dispelling the myth that Canada has a fixed-date election law.

Yes, the Harper Conservatives promised such a law prior to their first election, arguing that a governing party should not be allowed to select an election date that was to its own advantage. But the legislation introduced by the Conservatives did not deliver on that promise (surprise, surprise!).

In fact, some constitutional experts contend that fixed-date elections are incompatible with the Westminster form of government employed in Canada and most countries of the former British Empire. How, they ask, can you have both a fixed election date and the ability of the opposition to bring down the government through a non-confidence vote? A non-confidence vote can occur at any time (especially with a minority government), prompting the government’s resignation and an election call.

That’s what happened in 2011 when the Harper government lost a non-confidence vote, leading to the May 2 election.

It’s the Democracy Watch case related to the 2008 Canadian election, however, that provides the most direct evidence of the lack of fixed-date elections in Canada.

The 2008 election was prompted by the threat of a so-called coalition between the Liberal and New Democratic Parties — with the Bloc Quebecois’ tacit support — in an effort to oust the Conservatives and form an alternative government. This was based on the principle that, in the Westminster model, the prime minister is the individual who can demonstrate support from the majority of MPs and can, thus, form a government.

To derail this move, Harper asked the governor general to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Instead of listening to the majority of MPs, the governor general chose to support Harper and called an election for Oct. 14.

The non-profit group Democracy Watch later challenged the governor general’s decision, citing the so-called fixed-date legislative amendments passed by the Harper government in 2007. However, the court found that the legislation’s wording allowed the governor general to call an election at any time. The specific date contained in the legislation simply meant that an election had to be called no later than the date listed.

So, despite the myth of fixed-date elections, a myth sometimes perpetuated by media representatives and other public commentators, it’s been clear for some time that we have a latest-date election law, not a fixed-date election law.

And because the Prince Edward Island legislation is almost identical to the federal legislation, P.E.I. most assuredly does not have fixed-date elections, either.  

By Ron Kelly (Guest Opinion) 

Ron Kelly of Charlottetown served two terms as the P.E.I. representative on the Federal Council of the New Democratic Party of Canada and was a member of the party’s committee on the Canadian Constitution. He has also served as a member of the Electoral Reform Working Group promoting the adoption of a proportional representation in Prince Edward Island.

 

 

Organizations: Harper Conservatives, British Empire, Bloc Quebecois Federal Council of the New Democratic Party of Canada Electoral Reform Working Group

Geographic location: Canada, Westminster, Prince Edward Island Charlottetown

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