Nelson Wiseman teaches political science at the University of Toronto.
All parties in Parliament voted for a fixed election-date law in 2007. British Columbia introduced one in 2001 and all the provinces have since followed suit except Nova Scotia, where the government plans to introduce similar legislation this fall. Parties promise such laws to curry favour with the public, which dislikes perceived unfairness.
Experience, however, suggests that little has changed and such laws may be worthless. If a government loses its legislature’s confidence, an election ensues or a new government must be formed – indisputably, the principal convention of the Westminster parliamentary system.
The federal statute does not curtail a governor-general’s power to dissolve Parliament and, by convention, the governor-general takes the advice of the prime minister. Although this rule is not absolute, in the case of the fixed election-date law, our governors-general appear to have been rubber stamps for our prime ministers. However, on numerous occasions throughout the Commonwealth, including in Canada, governors-general have rejected the advice of their prime ministers.
When Stephen Harper asked Michaëlle Jean to dissolve Parliament before the 2008 federal election, she might well have said, “Why am I being asked to do this when just months ago, you asked me to give royal assent to a law that stipulates no election for another couple of years?” More recently, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne asked her lieutenant-governor to dissolve the province’s legislature, even though she had not lost its confidence. No vote had taken place on her budget, not even legislative debate.
Mr. Harper wanted an election because polls indicated that a Conservative majority was at hand. Ms. Wynne wanted her budget showcased without debate because the opposition would have had forums in Question Period and committees to criticize her government. Both leaders launched elections on their own terms, violating the wording and spirit of these new laws.
When Christy Clark became B.C. Premier and her Liberal Party rose in the polls, she, too, mused about triggering an election to secure a popular mandate. As her party’s poll numbers dropped, however, Ms. Clark’s musings evaporated; she held on to office until the legally fixed election date.
Canadians are woefully ignorant about their parliamentary system. The political class contributes to this illiteracy, as many of them are ill-informed, too. Passing such laws and subsequently flouting them may be hypocritical, but the public doesn’t appear to care. If politicians have so little respect for what they do, it’s not surprising that the public has even less respect.
Are these laws a good idea? What do they contribute to Canada’s parliamentary system or democratic politics? If a government shepherds a very contentious bill – a bill it said it wouldn’t entertain if elected – through the Commons and the Senate refuses to pass it, should the public be denied an opportunity to weigh in? That was Brian Mulroney’s position in the Canada-U.S. free-trade debate, but the Senate held firm and forced an election.
Canada’s fixed election-date laws are phony, and that may be a good thing. If the governor-general loses the power of discretion, an important check on prime ministerial power disappears. To be sure, the governor-general takes the PM’s advice, but there are limits. Ms. Jean could have rejected Mr. Harper’s prorogation request in 2008. She didn’t, but she was no rubber stamp: She kept him pleading, and Canadians guessing, for more than three hours.