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On Stephen Harper's advice, Michaëlle Jean called the election of Oct. 14, 2008. (SRDJAN ZIVULOVIC/REUTERS)
On Stephen Harper's advice, Michaëlle Jean called the election of Oct. 14, 2008. (SRDJAN ZIVULOVIC/REUTERS)

John Pepall

We don't have fixed election dates, and can't Add to ...

On May 3, 2007, royal assent was given to An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act, and Oct. 19, 2009, was set as the date for the next election. The act stated plainly that it did not affect the governor-general's discretion to call an election at any time, and on Stephen Harper's advice, Michaëlle Jean called the election of Oct. 14, 2008.

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Some people thought this was wrong, and the advocacy lobby Democracy Watch used up a good deal of its money and more of ours to have the courts explain the obvious meaning of the act. Even Democracy Watch assumed that an election could be called before the putatively fixed date if the opposition united to defeat the government, and that is what has now happened.

Ever since the supposed act for fixed election dates was passed, we have been wondering when the next election would be, and now we know.

So we do not have fixed election dates. And we cannot. Unless we want to ditch parliamentary government and adopt congressional government like they have in the United States. Under parliamentary government, the government has to have the support of Parliament, however qualified. Under congressional government, Congress and the administration, a.k.a. the president, can be opposed - as they are now, at least partly. The president can still do things, like bomb Libya, without regard to Congress and Congress can make laws, and spend money, that the president does not want.

It does not work well, as shown by the current game of chicken over whether the government should be allowed to run out of money, but Americans have developed a political culture to deal with it and it is a complete package, totally different from our system of government. We cannot adopt one thing, fixed election dates, and reject the rest. If you want fixed election dates, you must want the Constitution of the United States. Now there's a platform!

If we can live with unfixed election dates brought on by the opposition under a minority government, why should we object to them called by a minority government? Ironically, Stephen Harper may have suffered less from calling the election of 2008 (in supposed breach of his fixed election dates) than the opposition parties may suffer for precipitating this election, as it was always supposed they eventually would.

The underlying popular feeling behind fixed election dates is resentment at being bothered with elections at all. Academics and do-gooders have gussied this up into a whinge that it's unfair the government can call an election when it pleases. The popularity of fixed election dates - nine of Canada's 13 governments have adopted them, with much self-praise - stems from governments wanting to absolve themselves from responsibility for bothering the voters.

The unintended consequences of fixed election dates have been many, most notably the dysfunction of the past two parliaments. In British Columbia, where it all started, Christy Clark, leading a majority government, wants to call an election before the fixed date in May, 2013. Under the legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador, which requires an election after the resignation of a premier, she would have to.

After this one, the next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. Make your plans - not.

John Pepall is the author of Against Reform .

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