“I’ve struggled mightily with this decision,” British Columbia Premier John Horgan confided as he announced he would plunge the province into a snap election, three years after the last. “It did not come easily to me.”
I’ll just bet. On the one hand, the election call makes a mockery of the 2017 confidence and supply agreement with the province’s Green Party that put the NDP into office, in which Mr. Horgan vowed he “[would] not request a dissolution of the Legislature” until “the next scheduled election.”
The next scheduled election, under provincial law, is “the third Saturday in October in the fourth calendar year” after the last, or Oct. 16, 2021 (subject to a proviso that the legislature may be dissolved whenever “the Lieutenant-Governor sees fit”). So by calling the election for Oct. 24, 2020, Mr. Horgan is not only in violation of the agreement with the Greens but arguably the law – the intent, if not the letter.
On the other hand, he has a 19-point lead in the latest poll. Must have been quite a struggle.
Mr. Horgan is hardly the first Canadian leader to shrug off a law that was not to his liking – particularly fixed election-date laws. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs was the most recent, calling and winning last week’s election more than two years before the date prescribed in his province’s law. But he followed in a great tradition.
Canada has had fixed election-date laws in one jurisdiction or another for the better part of two decades. Yet governments continue to call elections pretty much when it suits them. Stephen Harper, for example, called a snap election in 2008, scant months after his own fixed election-date bill passed into law. Premiers in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba have done likewise.
That they were technically permitted to do so, through riders similar to those contained in the B.C. law, does not make these about-faces any less galling. When our elected leaders promise to do something – when, especially, they go to such lengths as to formally and even legally bind themselves to it – people have a right to expect they will keep their promise, not wriggle through the nearest loophole.
Other legislated constraints on executive discretion have met the same fate. Most governments in Canada have laws on the books mandating balanced budgets; few have abided by them, even before the current recession. Ethics laws are supposed to deter public office holders from abusing their powers, for their own benefit or others'. They do not seem to have deterred much.
This is the dilemma inherent in such exercises: The people to whom these laws might apply are also the ones who write them. Politicians are notorious for drafting laws in such a way as to excuse themselves from restrictions they apply to others – for example, federal privacy laws, from which the political parties remain exempt. They are also prone to helping themselves to the benefits of laws intended to benefit others, such as the federal emergency wage subsidy.
But it is another thing altogether for them to evade laws that were intended to apply exclusively to themselves. Most of us, when confronted with a law we do not like, have no choice but to obey it. The rich can hire lawyers to fight it or lobbyists to change it. But only politicians have the power to tailor the law to their own designs or, to the extent they fall short in this ambition, to carry on regardless.
For cynics, the lesson is this: Never try. Of course governments aren’t going to obey their own laws, they snort – what did you expect? So when our leaders pass, then ignore, legislation binding them to fixed election dates or balanced budgets or ethical behaviour, the world-weary blame not the lawbreakers but the laws.
But never mind. The ultimate sanction, it is said, is at the ballot box. If people prefer that their leaders not break the law, they can always vote them out of office. But elections are not referendums. The rule of law is not simply one issue among others, nor should voters have to choose between political integrity and, say, health care. Come to that, how can they? What if each of the parties is as untrustworthy as the rest? Why should voters believe any of them when they promise to do better?
It’s true that the rule of law, absent the will to enforce it, is of little value. That will has to come from us, the voting public – not just on election day, but every day in between. That means raising our standards, not lowering them. The onus is on those we elect to live up to our expectations, not on us to live down to theirs.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.