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Electoral Insight – 2004 General Election

Electoral Insight – January 2005

Fixed-Date Elections: Improvement or New Problems?

Don Desserud
Professor, Department of History and Politics, University of New Brunswick at Saint John


The importance of timing

In parliamentary systems such as we have in Canada, governments can time election calls to coincide with economic upturns, the completion of capital projects, favourable public opinion polls or the inexperience of new opposition leaders, or with almost any circumstance they wish. While it is difficult to find hard evidence to prove that clever timing really does improve one's chances of winning an election, Footnote 1 there is at least anecdotal evidence that governments think it does. To cite just one source, former New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) MP Lorne Nystrom, speaking in the House of Commons in February 2004, claimed that "[t]here is not a party in this country ... that has not manipulated the election date in order to suit their own political interests." Footnote 2 Indeed, critics of the Liberal Party of Canada maintained that the last two federal election calls were deliberately timed to coincide with the best possible moment for the governing party; were the elections to be held at later dates, the critics said, the outcomes would surely be quite different. Footnote 3 It is easy, then, to believe that the ability to call an election at a date of the government's choosing constitutes a significant advantage for the party in power.

If so, governments may be winning elections they otherwise would not, thereby undermining the ability of our political system to renew itself. Furthermore, manipulation of election dates likely contributes to increased voter apathy, as well as to the erosion of the political system's relevance and legitimacy in the minds of citizens. Footnote 4 The obvious solution is to have fixed election dates. If elections were always held on the same date at specific intervals, then the public (not to mention opposition parties) would know well in advance when they would go to the polls, and governments would be forced to accept the public's decision regardless of whether the immediate circumstances favoured them.

Durations Between Federal General Elections Since World War II
Election date Majority/minority result Prime Minister Duration between elections*
June 27, 1949 Majority Louis St-Laurent 4 years, 1 month
August 10, 1953 Majority Louis St-Laurent 3 years, 10 months
June 10, 1957 Minority John Diefenbaker 10 months
March 31, 1958 Majority John Diefenbaker 4 years, 3 months
June 18, 1962 Minority John Diefenbaker 10 months
April 8, 1963 Minority Lester Pearson 2 years, 7 months
November 8, 1965 Minority Lester Pearson/Pierre Trudeau 2 years, 8 months
June 25, 1968 Majority Pierre Trudeau 4 years, 4 months
October 30, 1972 Minority Pierre Trudeau 1 year, 8 months
July 8, 1974 Majority Pierre Trudeau 4 years, 10 months
May 22, 1979 Minority Joe Clark 9 months
February 18, 1980 Majority Pierre Trudeau/John Turner 4 years, 7 months
September 4, 1984 Majority Brian Mulroney 4 years, 3 months
November 21, 1988 Majority Brian Mulroney/Kim Campbell 4 years, 11 months
October 25, 1993 Majority Jean Chrétien 3 years, 7 months
June 2, 1997 Majority Jean Chrétien 3 years, 6 months
November 27, 2000 Majority Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin 3 years, 7 months
June 28, 2004 Minority Paul Martin  

* Durations are rounded slightly to the nearest full month.

This seems to be the view held by a growing number of Canadians. In 2000, the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) found that 54% of respondents supported fixed election dates. Footnote 5 Four years later, that number has increased substantially. Just a week before Prime Minister Paul Martin called the 2004 Canadian general election, the Environics Research Group found that 81% of Canadians preferred that elections be held at specific and fixed times, instead of "whenever the party in power wants to call it." Footnote 6

It is not just the public that likes the idea of fixed election dates: political parties across the country are embracing it as well. Support for such a reform covers the depth and breadth of the political spectrum, from left to right, government to opposition. Both the Conservative Party of Canada (Conservatives) and the N.D.P. consider setting fixed election dates a policy priority, while this past summer Ontario's Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty introduced legislation to set election dates in that province. British Columbia, also under a Liberal government, already has such legislation, while New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government has struck a Commission on Legislative Democracy to consider setting fixed election dates, among other possible reforms. Footnote 7 Several provincial opposition parties, including New Brunswick's Liberal Party, the Saskatchewan Party and the Alberta Liberal Party have come out in favour of fixing election dates. Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft voices a common sentiment: "It's time to stop playing politics with election dates. Elections should be held at fixed dates that suit the democratic wishes of Albertans." Footnote 8

However, despite the apparent widespread support for the idea, fixing election dates under Canada's system of parliamentary government is no easy matter. Indeed, to truly fix the dates so there can be no possibility of government manipulation is impossible, at least not without a radical and probably unachievable reform of our parliamentary system. As well, while fixing the election dates might solve some problems, it could create others even worse. For that matter, there is some confusion about why the present system needs reform. Some people who call for fixed-date elections seem to be really arguing for a limit on the time that can pass between elections. However, such limits already exist. This, then, raises the question: What is the problem for which fixed-date elections are the solution?

Fixed dates, terms and responsible government


In the United States, elections for Congress, the president and the vice-president are held on specific dates at fixed intervals.

Fixed-date elections are held at specific and regularly scheduled dates. When election dates are fixed, so too is the length of tenure (the term) of governments and assemblies. The best-known example, for Canadians at any rate, is the American Congressional system, under which elections for the president, vice-president and Congress are held on specific dates at fixed intervals. An essential feature of their constitutional principle of the separation and balance of powers, fixing the election dates prevents one branch from being able to force elections and so undermine the authority of the other.

Canada's parliamentary system is based not on a separation and balance of powers, but on "responsible government." Footnote 9 In our system, the executive and legislative branches of government are fused. In practical terms, this means that the prime minister and cabinet must be consistently supported by a majority in the House of Commons. Even so-called minority governments must find majority support, which means they must win the support of MPs from outside their party. If the government cannot achieve majority support, or if the House of Commons should pass a vote of non-confidence in the government, measures must be taken to restore majority support. This almost always results in the dissolution of Parliament, the calling of an election and formation of a new legislature. With modern party discipline, governments in Canada rarely lose the support of the majority. But it is a mistake to assume that such things cannot happen. As well, while Canadian elections usually provide one party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the most recent results show that this is not always the case.

This is the problem facing those who would like to fix election dates: Attempts to fix election dates cannot restrict the right and ability of the prime minister to request a dissolution, or of the Governor General to grant it. To do so would undermine the principle of responsible government. If nothing else, it is unlikely that Canadian courts would regard such measures favourably, as the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling in Ontario Public Service Employees' Union v. Ontario (Attorney General) suggests. Although this case dealt with the right of a provincial government to restrict civil servants from participating in federal politics, the Court made it clear that provinces lacked the authority to "bring about a profound constitutional upheaval by the introduction of political institutions foreign to and incompatible with the Canadian system." Furthermore,

"it is uncertain, to say the least, that a province could touch upon the power of the Lieutenant-Governor to dissolve the legislature, or his power to appoint and dismiss ministers, without unconstitutionally touching his office itself." Footnote 10


Governor General Adrienne Clarkson is greeted by the Prime Minister as she prepares to read the Speech from the Throne in Canada’s House of Commons on Oct. 5, 2004.

It is likely courts would take a similar view if the federal government imposed fixed-date elections in such a way as to undermine or restrict the power of the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, or to accept such a request from a prime minister.

Does fixing election dates really challenge the principle of responsible government? I believe it does. Consider first the problem of non-confidence votes. Under our present system, a prime minister defeated by a vote of non-confidence either resigns or requests that the Governor General dissolve Parliament and an election be called. If fixing election dates meant that the latter option was unavailable, then the Governor General would have to appoint someone else to form a government to serve until the next date fixed for an election. Perhaps, under such circumstances, parties would be forced to compromise and co-operate. But perhaps, instead, government would simply come to a standstill, with no party capable of forming a majority. Legislation would not be passed, and governments would administer rather than govern. Responsible government would be lost.

Under our system, flexible-date elections are the means by which parliamentary deadlocks and stalemates are resolved and majority support restored. If election dates were fixed, such a resolution would not be possible. This is why parliamentary assemblies that have set election dates nevertheless provide some fail-safe measure to avoid such a deadlock. Election dates are fixed in the Australian state of Victoria, but mid-term elections can still be called if the government should lose a confidence vote, if the premier should request a dissolution, or if no party should find majority support. Footnote 11 Similar provisions exist in British Columbia Footnote 12 and in Ontario's proposed legislation. But this raises the question whether the election date is really fixed at all. These are, after all, precisely the circumstances under which elections are called now.

But, it will be argued, non-confidence votes are a rarity; the real problem is prime ministers calling elections on a whim. So, perhaps one solution would be to ensure that dissolutions would only be accepted if the government suffered a defeat by an explicit vote of non-confidence. Or, similarly, Parliament could adopt Tom Kent's ingenious suggestion: that legislation be passed fixing dissolution dates; at any other time, dissolutions (and so election calls) would require "the votes of separate majorities of at least two of the parties in the House." Footnote 13

Either of these proposals would indeed make calling elections at opportune times less likely or at least more difficult, but neither solves the essential problems facing those wishing to fix election dates under our parliamentary system. First, they both touch upon the power of the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. It is true that the Governor General does not have to accept the request of a prime minister for dissolution. Footnote 14 However, this is not the same thing as saying that Parliament has the constitutional power to pass legislation restricting the Governor General's power to accept that request. Nor, for that matter, does Parliament have the power to restrict a prime minister from making that request.

Yet even if there were a way around the constitutional problem, a serious practical problem would remain. Surely, a government denied its wish for dissolution, regardless of the procedure, would simply resign. Then the Governor General would have to dissolve Parliament or try to appoint another government. If the first, then the attempt to prevent prime ministers from forcing elections at a time of their own choosing clearly does not work. If the second, then the new government would be unlikely to secure majority support, especially if the old government had been in a majority situation. The stalemate described above would occur.

Finally, fixing the election dates under our system won't work because there are no sanctions that can be imposed on a premier or prime minister who ignores the new rules and requests a dissolution regardless. Consider the difference between preventing a prime minister from delaying an election too long and stopping a prime minister from calling an election too early. The first is relatively easy: limit the maximum term a government can stay in office, which, of course, the Canadian Constitution already does. If a government should try to go beyond its five-year mandate, except in times of emergency, the Governor General has the power to dissolve Parliament. This is one of the emergency reserve powers still held by the formal executive. Footnote 15 But how do you prevent a prime minister from requesting an early dissolution? What recourse is there if the prime minister should do so, despite any imposed restrictions? How, in other words, do you force a government to stay in office?

How to fix election dates


Elections Canada reminds Canadians about the date for voting with a card during the election. As well, personalized voter information cards sent about a week earlier show the dates, hours and locations for voting in advance or on election day.

I have been arguing that any attempt to fix election dates under our parliamentary system must not undermine the fundamental principles of the Canadian Constitution nor create an unworkable system of government. But surely the advantages of having a fixed-date system, such as greater certainty for all parties and their candidates, the economic efficiency of administering predictable elections, and the improved ability of government departments to plan, should force us to at least consider the idea. Besides, if nothing is done, the public will continue to believe that the timing of elections is manipulated to benefit the government in power. So perhaps the solution need not be as involved and as constitutionally entrenched as has been described. Maybe simply imposing a little more order on the procedure would prove satisfactory.

For example, governments could try to establish a tradition of calling elections at exact periods on the anniversary date, as was attempted by former Premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas in the 1940s and '50s. Or they could use ordinary legislation, such as Ontario's Bill 86 (Election Statute Law Amendment Act, 2004) or B.C.'s fixed-date election legislation, which the province has incorporated into the Constitution Act of British Columbia. Footnote 16 The Saskatchewan precedent, unfortunately, did not last past Douglas's tenure as premier. While the B.C. and Ontario legislation shows more promise, only time will tell whether it works. Yet if it does, it won't be because their legislation is able to force future governments to comply with its measures: future governments can always repeal the acts. But repealing a fixed-date election law should raise questions those governments might not wish to answer, and that just might be sufficient incentive to maintain an orderly election schedule.

Still, calling such order a fixed-date election system is an exaggeration. Governments will have the means to ignore the set dates, and the entire system could easily be undermined if governments were determined to do so. More important, even if these measures worked, it is not clear that any of them, by themselves, truly address the fundamental issue underlying the call for fixed-date elections – that is, the concern that elections are often not fair contests.

Conclusion

What, precisely, is the problem for which fixed-date elections are the solution? Clearly, the public is frustrated with what it perceives to be overt and unfair manipulation of election dates by the party in power. But if measures to fix election dates were implemented, we could well end up with an even more dysfunctional system of legislative government than we have now. As well, attempts to create a fixed-date system may force the government to engage in costly and ultimately futile constitutional battles. Finally, the public could decide that fixed-date election measures were hollow and impotent, and become even more cynical about the electoral process.

Under our parliamentary system, election dates cannot be fixed, not in any meaningful sense. The constitutional and practical problems would overwhelm any attempts to do so. At best, election calls can become more predictable, orderly and regularized. Still, certain measures could be put into place to rebuild the public's confidence in the integrity of the electoral and legislative processes. I believe what the public really objects to is not the fact that election calls are unpredictable, but that the party in power holds an unfair advantage and some elections are not fair contests. Therefore, measures that improve the competitive nature of elections would go a long way towards alleviating public dissatisfaction.

There are many ways to do this, though a full discussion is beyond the scope of this paper. Some form of proportional representation, for example, would help. So would allowing more free votes in Parliament. More free votes might convince citizens their MPs matter, and so they might think elections matter more too. There are many other problems with our parliamentary system that need to be addressed as well, as people like Donald Savoie have so well identified. Footnote 17 But the convolutions necessary to fix election dates strike me as requiring far too much effort for far too little improvement, and may very well make things much worse.

Notes

Footnote 1 Alastair Smith, "Endogenous Election Timing in Majoritarian Parliamentary Systems," Economics and Politics Vol. 8, No. 2 (July 1996), pp. 85–110, and "Election Timing in Majoritarian Parliaments," British Journal of Political Science Vol. 33, Part 3 (July 2003), pp. 397–418; Jac C. Heckelman, "Electoral Uncertainty and the Macroeconomy: The Evidence from Canada," Public Choice Vol. 113, No. 1–2 (Oct. 2002), pp. 179–189; Steven D. Roper and Christopher Andrews, "Timing an Election: The Impact on the Party in Government," The American Review of Politics Vol. 23 (Winter 2002), pp. 305–318; Kaare Strřm and Stephen M. Swindle, "Strategic Parliamentary Dissolution," American Political Science Review Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sept. 2002), pp. 575–591.

Footnote 2 Lorne Nystrom was speaking to his own motion, a Private Member's Bill to fix election dates. (Hansard, Canadian House of Commons, Feb. 17, 2004). See also Lorne Nystrom, "Spinning election rumours [Why don't we have fixed election dates?]," The National Post, Oct. 12, 2000, p. A19.

Footnote 3 For the 2000 election, see John Geddes and Julian Beltrame, "A sense of timing: Liberals have to trust Chrétien that voters will not lash out against a fall election," Maclean's Vol. 113, Issue 41 (Oct. 9, 2000), pp. 18–19. For 2004, see "Martin's mandate; Canada's election," The Economist Vol. 371, Issue 8377 (May 29, 2004), p. 12, and "Martin's new age of minority; Canada's election," The Economist Vol. 372, Issue 8382 (July 3, 2004), p. 29.

Footnote 4 Paul Howe, "The Sources of Campaign Intemperance," Policy Options Vol. 22, No. 1 (January-February 2001), pp. 21–24.

Footnote 5 Research conducted from February 16 to April 2, 2000. Paul Howe and David Northrup, "Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians," Policy Matters Vol. 1, No. 5 (July 2000).

Footnote 6 The survey, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was conducted between May 12–18, 2004; the election was called on May 23. The actual question was: "Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?" followed by six questions concerning electoral procedures in Canada. The sixth was: "Federal elections should be held on a fixed date every four years instead of whenever the party in power wants to call it." CBC poll 2004.

Footnote 7 See www.gnb.ca/0100/index-e.asp.

Footnote 8 "Alberta Liberals would hold fixed elections every four years, says Taft," Canadian Press, June 18, 2004.

Footnote 9 See Peter Aucoin, Jennifer Smith and Geoff Dinsdale, Responsible Government: Clarifying Essentials, Dispelling Myths and Exploring Change (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development, 2004).

Footnote 10 Ontario Public Service Employees' Union v. Ontario (Attorney General) [1987] 2 S.C.R. 2.

Footnote 11 Australian State of Victoria Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Act 2003 [Act No. 2/2003]. See in particular, Part 1, s. 1(a) and Part 2, s. 3. Under this Act, the assembly automatically expires (is dissolved) every four years in November. If the assembly should be dissolved earlier, then "the subsequent Assembly shall expire on the Tuesday which is 25 days before the last Saturday in November which is nearest to the last anniversary of the election day on which it was elected that occurs not more than 4 years after it was elected." (s. 38(2)).

Footnote 12 The next provincial general election will be held on Tuesday, May 17, 2005. Each provincial general election thereafter will be held on the 2nd Tuesday in May in the fourth year following the most recently held provincial general election (Constitution Act, s. 23).

Footnote 13 Tom Kent, "He must pluck his power ...," The Globe and Mail, January 29, 2004, p. A19.

Footnote 14 But, save for the famous 1926 King-Byng affair, the Governor General always has. On the King-Byng affair, see Roger Graham, ed., The King-Byng Affair, 1926: A Question of Responsible Government (Toronto: Copp Clark Pub. Co., 1967).

Footnote 15 R. MacGregor Dawson, The Government of Canada, 5th ed., Norman Ward rev. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), pp. 161 ff.

Footnote 16 However, courts have ruled that this Act is, despite its title, still merely ordinary legislation. See Peter W. Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (Scarborough, Ontario: Carswell, 2003), p. 8, note 33 and the case cited therein.

Footnote 17 Donald J. Savoie, Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.