5.28.2006

change

Stephen Harper plans to introduce a bill that would establish fixed federal election dates every four years. He's not suggesting a fixed-date system a la the US: the House of Commons could still defeat the government. An exception would also be made for "cases where the government is prevented from governing," although Harper hasn't defined that yet.

Harper claims that fixed election dates, which some provinces already have for their own elections, will level the playing field by preventing governments from calling elections for short-term political advantage.

According to this CBC article, Canada's current system is in the minority. But that doesn't necessarily mean its broken and needs fixing. One expert claims fixed election dates would increase voter turnout, but that's subject to debate.
Henry Milner, an eminent student of Canada's electoral system, points out that of the 40 comparable democracies in the world, Canada is one of only 12 that does not have fixed election dates. That is statistically interesting, but significant only if the 12 are prone to murder, mayhem and other consistently anti-democratic behaviour.

Milner argues that fixed election dates would reverse the trend to increasingly lower turnout in Canadian elections. Unhappily, turnout seems to have a life of its own, unaffected by winter, summer or voter contentment; and the consistent trend is downwards.

Canadians curious about the effect of fixed election dates could consider the U.S., where elections have long been carved in stone. American voter turnout is so consistently low that the U.S. now ranks 139th in the world in voter participation - although Canada at 77 is hardly in a position to boast.
If a government could be defeated in Parliament anyway, I don't see how fixed-date elections are either a drastic change or a huge improvement. But as I'm new to the parliamentary system, I may well be missing subtle - or not-so-subtle - issues.

Your thoughts? I know many of you don't read on the weekends, so I'll look for your replies on Monday.

21 comments:

M@ said...

I have a hard time figuring out whether fixed terms or government-called elections are the better solution. My main concern with fixed terms is that it creates a lame duck final year, and a quarter of the government's term spent on campaigning.

Also, I wonder whether the Prime Minister would still have the option of proroguing parliament (which is basically dissolving parliament thus triggering an election). The only recent prime minister who held power for more than a four-year term was... oh, look, a conservative.

Anyhow, and it doesn't seem like a change that is open to abuse or that gives any party a particular advantage.

David Cho said...

I don't know if you blogged about it, but are you planning on become a citizen there? I take it that you have to be in order to vote, but I'm ignorant of Canada laws.

James said...

I'm glad that the bill isn't for completely fixed dates -- one of the biggest problems in the US is one that Walt Kelly summed up nicely in a Pogo strip (from memory):

Pogo: You mean that what you do is 1) legislatin' and 2) runnin' fer office?

Congressman Frog: Yep. In fact, sometimes we's so busy 2-in' that we never gets around to 1-in'.

But I'm not sure that fixed dates would keep the government from calling snap elections. If elections always had to be on, say, Oct 5, the government could call one in late August and give the opposition almost no time to prepare. Or, if the government is brought down by the opposition in November, it would be almost a full year until they have to account for themselves at the polls.

It is certainly vitally important to be able to bring down an incompetent government in mid term. You don't want to end up stuck with a dud for four years just because that's when the elections are set.

latour said...

"cases where the government is prevented from governing"

Wow...that's gonna cause a lot of partisan problems, and will probably benefit the Conservatives, because if they take a hard right agenda and the opposition starts doing their jobs, they will be able to claim that they are "prevented from governing." That's what the definition of a motion of no confidence is: we don't want you to govern anymore.

Lone Primate said...

What James said. A friend of mine's biggest complaint about the US electoral system is how early the campaign begins (I've come to call it the Winter Olympics Syndrome — the US has presidential elections in Summer Olympics years but the campaigns seem to start in Winter Olympics years!). US campaigns are long, boring, tedious affairs of attrition. The blessing of our elections is how brief they are. They're like a mating season: short, intense, focused. The idea of knowing exactly when the next elections comes strikes me as inserting that long, drawn-out process into our politics. I'm not slagging it because it's from the States per se; I just don't see the advantage. After all, there is already a constitutional fixed term to our elections already: Parliament can sit for five years after the return of the Writ of Elections; that's it. Harper's proposed change is a mere statute that any government (including his own) could repeal. It's not an absolutely bad idea, but there's more of icing than cake about it.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

It's really meaningless. Without a constitutional change, all this really means is that the government is saying "I promise I won't call an election before the 4 years are up". Actually, that's what the provincial ones are like to.

But it's a harmless change too. I don't think it'll make a difference to voter turnout one way or another. Do people really think it's the fixed election date that's why turnout's so low in the states?

I think turnout in the states is really low is because:

a) You have only have two "choices",which claim to be different but are pretty much the same.

b) Election overload. Yes, you elect a president every four years, but every two years you change half the seats in government, and at the same time you're voting for half a dozen other things from "Proposition blah" to the DA.

L-girl said...

Do people really think it's the fixed election date that's why turnout's so low in the states?

No. No one suggests that in the US.

Why voter turnout is so abysmal in the US is a complicated question. I don't think it's either of the things Kyle mentions above. Most people don't perceive the two parties as being the same - except in that they are both corrupt and will say anything to get elected. But most people don't view them as the same in substance. That's more a non-US view of the US political scene.

Apathy is very deep, very entrenched, for many reasons. Too big a kettle of fish for this post, I think.

L-girl said...

It is certainly vitally important to be able to bring down an incompetent government in mid term. You don't want to end up stuck with a dud for four years just because that's when the elections are set.

God, that's for sure. Plus, as you and others have said, most of that term is spent campaigning for the next one.

L-girl said...

David, I have to live in Canada for 3 years before I can apply for citizenship. And yes, you have to be a citizen in order to vote.

James said...

But it's a harmless change too. I don't think it'll make a difference to voter turnout one way or another. Do people really think it's the fixed election date that's why turnout's so low in the states?

I don't think it's necessarily a harmless change, but I do think it's irrelevant to voter turnout. The problem with fixed elections in the US isn't that it lowers voter turnout; it's that it means that there's a far, far, far too long lead time for campaigning before an election (though that may, indirectly, lead to low voter turn out because people are so sick of hearing about the candidates by the time election day rolls around).

For one thing, a two-year-long campaign (which is what they seem to get in the US) gives plenty of time for carefully-created falsehoods to seep into public consciousness. "Al Gore claims he invented the Internet" and "George W. Bush is just a regular Joe" being two major ones from the 2000 election -- not to mention the whole "Swift Boat" thing from 2004.

L-girl said...

That's a good point, James.

I don't think it's necessarily a harmless change, but I do think it's irrelevant to voter turnout

I'm more interested in why it's not necessarily harmless.

SteveA said...

Whether or not fixed election dates are an "ideal" solution is certainly debatable with issues of lame duck years, extensive campaigning etc. What will be prevented is the partisan abuse of power witnessed in 2000 by Mr. Chretien calling an election 3 years into a 5 year mandate becaues he saw the opposition in disarray & got the majority he wanted. Love your blog, as a Canadian, it took me two overseas jobs, Madrid and Hong Kong, to appreciate how great Canada is.

L-girl said...

Love your blog, as a Canadian, it took me two overseas jobs, Madrid and Hong Kong, to appreciate how great Canada is.

Thanks Steve. I'm really so happy to be here.

Lone Primate said...

David, I have to live in Canada for 3 years before I can apply for citizenship. And yes, you have to be a citizen in order to vote.

Oddly enough, I can remember a time when that wasn't necessarily true. Provinces set their own laws for who can vote in their own (non-federal) elections, and right up to the 1988 Ontario provincial election, British subjects who were not Canadian citizens could vote. This meant any landed immigrant from any of the fifteen other Commonwealth Realms (Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc.) could vote for MPPs. That's subsequently changed.

It's funny what rights people have out there, though. Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the United Kingdom have the right to vote and even run in British elections... you could conceivably be British Prime Minister without even being a British citizen (contrast this with the strictures on become President of the United States). The British and the Irish have similar reciprocal rights; I believe the only office British non-Irish citizens can't hold in the Ireland is the presidency.

Lone Primate said...

What will be prevented is the partisan abuse of power witnessed in 2000 by Mr. Chretien calling an election 3 years into a 5 year mandate becaues he saw the opposition in disarray & got the majority he wanted.

But is this the case? Simply because the law fixes elections (hmm... interesting turn of phrase) to every four years, how can it legally prevent the government from resigning whenever it likes, which by convention precipitates a federal election? You cannot legally deny a government the right to resign, and in our system, that means an early election. Really, all you have is a pledge that the government of the day won't pull the ripcord. And even if the government of the day promises not to resort to that, that's in no way binding on the next. Only the Constitution is, not legislation.

L-girl said...

fixes elections (hmm... interesting turn of phrase)

Heh.

James said...

I'm more interested in why it's not necessarily harmless.

It depends on how its implemented. If it leads to year(s)-long campaigns in the US style; or if it allows more problematic abuses than a government calling an election at a favourable time, such as calling an election shortly before the fixed date, so that the opposition is caught off guard while the government has been quietly preparing -- then it's being harmful.

MSS said...

Well, as a political scientist, let me weigh in, if I may.

I must confess to having no idea what impact fixed vs. non-fixed election dates could have on turnout. But it could have a big impact on accountability.

Presidential systems (like the US or Mexico) have to have fixed election dates (ot at least fixed ends to the terms, which is almost the same thing), because they are predicated on separately elected independent branches bargaining to get things done (or to blame each other and have a good campaign issue for the next election, as the case may be).

But parliamentary systems are predicated on something utterly different: the government has to have a majority supporting (or at least not opposing) it in order to get anything done, because the government is a creature of parliament. So, it is unworkable to have a parliament have to remain in place till the end of its constitutional term even if it has utterly lost confidence in the government and can't agree on a new one strong enough to do anything. The very princple of parliamentarism--a single chain of delegation from the people to the executive by way of parliament--demands going back to the people in such situations.

The main advantage in fixed election dates (or a fixed parliamentary term) is to prevent an incumbent government from timing an election to its own advantage. This is arguably a bad thing when that government is a minority (such as Harper's) that is just itching to get itself a majority, and hence focused on timing an election and not on actually governing. It's worse when said majority need not rest on anything close to a majority of voters (given single-member ridings). Better to maintain accountability to the people's elected representatives than to let the PM manipulate the calendar in order to free himself from the messy constraints of a parliament that does not actively support much of his program.

However, if you allow a dysfuntional parliament (one with no workable majority after it has dismissed the former government) to be dissolved early, it is pretty hard to prevent any government from calling an election early. It can always fake a loss of confidence, if that is what it takes, as Schroeder did in Germany last year when he wanted to call an election. So much for the fixed term!

It's a hard circle to square, if what we want is to stop PMs from manipulating the electoral calendar, but we also want to preserve the idea of the voice of the people--and not to-ing and fro-ing between an independent president and congress--to be the means of resolving inter-party impasses.

L-girl said...

Thanks for the perspective, MSS! Much appreciated.

Lone Primate said...

Better to maintain accountability to the people's elected representatives than to let the PM manipulate the calendar in order to free himself from the messy constraints of a parliament that does not actively support much of his program.

I don't see the problem in a government resigning and dropping the Writ. If it's popular, it will be returned to office with a renewed mandate; this can only happen with the consent of the people. And it's not without its risks. I refer you to the 1990 Ontario provincial election, which David Peterson called early when his numbers looked good, but resulted in the NDP being elected. Meanwhile, fixed terms (which of course already exist in the Canadian Constitution) did nothing but let Brian Mulroney hang on by his fingernails till the last possible second in 1993. Never mind fixed terms... what I'd like to see is some mechanism by which the REAL consent of the Canadian people could be polled if and when a government with an unassailable majority becomes that noxious again.

MSS said...

Mulroney held on because he knew he was going to lose. Whether the term is fixed or not, there is not a lot you can do to force an early election for a government that has a majority in parliament, but has lost the country.

The question is whether you believe governments should be able to go to the polls early when the time is right from their own point of view. That there is, by definition, a resulting election where voters can pass judgement is a valid point.

Like a lot institutional-reform question, there are tradeoffs.

My own bias is against giving even more power to governments that don't have majority support in the electorate. It is possible that Harper could win a majority of seats simply by wooing more Quebec voters from the Bloc, without much swing to the Tories being necessary in the rest of Canada. Good thing or bad? You be the judge. Personally--as an outsider observer who need not live with the consequences no matter what happens--I prefer that a minority government be restrained by the representatives of a majority, and not empowered by the representatives of a minority.