[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

We can have fixed election dates most of the time, and that is good

Set out below is an op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which the Globe and Mail refused to publish, even though they gave full-length op-ed space to John Pepall whose op-ed, as pointed out below, was full of inaccurate and speculative statements backed by zero evidence.  The Globe did agree to publish a much shorter letter in its April 1, 2011 issue.

As usual, John Pepall uses inaccurate and exaggerated claims without providing any backing evidence, and ignores valid, workable solutions, in his ongoing campaign to support the status quo in Canadian politics (We don’t have fixed election dates, and can’t - Globe and Mail, Mar. 29).  That he has to do so shows just how empty his arguments are in every case.


First, in fact, Democracy Watch did not use up "a good deal of its money" to clear up through a court case whether Stephen Harper's action of advising the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and set a federal election date in fall 2008 violated the Conservative-sponsored fixed election date measures that became law in May 2007.  Democracy Watch's lawyer acted for free.


Nor did Democracy Watch use up "more" as Pepall, claims, of taxpayers' money for the case.  Federal lawyers who defend the government in court are on salary, as is everyone else involved in the courts -- so it does not cost anything more for them to handle another case (no new lawyers were hired for the case, nor was anyone else paid any extra costs as it was a simple case with only paper evidence, no witnesses).


What Democracy Watch's court case did was clear up the important question of whether the measures actually, legally and constitutionally, restricted the Prime Minister from advising the calling of elections any time s/he wants.  The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the measures were not specific or strict enough to restrict the Prime Minister (and the Supreme Court of Canada chose not to hear the case).


Second, Pepall speculates, without providing any evidence to back his speculation, that "The underlying popular feeling behind fixed election dates is resentment at being bothered with elections at all" and that the popularity of fixed election dates "stems from governments wanting to absolve themselves from responsibility for bothering the voters."


Third, Pepall claims inaccurately that "Academics and do-gooders" only claim that "it’s unfair the government can call an election when it pleases."  Actually, a large majority of politicians in six provinces, one territory and at the federal level all support fixed election measures to restrict the Prime Minister (or premier) from calling snap elections that give the ruling party an advantage over opposition parties (which is unfair) and make it more difficult for everyone else to participate in the election (which is undemocratic).  That is why politicians in six provinces, the Northwest Territories, and the federal level all passed bills to make fixed election dates the law.


And all of those politicians, including the politicians who sponsored the bills, were well aware that the measures only restrict the ruling party leader from calling elections, and that opposition parties (if more than one opposition party has seats in the legislature) can, during a minority government, defeat the government and force an election with ample notice when Parliament is open through a non-confidence vote.


That Pepall views three opposition parties acting together with ample advance notice to defeat a government with a vote on a significant issue in Parliament (which just happened) as being as unfair as a Prime Minister, with no advance notice, calling a snap election when Parliament is closed (which happened in September 2008), shows clearly that Pepall's judgment of good versus bad political processes is deeply flawed.


Fourth, Pepall makes the ridiculously exaggerated claim that fixed election dates have had "many" unintended consequences (really, what are these "many") and includes in the list "the dysfunction of the past two parliaments" at the federal level.  There is zero evidence that fixed election dates had anything to do with how the last two federal parliaments have operated, nor is there any evidence that the last two federal parliaments have been "dysfunctional" – no matter how you define dysfunctional (as just as many laws have been passed on a per-day basis compared to parliaments in the past 20 years, although more slowly overall because of Prime Minister Harper's two undemocratic prorogations of Parliament).


It is true that the fixed election date laws across Canada should be modified to allow for elections to be called, with specific advance notice periods, if a Prime Minister or Premier resigns and the fixed election date is set far in the future (as has just happened in B.C.).  And, as noted above, the Federal Court of Appeal ruling in Democracy Watch's case means that every law also has to be strengthened to actually restrict the Prime Minister and premiers from calling snap elections.


However, make those simple, workable changes, and we will have fixed election dates most of the time, except during minority governments when two or three opposition parties who in almost every case will represent a majority of voters decide that they do not have confidence in the minority ruling party and so they vote to force an election to give voters an opportunity also to express their confidence, or lack of confidence, in the ruling party.


Whether or not Pepall agrees, that will clearly be a more democratic and fair, and therefore better, system than the status quo.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Fixed Election Date court case page, and see also its Voter Rights Campaign