Saturday, May 27, 2006

Set The Date

Prime Ministers are not in the habit of freely conceding any of their considerable powers of office, especially for the naive ideal of democratic reform. No one seeks power with the intention of just giving it away.

So it's remarkable to see Stephen Harper willing to give up one of the greatest powers of office by calling for fixed election dates:

The Conservative government will bring legislation before the House of Commons as early as Monday to set fixed dates for federal elections and to reform Parliament's upper chamber, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.

The prime minister said yesterday his government will introduce a bill next week that will include a provision to send Canadians back to the polls in the fall of 2009, but because Mr. Harper leads a minority government, he is bound to hold an election if opposition parties express a lack of confidence in the government.

Expect the Liberals to defend the status quo that has usually served them pretty well, regardless of whether it actually serves the country. (Hey, isn't that awfully Tory of them, in the old pejorative sense of the word?)

"We would like to see this approached in an adult way instead of rushing into some violent change in an unstable political climate where nobody has a strong majority and where Canadians haven't completely firmed up their opinions on what type of government they want," Liberal leader Bill Graham said.

He criticized the Harper government for forcing issues of great importance -- such as the recent extension of the military mission in Afghanistan -- on parliamentarians while giving them little time to adopt a firm position.

"It tends to grab issues of tremendous depth like this and say now we're going to rush everybody into having to make an immediate decision as a way of being partisan rather than saying that this reflects the long-term good of our democracy."

In other words: Canadians didn't really want to vote us out, and it would be unfair to deny them the quick exercise of buyer's remorse.

But with the Bloc and NDP on side, fixed election dates will likely pass.

It will not do damage to the Westminster parliamentary system of government; governments can still fall and be forced to the polls on a non-confidence vote. The Governor General will still have the power to dissolve Parliament; he or she will just have to do so at a time fixed in law.

Nor will it extend campaigns to the lengths that American election campaign run. The primary system, not fixed election dates, is the reason why their campaigns go on interminably. When conventions actually nominated candidates from the floor instead of ratifying the primary's choice, campaigns were not much longer than they are now in Canada.

And floating election dates have not stopped shadow campaigns in Canada either: witness Paul Martin's prolonged campaign from the spring of 2005. And when majority governments get close to the four-year mark, the shadow campaign gets into full gear with speeches, policy platform declarations, nomination meetings, fundraisers and spending announcements.

Fixed election dates would also prevent unpopular majority governments from stretching their mandate out to five years to stave off inevitable electoral disaster, often with worse results than if they had gone to the polls in year four.

Would the PCs have been obliterated in the fall of 1992 in the same way they were in the fall of 1993, without another year for people to get sick of them and for Reform and the Bloc to consolidate their positions?

Fixing election dates will prevent prime ministers from manipulating the House in the same fashion that they can manipulate the Senate with the power of sole appointment. It is a concession of illiberal power. Free government demands no less.

Source: Ottawa Citizen

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