Thursday, April 27, 2006

Conservatives seek to fix election...dates

There's word today the Conservatives are testing the opposition waters for support to introduce fixed election date legislation, and has found the NDP receptive. While it would obviously mean little for the current minority government's longevity (other than potentially ganing the NDP's favour), it would impact any future majority governments.

This is one of those things that sounds great in theory. Take election dates out of the hands of the politicians so they can't go early to suit their purposes or hang on late hoping their fortunes improve, or go on a vote-buying spending spree just before dropping the writ.

In practice, though, it hasn't worked out that way. Luckily, we have a case study to follow here in Canada: British Columbia. The Gordon Campbell government passed fixed election date legislation after it came into power in 2001, and the first fixed election was held in May 2005. The next one is scheduled for May 2009. Jack Layton may want to ask Carole James for her thoughts on the issue.

Critics of fixed election dates raise fears of an American style system of perpetual campaigning, and I'd have to say the B.C. example bears those fears out. The campaign was far from confined to the writ period, but began long, long before. The government more than ever used public money in a carefully orchestrated series of feel-good announcements designed to target key demographics in the year before the vote. Not a lot of governing got done and controversial decisions were avoided, but the government did craft a long, expensive, taxpayer funded "the good times are here" ad campaign that seamlessly morphed into the party's ad campaign during the writ period.

About the best that can be said about fixed election date legislation is that a majority government can't go early or late to suit its political calculations and the opposition parties all know when it's coming. The trade off a drastically extended period of campaigning when little to no governing gets done and even more government manipulation of the levers of power to buy votes.

It's not perfect, but I say let's keep the current system. If people are upset at a government's election timing the best solution is a far easier one: punish them at the polls. That's true democracy.

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Jeff said...

I hear where both of you are coming from, and I totally respect it. I was there myself a few years ago, but seeing how the theory came into practice changed my mind.

It's great to keep the grassroots active, but in government needs to govern for all the people, not be in perpetual campaign mode. Blastfurnace, I agree with you on the writ period length but that's a different issue. What fixed election dates do is stretch out the unofficial writ period to a year or more.

The medicine, I think, is worse than the disease. The people do have the power now: if a party fiddles around with election dates, smack them at the polls. I think the Liberals were smacked a bit for Chretien's early go in 2000, but with the lack of a credible opposition they weren't smacked as hard as theyt would have otherwise been.

ottlib said...

David Peterson fiddled with the election dates in Ontario and look what happened to him.

I agree with BCer in TO. I believe term limits are more of a gimick than a tool that gives more power to the people.

S.K. said...

I believe this means openning the constitutional can of worms as we would no longer be a Westminster Parliament. It will never happen. It's impossible without changing our entire system, ie. majority/minority, Govenor General, motions of confidence for money bills and their associated negotiations with opposition etc. That would all be gone with fixed dates. Stupid idea.

Anonymous said...

There is another example which shows one reason that this idea should go the way of new coke -- the BC gov't took full advantage of the fixed date to hide at least one skeleton past their own shelf life. They had the reports that their cuts to the social services in charge of children dept had been literally criminal, aiding more than a few 'deaths' to go unexplored, and thus no action to prevent similar cases. Yes, in the traditional system they could have dropped the writ to hide it, however, in this case they played a shell game with the underfunded opposition, limited the sittings in the house and turned up the volume of the 'Isn't it wonderful in BC?' tax-payer funded commercials while boxes sat in a dark warehouse. The media also played within the 'called election date' guidelines, doing little investigating during the prelonged period. As mentioned, little governing actually took place. Instead, Campbell knew that an audit would find this info out, but only after he played some shifty timing to keep it under the rug until after the election. A fixed election date allows such crafty scheduling. It would also work for an opposition who is hellbent on discrediting a gov't. Save the bullet for the two-month-long campaign -- remember Harper's well-oiled election machine? That's exactly how it would go. Policies would be served up piecemeal as though feeding a starving man.
Oh, and we all know how strong a traditionalist Harper is. This 'perpetual campaigning' flag won't fly. Lets keep what we've got.

Jeff said...

SB there's really no constitutional can of worms, which just underscored the silliness and pointlessness of the exercise.

It would really have no impact on a minority government, if they lost the confidence of the house the GG will disolve it and call an election, same as always.

In a majority, the government can always overturn the law, after all, it has a majority, and pick its own timing. All that's stopping it is public opinion. But it can always plead some emergency and probably would get away with it. Just like they do now, just with a little more paperwork.

It's like Mike Harris' balanced budget legislation. I wasn't around here then, but didn't Ernie Eves make up and excuse and toss it out?

Conservatives love these sorts of big talk, power to the people, democratic reform things that are really, upon closer examination, just "all hat".

Anonymous said...

BCer there are down sides and unintended consequences to any change in our electoral system. Example: the leader of a political party may only be changed by way of a delegated (bus in the derelicts) party convention vote as opposed to that decision being made by the elected MPs at a time of their choosing. BC has been the guinea pig for the fixed date system, having been test driven in the last provincial election. My observation is that it had two affects:

1) Downside: The real election campaign expands from four to six weeks to six to eight months. The incumbent attempts to schedule the good news, money give aways and the house keeping issues such as government labour agreements to coincide with that date. There seems to be flagrant abuse of taxpayers money for pre-writ advertising. From a practical point of view that behaviour is not much different than the current system.

2) Upside: Opinion polls don't matter any more as the government cannot call an election when the timing appears to be in their favour or if they know that there is a time bomb ticking (Gomery?) that the public is not yet aware of. Acts of God such as recessions, wars, disasters, and heaven forbid scandals can not be avoided by delaying the election call.

Those two consequences are pretty much a trade off. The trump card is the citizens' gut. We know four years in advance the exact date that we voters can bitch slap a government that has screwed us over. Priceless!