Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fixed election dates a failed experiment

I've long-believed that fixed election dates are a pointless exercise of show-reform that carry more negative consequences than positives, and I think their implementation in various circumstanced has borne that out. But now you don't just have to take my word for it:

A political scientist says New Brunswick's experiment with a fixed election date has been a failure and should be scrapped.
Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, writes in an election analysis for CBC News that for any advantages the new system has brought, it has created additional headaches.

"Fixed-date elections make election planning more convenient. However, the price we are paying for this convenience is a system that favours the party in power and serves only to convince the voting public that elections are horrendously boring and nasty affairs," Desserud writes.
Certainly they've proven a farce at the federal level, but they're not really meant to apply in minority situations anyway. At the provincial level though, where several provinces have given it a try, I think the evidence is fairly clear.

All fixed election dates do is serve to lengthen the unofficial campaign period. Any semblance of responsible government, of hard choices, disappears many, many months before the fixed election date. Instead, for the governing party it's permanent campaign mode, using the levers of government for an extended PR blitz at taxpayer expense while real governing essentially stops. Likewise, the opposition ends any desire to compromise and begins an extended shadow campaign, mugging for the camera at every opportunity.

Fixed election dates move us closer to what is the reality in the U.S., and what has become the reality at the federal level thanks, in part, to constant minorities: the permanent campaign. And that isn't a positive.

In addition to the advantage for the government to use taxpayer resources for the extended campaign, the lengthened unofficial campaign also advantages those parties with large war chests. During a writ period, the strict spending cap and rules on advertising serve as a leveler. But during the phony war there are no caps, it's a spending free for all, which favours the wealthy parties and allows them to shape the narrative in advance of the official campaign and greatly influence the outcome before the race even officially begins.

I've always felt fixed election dates were populist pablum masquerading as reform, but now it's clear: they're a failed experiment. Lets scrap them.

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The Pundits' Guide said...

An interesting commentary as always, Jeff.

A small point about New Brunswick, however: they have annual spending limits on advertising expenditures, for both constituency associations and central parties, which apply outside of election writ periods.

In the case of this year, they might well have spent the full annual amounts in advance of the writ, but would then be unable to spend anything post-election.

The limits amount to $2K annually per constituency association, and $35K annually per registered party. No idea what the inflation escalator would be on that, if any.

Jeff said...


The report was from a NB prof, but I'm not too familiar with the playing-field there myself. I am, though, more familiar with Ontario and BC, both of which do have fixed-election date legislation.

In Ontario government spending is a bit less of a problem because of the McGuinty bill banning government advertising. But I'm aware of no pre-election party caps.

In BC there are no constraints in either regard. I wasn't out there for the last election, but I was for the one prior. The Campbell government began a massive taxpayer-funded "it's morning again in BC" style ad campaign months before the writ, which dovetailed perfectly into his party's writ message.

I just don't see the benefits from this legislation, just lots of downsides. As the professor said, sure, it helps to recruit candidates.

And for political animals, we can book the time off work in advance to work campaigns. But for the general public? I don't think they care that much. Campaigns annoy them, and voting is a 30-minute chore on e-day, whether they had six weeks or four years notice. I don't think a longer annoying campaign is worth the advance notice for them.

Omar said...

"I've always felt fixed election dates were populist pablum masquerading as reform, but now it's clear: they're a failed experiment. Lets scrap them."

Hear hear. Fixed election dates are a bore. They remove the political strategizing that must be involved when a government ponders when to trigger an election. Call me old fashioned, but just like Senate appointments, I prefer my election dates be at the discretion of a sitting prime minister.