Harper giving up big advantage with fixed election dates

PM's ability to set the day has been used to catch the opposition unprepared

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Of all the democratic weapons in a prime minister's arsenal, the most powerful and unique is his ability to call an election any time he wants.

All he has to do is go over to the governor-general's place and ask for a writ. She'll give him one every time. How long would you like it to be, prime minister? Five weeks? Six? Seven? Eight? Name it. Have a nice campaign.

Now in his first bid at democratic reform, Stephen Harper is proposing to abandon this prime ministerial prerogative in favour of fixed election dates.

In legislation introduced yesterday, the government is proposing fixed elections dates on the third Monday of October, every four years.

Of course, that would be coming out a majority House. A minority House, such as the last two Parliaments, can fall into an election anytime. Harper is proposing that, in the unlikely event this House survives three years, the next election be held on Oct. 19, 2009. Yeah, right.

The Conservative bill has the support of both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, and is thus certain of passage, probably before the House rises for the summer. Only the Liberals are posing as the defenders of this particular Westminster tradition. But it's a dog that won't hunt.

First of all, two provinces led by Liberal governments, British Columbia and Ontario, have already adopted fixed date elections. B.C. has had its first election under those rules, and Ontario will hold its first one on the first Thursday of October 2007.

How do the federal Liberals talk their way around that?

Harper is relinquishing a huge home-field advantage. In fact, he's creating a level playing field, where all parties will have the certainty to plan everything from their leadership to their fundraising and advertising campaigns around the election date.

In modern times, all of Harper's predecessors have used this prime ministerial prerogative to their own electoral advantage. In 1965, Lester B. Pearson called an election to win a majority the voters denied. In 1974, Pierre Trudeau triggered the defeat of his own minority government in the House, and then dragged the subsequent majority Parliament out for nearly five years before his defeat in May 1979. (The constitutional limit of a Parliament is five years from the return of the writ of the previous election.)

Brian Mulroney kept Parliament sitting over the summer of 1988, and then sprang seven-week campaign on Oct. 1. By then, he had the numbers to win the free-trade election, even though they ebbed and flowed during that tumultuous campaign.

Jean Chretien played this card masterfully, calling elections after only three and a half years in both 1997 and 2000. In 2000, he caught the new Canadian Alliance unprepared for the call.

Three and a half years later, Paul Martin pulled off the same play when he called an election only two months after the reunited Conservative Party chose Stephen Harper as its leader. The Tories had a leader, but no policies and no platform, resulting in the undisciplined campaign that cost them an election they might otherwise have won. In retrospect, and in their wisdom, the voters were telling Harper and the Conservatives they weren't yet ready to govern, and they weren't. Losing in 2004 allowed them to get their act together for 2006.

Normally a prime minister would fiercely defend his constitutional prerogatives, on his own behalf and on behalf of his successors. For example, Harper blew off the Gomery Commission's recommendation that deputy ministers be named by the Treasury Board rather than the PM. No prime minister in his right mind would relinquish the right to name his own advisers.

This is a big trump card that Harper is laying on the table as part of his early bid to become a transformational prime minister. Democratic reform is always on a new government's agenda, but no one ever does anything about it. Remember Paul Martin and the democratic deficit? That was a good one.

Harper is also tiptoeing carefully around the edges of Senate reform by proposing term limits for appointed senators as a first step towards electing them.

But there are constitutional issues around this. There are no fewer than 16 articles in the Constitution Act of 1867 relating to membership in the Senate, including the asymmetrical provisions that divides Quebec into 24 districts where appointees must own property.

Which means, Prime Minister, that you couldn't hold province-wide elections for Senate vacancies in Quebec, not without two constitutional amendments; first a bilateral one with Quebec replacing the 24 districts with province-wide selection. And then you'd need a "7/50" amendment, an amendment by Parliament and seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population, to move from an appointed to an elected Senate.

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