One questions asked of Green Party leader Elizabeth May during last week’s Barrie visit was “when will the next federal election be?”
The answer, though, is unclear, despite amendments Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in 2007 to fix election federal dates. (His measures to fix elections will be the topic of another column.)
Traditionally, in a Westminster parliamentary system, government can sit a maximum of 5 years, unless it loses a confidence vote before then. But the Premier or Prime Minister also has the power to call an early election, a power often used to take advantage of favourable timing for re-election, or avoid potential pending embarrassment. This gives an unfair advantage over opposition parties, so many governments in Canada, starting with BC and now including Ontario and most other provinces or territories, have established fixed election dates and hold most elections every four years like clockwork.
But at the federal level, it’s a different story. Despite not losing a vote of confidence, Harper called an election in the fall of 2008, over a year before the date fixed in his law, basically because he felt the timing was good to gain a majority in Parliament. But that didn’t work; instead, he faced a united opposition only a few months later, who publicly declared in writing their intent to move non-confidence in his new government, the proper way to trigger an election before the end of a fixed term.
However, that timing wasn’t so auspicious for Harper, so he suspended Parliament in order to avoid the non-confidence vote, the first time this had every been done anywhere in the world under Westminster governance.
Through these two actions, he showed that despite his own introduction of fixed election dates with the stated intent to “prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage” and “level the playing field for all parties,” he has no interest in a level playing field or giving up short-term political advantage.
Now that he has his majority government, though, Prime Minister Harper has insisted he will not call the next election early, instead waiting until the legislated October 19 date. And I’ve been told the same by one of his Members of Parliament, and one of his nominated candidates. Should we believe them, over Harper’s own demonstrated habits?
Many speculated Harper would again break his own law and send us to the polls this coming spring, following a “good news” budget with a surplus to fund more tax cuts or new spending. But that already happened this fall; now predictions circulate of a writ drop as early as February, to wrap the election before the guaranteed-to-be-embarrassing Mike Duffy trial begins in April.
I guess the only recourse is to look at the indicators. Of all the federal parties, the Conservatives have the most candidates nominated, even though the election is supposedly almost a year away. More telling, to me, is what I got in my mailbox this week: a full-size full-colour election flyer from the Conservative nominee in my riding. Sure, it’s good to start campaigning early, but I’ve never before seen such an expensive mailer 11 months before an anticipated election! Could this signal an election call in the coming months? I guess we’ll find out together.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Signs of an impending election are popping up".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.