Tough week for fixed election laws

Politicians view the idea as something not worth taking seriously

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CORNWALL, PEI, Apr 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The first full week of April proved to be a tough time for the idea of fixed election dates in Canada.

The federal government and most provinces have such laws, which are designed to set the dates of any vote four years in advance. This week showed the exact value of those laws – in round figures, it turns out to be zero.

The week started with newly-minted Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan calling a vote for May 4, despite the fact the fixed election law calls for a vote on October 19.

Fixed election laws made to be broken

The next day, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice also called an election, despite the fact that province’s fixed election law doesn’t call for a vote until 2016. In both cases, the sitting government enjoyed a healthy majority so the possibility of being outvoted by the opposition simply wasn’t there.

In the case of PEI, Premier MacLauchlan was intent on calling an early vote almost from the day he declared for the Liberal leadership: he was unopposed in his bid to take over the party leadership and the premier’s post. That fact in itself is giving the opposition parties fodder on the election trail, like the comment from Conservative candidate Darlene Compton that the premier’s career has reached a crossroads and “if he wants to go any further, somebody actually has to vote for him.”

fixed election
Time to strengthen fixed election laws

The governing Liberals introduced a resolution in the legislature warning the new leader might call an early election. The motion eventually died on the order paper when the house closed for Christmas, but the message was clear to the opposition parties. The Progressive Conservatives, who were the official opposition in the last legislature, eventually moved their own leadership convention from May to February.

MacLauchlan showed what he thought of the law early by saying a fixed election date should just be “presumed.” The law is supposed to give some certainty to the election cycle, making planning easier for the independent office that oversees elections. In theory, it should also make planning easier for the political parties – all of the parties rely largely on volunteer workers to run their campaigns and it is easier for those volunteers to make plans if the date is known in advance.

It is also supposed to eliminate the scenario in which ministers from the government of the day criss-cross the province in the weeks before the election call making announcements while declaring they are just doing their job and they don’t pay any attention to election talk.

MacLauchlan justified breaking the fixed election law by saying none of the four party leaders currently has a seat in the legislature. The New Democratic Party has only ever elected one MLA in its history and the Green Party has never had a seat, so having their leaders outside the rail is not all that unusual. Instead of calling the May 4 vote, he could have called by-elections in the three seats that were vacant at the time of the election call.

That would have allowed the premier and new Progressive Conservative Leader Rob Lantz an opportunity to the obtain legislature seats. For a twist of irony consider this – MacLauchlan and Lantz are both running in seats that were vacant anyway.

Law in name only

All of the fixed election laws in country need to be strengthened to make the election date mandatory for a majority government. If governments are not prepared to relinquish that power, then the concept should be scrapped. Why do we need a “presumed” law? It either means something or it doesn’t.

So far in 2015, Wade MacLauchlan and Jim Prentice have already signalled they view the idea as something not worth taking seriously.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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