Keyword post: Some answers to search results

This post will provide answers to actual search engine queries that led people to this blog. None of these would really make a full blog post on their own, which is why I’ve decided to answer a few in one post.

1. How many people did/didn’t vote for David Cameron?

This one is very easy to answer. Exactly 23,796 people did not vote for David Cameron in the May 2010 general election. Cameron stood for election in the constituency of Witney, opposed by nine other candidates. Voter turnout in that riding was 57,769 (73.8%), and of that, 33,973, or 58.8% voted for Cameron, meaning 23,796 voters voted for other candidates.

It is important to remember that in parliamentary systems such as those we have in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., people do not vote directly for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is simply whichever MP is also leader of the party which forms the government. Please see this post for more information.

2. Has the fixed term parliaments bill passed/been defeated?

The fixed term parliaments bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. You can track the progress of any bill currently before Parliament on the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament’s website.

3. What is the procedure to recall a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP)?

There is no procedure to recall MPs in Canada. There is only one jurisdiction in Canada (indeed, in the entire Commonwealth) which has recall legislation, and that is the province of British Columbia. The UK Coalition Government has introduced a draft bill on MP recall. You can read more about how recall works in British Columbia in this post.

4. How does one address the Lieutenant Governor in a speech?

“Your Honour” first, then “Sir” or “Madam” or “Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss (name)”.

Everything you ever wanted to know about styles of address can be found here. You may want to consult this post for other useful political resources.

5. How many people voted for the NDP?

For any elections-related questions, your first stop should always be Elections Canada. In the 2 May 2011 general election, 4,508,474 voters across the country cast votes for an NDP candidate, or 30.63% of voters who bothered to turnout for the election (turnout was 61.4%).

6. Does the government know what questions will be coming forward in question period?

Yes and no. In Canada, the opposition does not usually provide the government with advance notice of what questions it intends to ask, however, there is nothing preventing it from doing so. Indeed, if there is a question that an opposition MP feels the government might not expect to have come up, he or she might inform the Minister concerned beforehand that they intend to raise the matter during oral questions. In general, the government will have a good sense of what questions to expect because the opposition will hone in on any topic that is currently in the news. As well, the government carefully scripts the questions asked by its own backbenchers, so those questions (and their answers) are quite carefully rehearsed.

In the UK, questions for departments must be submitted three days in advance, specifically to give the concerned minister the time to prepare answers. However, the last 10-15 minutes of each day’s questions are reserved for “topical questions”, which aren’t submitted ahead of time, so the minister will not know exactly what questions to expect (although he or she, like their Canadian counterparts, can assume they will be on more current matters). Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) aren’t submitted ahead of time, although loyal government MPs will often give Downing Street advance notice of their question, or try to ask something ‘helpful’ – possibly to try to impress the PM or those looking out for future ministerial talent. But the PM can be asked about anything at all for which the government is responsible, which means they have to be up to speed on all areas of policy.

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Fixed-term Parliaments – Addendum

A comment on my earlier post suggesting that the reason why the Lords defeated the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill was because fixed-term parliaments was not a promise made by either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives in their 2010 manifestos.

This, however, is incorrect. Both parties promised fixed-term parliaments. The Lib Dems did not indicate how long the term would be, but the Conservatives do specify a five-year term. Click here for the relevant section of the Lib Dem manifesto (p. 2) and and here for the Conservative promise – it’s the first item listed in the Cleaning Up Politics section.

Given that both parties campaigned on this promise, and that it was carried over to the Coalition Programme for Government, I would argue that the Salisbury Convention should have applied in this instance. For those not familiar with this convention, it is a practice adopted by the House of Lords which has evolved so that:

In the House of Lords:

A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;

A manifesto Bill is not subject to “wrecking amendments” which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill; and

A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.

There was some debate following the 2010 election if the Salisbury Convention would apply since the government was a Coalition and neither party had campaigned on the Coalition programme. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee briefly looked at this issue in its report on Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, but concluded only:

It is for individual Members of the House of Lords to decide whether to apply this convention to Bills which originate from the coalition Government’s programme for government. We have sought the views on this matter of the Leaders of the main political parties in the House of Lords, as well as the Convenor of the Independent Crossbench Peers. However, we received a range of opinions from a number of witnesses and no definitive consensus has emerged. Baroness Royall, Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in the House of Lords, has argued that these cannot rightly be called manifesto Bills. Robert Hazell argued in oral evidence that the convention actually applies to all government Bills.

However, earlier in that same report, the Committee notes (italics added):

A policy contained in a coalition agreement does not have the same mandate as a manifesto pledge, except where the policy was reflected in the manifestos of both parties to the coalition. In the case of a pledge which was contained in one coalition party’s manifesto, the popular mandate in support of it was not enough to give that party a majority. Where policies are included in a coalition agreement that were not included in the manifesto of any party to a coalition government, these carry the same authority as a non-manifesto policy adopted after an election by a single-party government.

Fixed-term parliaments were promised by both parties, therefore I would argue that this Bill should be treated the same as a Bill originating from a manifesto pledge from a government made up of a single party.

Edit: Apparently the Conservatives added fixed-term parliaments to their manifesto retroactively.

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Fixed-term Parliaments Bill – update

(Note: this post was written back in May 2011. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. When looking for the status of a bill before Parliament please always consult the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament website for the most up-to-date information about any bill.)

The Coalition government’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill suffered a defeat of sorts in the Lords yesterday during report stage consideration.

The bill proposed that elections be held every five years, arguing that this would be more democratic since it removed power from the Prime Minister to call an election whenever he or she wanted. I’ve blogged about the UK proposal in detail here.

The reason why the Lords voted to amend the bill was that they argued that the coalition didn’t have a mandate to bind future parliaments:

“The government have a perfect right to commit themselves to a fixed-term for the current parliament provided they continue to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons,” Lord Butler said.

“Certainly they do not have the right to make a permanent change to our constitution to meet the convenience of a temporary coalition.”

They passed an amendment which would require future parliaments to pass a resolution indicating whether they wished to continue with the fixed-term law.

This strikes me as rather strange reasoning. As I wrote in my earlier post on the bill, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill does two things. It sets the duration of a parliament at five years (which is the constitutional limit for any Parliament to sit), and it also set out a formula to allow for the earlier dissolution of the House should the government lose the confidence of the House before the five-year term is up.

It is certainly true that this last part – the new rules for dissolving the House and forcing an election before the end of the five year mandate – was a direct result of the “temporary coalition” as it was aimed specifically at making it difficult for either party in the coalition to back out of the coalition, which would inevitably lead to the defeat of the government. However, under “normal” Westminster parliamentary circumstances, in the event that one party should form a majority government, these conditions would not come into play since only a full-on revolt by its own members would likely bring down a party that holds a majority of the seats in the House. I know UK backbenchers are less whipped than their Canadian counterparts, still nonetheless, the odds of a majority government falling before the five-year term expires are pretty slim.

That said, I don’t really see how fixed terms can be viewed as something arising solely from the fact that there is a “temporary coalition” forming the government. Any government elected is already bound, in a way, to respecting the five-year term limit since that is the conventional maximum length of time that a government can sit. To quote myself from that earlier blog post:

the current maximum duration of a UK Parliament is five years. This was set by the Septennial Act 1715 (as amended by the Parliament Act 1911). Under this Act, if a Parliament is not dissolved in the period up to five years after the day on which it was summoned to meet, it automatically expires. Consequently, setting the fixed-term at five years isn’t a deviation from actual practice; what is different is that normally, parliaments do not sit for the full five years. There currently exists nothing regulating how early a new election can be called – that has always been a prerogative power exercised by the Queen – by convention on the advice of the prime minister. What this bill seeks to do is end a prime minister’s ability to call an election at any time of his or her choosing during the course of a parliament.

As I’ve also previously written, eight of the thirteen Canadian provinces and territories and the federal government now have fixed-term election legislation in place. Unlike the UK bill however, none of these bills proposed tougher conditions for dissolving parliament earlier. Indeed, as the Lords point out, when theses bills were passed by their respective legislatures, there was nothing in the bills that would bind any future parliament to respect them – other than the fact that such a law had been enacted. To date, every provincial and territorial government faced with a fixed-term for the next election has respected or is in the process of respecting that date (some will be holding their first election under the fixed-term legislation this year). I am certain that in some cases, the government of the day may well have preferred to pick a different time to call an election. Yet they’ve all respected the legislation, at least, thus far, and I would argue that the more this happens, the less likely it will be that a future government would risk not respecting the legislation, though they certainly could do so. The Canadian bills were all written in such a way as to explicitly retain the prerogative powers of the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor to prorogue or dissolve parliament at his or her discretion. This means that in fact, if a provincial premier or the Prime Minister wants an earlier election, he or she can ask the province’s Lieutenant Governor or the Governor General to dissolve parliament. This is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in 2008, and it is this example that illustrates why the Coalition was, in my view, right to outline clearer rules for an early dissolution of parliament.

The federal government introduced fixed-term elections legislation in 2006, which set elections for the third Monday in October of the fourth calendar year after the previous poll, starting with 19 October 2009. However, in September 2008, Prime Minister Harper requested a dissolution from the Governor General on the grounds that Parliament was becoming, in his words, “dysfunctional”. This request was granted, as the bill allowed for. The problem for many was that Parliament had become “dysfunctional” largely because it was a minority government situation, and, because the Opposition was holding up much of the government’s legislation, the government  made virtually every bill a confidence bill, which caused some members of the Opposition to abstain from voting rather than risk defeating the government since they weren’t in a position to face the electorate at that time.  As Professor Robert Hazell from the Constitution Unit, University College London notes in a paper on Fixed Term Parliaments:

This episode shows that simply fixing election dates through legislation is not enough if the prerogative power of dissolution remains unaffected. But if the prerogative power of dissolution is retained as a safety valve, it needs to be protected from manipulation. The Governor General was put on the spot by Harper’s request for an early dissolution, and the Crown drawn into political controversy.

However, it appears that the main issue the Lords have with the bill is not that it sets forth tougher requirements for an early dissolution, but that the Coalition has no mandate to force future parliaments to serve a five-year term. The Lords, however, did pass the Bill that would see the number of seats in the House of Commons reduced from the current 650 to 600. Did the Coalition have a mandate to force future parliaments to have fewer Members? Apparently they did.

I shall reiterate that I personally am not convinced that fixed-term parliaments are a good idea or necessary, but the Lords’ reasoning for defeating the bill do strike me as somewhat questionable. The Bill itself is not dead. MPs will have a chance to reconsider it and overturn the amendment (and any others the Lords make)  once it returns to the House of Commons, probably later this month.

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More UK Committee links

I am continuing to follow the hearings of both the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee and the House of Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The HOL Committee is currently studying the matter of fixed term parliaments, as they consider the Fixed Term Parliaments bill, while the HOC Committee is conducting a more general investigation into the matter of coalition formation to see if there are lessons to be learned from what transpired in May.

I’ve previously shared with readers a couple of videos, one from the HOL and one from the HOC. There are a couple more that I will point you to, if interested, but I won’t embed them on my blog. In the HOC Committee video that I posted previously, you can hear the Rt Hon David Laws (Lib Dem) and Lord Adonis (Lab) provide the committee with their take on the negotiations that went on in May. Last week, Oliver Letwin (Con), Minister of Sate at the Cabinet Office and one of the lead negotiators for the Conservatives, delivered his side of the story.

Meanwhile, we previously heard from Canadian Professor Henry Milner as he testified before the HOL Constitution Committee on the issue of fixed term parliaments. Today, they heard from Professor Vernon Bogdanor and Dr. Ruth Fox on the same topic. You can watch that here, if interested. Bogdanor is not a fan of fixed terms, and he raises some interesting points.

While the committee hearings are very interesting (at least to political geeks like myself), there is also a plethora of documentation available on the committee websites that are also very interesting to sort through. Much of it consists of the uncorrected transcripts of the hearings held by the committee (so if you don’t want to watch the videos, you can read the transcripts), but I will single out a couple of reports that aren’t transcripts at which you might want to look.

From the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee site:

  • The Committee’s 2nd Report on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill (PDF) (note – 2nd report means it is the 2nd report prepared by the Committee this session, not the 2nd report on this particular bill.)

From the House of Lords Constitution Committee:

  • Fixed Term Parliaments – Written Evidence (PDF): This is a compilation (152 pages) of written submissions received by the Committee on the issue of fixed term parliaments. It includes many submissions from Canadian sources, including a letter from House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and some provincial Legislative Clerks, and contributions from Canadian political and constitutional experts. I particularly enjoyed the Memorandum from Professor Mendes (University of Ottawa), found on p. 105. There are also contributions from experts from Australia, New Zealand, various European countries, etc.

Next week (4 November), Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell will appear before the HOC Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to discuss his role, and the role of the civil service, in the formation of the coalition Government and the forthcoming Cabinet Manual. The Cabinet Manual is currently being prepared by the Cabinet Office and will consolidate existing conventions that govern much of the way central government operates into a single written document.

Should be gripping stuff!

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Fixed-term parliaments

I am rather busy these days and so don’t have the luxury of time to work on an original post, so please forgive me for spamming you with videos!

This is a meeting of the House of Lords Constitution Committee examining the issue of fixed-term parliaments. Of special interest (maybe) for Canadians is that one of the witnesses is Henry Milner, a professor at Vanier College and Université Laval (but currently based in Sweden). It’s a very interesting discussion, with lots of Canadian content, so if you have a spare two hours, give it a listen.

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Revisiting the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill

Last month, Dr Malcolm Jack, Clerk of the House of Commons, gave evidence before the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee as part of their consideration of the Government’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill. Dr. Jack raised concerns that the bill as written might risk bringing the internal proceedings of the House into the ambit of the Courts.

The problem, according to Dr. Jack, is that the Bill empowers the Speaker to issue a certificate if the House passes a motion that there should be an early parliamentary general election. To refresh everyone’s memories, the Fixed-Term parliaments Bill seeks to set the date of the next general election for May 2015, and all subsequent parliaments would also serve five year terms, unless a two-thirds majority of the Commons voted for an early dissolution. A government could still be defeated on a confidence vote, but under rules set out in the proposed Bill, this would not automatically trigger an election. (Side note: perhaps things are slightly different in the UK, but certainly in Canada, the defeat of a government on a confidence vote does not automatically lead to an election. The Governor General has the option of asking another party or group of parties to try to form a new government, and in some instance, the government simply carries on. Not all confidence votes are created equal.) Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, if the government was defeated, there would be a 14 day period for negotiations to form a new government and only if no new government emerged would there then be an election.

It is the matter of a vote for early dissolution that is of particular concern for Dr. Jack. In his testimony before the Committee, he explained that setting down in law the requirements for a dissolution vote would open the door for court challenges based on concerns that perhaps the vote hadn’t been properly taken. Someone could challenge the vote on a variety of grounds such some MPs missed the vote because of a defective division bell, or perhaps someone had been double-counted? How would one define a two-thirds majority? Would it include the Sinn Fein members, who never take their seats? You can read the uncorrected transcripts from Dr. Jack’s appearance before the committee here, but I’ll quote one rather lengthy passage from that:

I did a quick calculation and reached that figure as well. I think the Bill talks about the number of seats in the House, including vacant seats, so there is a fixed number. However, I think your question raises a whole lot of problems of a practical nature. I will just pluck out one of them, which is very fresh because apparently there was a little difficulty last night about a Division-whether certain Members were counted or not. I will pause there-I won’t say any more about that. The Bill talks about a motion passed on a Division. There are experienced Members around the Committee table, and they will know that irregularities do occur in Divisions. In fact “Erskine May” has five pages on irregularities in Divisions. They range from mistakes in counting, to Tellers leaving the Lobbies before all Members have gone through-I believe this may have been the case last night. I can see from their expressions that Members have had this experience. There are also minor things, like the ringing of Division bells, and the locking of doors before Members have been able to get into the voting Lobbies. Then there are conventions of the House, which would pose some of these problems. Members are perfectly legitimately able to vote in both Lobbies-that is a practice of the House-in order to cancel out their votes. There is the whole business about nodding through sick Members who are on the precincts. Some of this may sound a bit dramatic, but I think we have to remember that at Dissolution a confidence motion could be a very dramatic occasion. The Government may be in a very tight political situation.

I mentioned that I thought that this would be of interest. I have brought one precedent. I won’t bore the Committee with too many precedents, but I couldn’t resist this one. This is from 1974 and it’s to do with the passage of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill. I will read a very short extract from the Journal of that year. “Mr Harold Lever, Member for Manchester Central, acquainted the House, That in the Divisions on Amendments Nos.…Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill…he was recorded as having voted with the Noes, but he had to inform the House that he was not within the Precincts of the House at the time of those Divisions and that in consequence his vote ought not to have been so recorded.”

You might think, “Well, so what?” But there was a “so what” because the decision on those amendments had been made on casting votes by the Speaker. There had been an equality of votes, and those amendments had been rejected by the Speaker on the principle that, as far as legislation is concerned, he should leave the Bill as it is, as it is decided by a majority. In this case, when Mr Lever came to the House and acquainted the House with this, the whole procedure was declared null and void, including the Third Reading of the Bill. The Bill had to be called back from the House of Lords and the whole process had to happen again. I don’t think I need labour the point of what this would mean in terms of no confidence.

I am not a constitutional or procedural expert, but at the time, Dr. Jack’s concerns struck me as somewhat unwarranted. It has been my understanding that Courts have previously ruled that how Parliaments choose to regulate their own internal proceedings is entirely up to them. In the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, a court challenge was launched by an atheist over the fact that the Assembly began each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the legislature’s standing orders couldn’t be challenged by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the human rights commission (you can read the actual ruling here, if interested). However, while the Canadian and UK parliamentary systems are very similar, I am quickly learning that there exist important differences. Dr. Jack would be better placed than I to know such things.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill is now being considered by the Lords Constitution Committee, and yesterday, that Committee heard from two experts, Oxford professor Anthony Bradley and UCL Professor Dawn Oliver, who roundly dismissed Dr. Jack’s concerns. Transcripts from that session are not yet available online, but BBC blogger Mark D’Arcy provides a nice summary.

According to both Bradley and Oliver, Dr. Jack’s concerns are unfounded, thanks to a court case that dates back to the 1880s, that brought on by Charles Bradlaugh. As D’Arcy explains, Bradlaugh was:

an atheist, a republican and an ultra-radical. And when he was elected he was prevented from taking the oath by an alliance of Tory MPs, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other bishops in Parliament. He fought for six years to be admitted to the Commons, winning re-election in Northampton four times in the process, and even being imprisoned in the cells in the Clock Tower.

He even went to court to try to win the right to enter the House, and his case was promptly dismissed by Mr Justice Stephens, who ruled that the courts had no right to interfere in the internal procedures of the Commons, and that ruling stands to this day.

This does not mean that there aren’t other issues of concern about this Bill, as D’Arcy mentions in his post. But I am glad to see that my initial suspicions of Dr. Jack’s claims regarding potential court challenges borne out by constitutional and legal experts. It will be quite interesting to watch the Deputy Prime Minister’s appearance before the Lords Committee next week.

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Rethinking fixed-term parliaments

I have discussed the issue of fixed-term parliaments previously (see this post and this post), mostly in the context of the legislation under consideration in the UK, however, it is an issue I’d written about on a previous blog (now defunct), when various Canadian provinces and the Canadian federal government were considering adopting fixed-term parliaments.

My initial position, which has remained unchanged, is that fixed-term parliaments aren’t necessary because the main “problem” they seek to address isn’t really that much of a problem, and that in all likelihood, fixed-term parliaments would simply create new problems. Based on the experiences of various Canadian provinces, I believe my initial objection to the need for fixed-term parliaments has been borne out.

The main justification for adopting fixed-term parliaments is that it levels the playing field for all parties since the governing party can no longer call an election when it wants to, at a time that might be particularly beneficial for that party.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, parliaments last a maximum of five years (in a sense, there is already a term limit in place). The governing party can call an election pretty much whenever it wants to, with the only limit on that freedom being that an election has to occur five years to the day of the previous election, for example, if an election was held on 1 May 2006, another election would have to occur on or before 1 May 2011. That would be the latest possible date for a new election; the problem, for some at least, is that there is no earliest possible date limit.

The argument in favour of fixed-term parliaments is that because it is the governing party which has the power to decide when the election will be, it can choose  a time that will be the most favourable to it, for example, when opinion polls indicate a sizable lead over other parties, when the economic forecast looks particularly strong, or when it can exploit any weaknesses in the opposition parties, i.e. leadership issues, fund-raising problems, lack of nominated candidates etc.  Also, since the governing party has a particular date in mind for an election call, which it of course keeps secret, it can begin unofficially campaigning weeks, even months ahead of time, travelling around the country or province making spending announcements, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Or it can table a particularly generous budget, full of tax cuts and spending announcements, then call an election to campaign on its generosity.

The introduction of fixed-term parliaments was supposed to put an end to that sort of thing. True – now the date of the next election is no secret, and if the governing party finds itself trailing in the polls when election date rolls around, or if the economy takes a turn for the worse, there isn’t much it can do about that. Similarly, opposition parties know when the date of the election will be, and so would no longer find themselves caught unprepared: they’d have time to put together a comprehensive platform, and ensure all their candidates and constituency teams were in place. Other arguments in favour of fixed-term parliaments include: fixed election dates would make it easier for parties to recruit stronger candidates since they’d have more time to reorganize their lives to accommodate a run for public office; and that fixed-term parliaments would improve the overall tone and caliber of debate.  However, the only issue that truly has been addressed is that of the governing party having total control over the calling of an election. There is no real evidence that any of the other proposed pluses have indeed materialized, and as I stated previously, new issues have emerged.

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to adopt fixed-term parliaments legislation in 2001, and its first election held under that legislation, also the first fixed-term election in Canada, was held in 2005. Since then, five other provinces and one territory have joined the fixed-term parliaments club (date of first fixed-term election in brackets): Ontario (2007), Newfoundland and Labrador (2007), the Northwest Territories (2007), New Brunswick (2010), Saskatchewan (2011) and Prince Edward Island (2011). The federal government also adopted fixed-term elections, however, given that we have had minority governments in place, there hasn’t yet been an election based on the fixed-term legislation. Still, five elections across the country have been conducted under fixed-term parliaments legislation, and these have provided us with some useful information.

First, while it used to be that only the governing party knew when an election would occur, and would not-so-subtlety start an unofficial campaign, now every party knows when the election will be, and all parties start unofficially campaigning weeks, even months, ahead of time. It’s not an official campaign, because most, if not all, provinces have strict rules in place that limit that sort of activity and how much money can be spent during and outside of campaigns (although there are no limitations on how much the government can spend under the guise of conducting “government business” that more closely resembles campaigning), but all parties nonetheless begin jockeying for attention. This will happen both inside and outside the legislature.

New Brunswick will be holding its first election under fixed-term legislation on 27 September of this year, and one political analyst from the province, Don Desserud, has already decided that fixed-term parliaments legislation was a mistake. Desserud writes:

We now have an extended pre-campaign period, what we call the “phoney campaign,” during which election finance rules restrict the opposition parties’ activities, but can do little to prevent the government from openly campaigning.

Ever since the New Brunswick legislature adjourned on April 16, all parties have been doing their best to campaign. No one even pretended they weren’t.

New Brunswick isn’t alone in this. The next Ontario election is still over a year away (October 2011), but the parties are already jockeying for position in the legislature, particularly during question period. While you can argue that question period is usually fairly raucous, there is something different afoot in Ontario. The Opposition Progressive Conservative party is trying to build name recognition for its relatively new leader, by regularly mentioning his name when they raise questions. This is contrary to parliamentary procedure, where Members are not to refer to other Members by name but by riding only, and the Speaker has had to warn them repeatedly that he will not allow this to continue.

Desserud adds:

The long, phoney campaign has had other negative effects. Most people (except political junkies like me) find even a four-week campaign tedious.

An election campaign that drags on for four months is interminable. We won’t know the election turnout until after the ballots are counted, of course, but I will be surprised if the participation rate improves.

I can only imagine the impact of a campaign that drags on for a year, if what is currently happening in Ontario continues until October 2011.

Desserud again:

Neither have I seen any evidence that the quality of the debate has improved, now that opposition parties have more time to build their policy platforms. If anything, the phoney campaign has dropped the level of debate to new lows.

Certainly, neither the PCs nor the Liberals have managed to present anything approaching a vision for the province or a plan to deal with the growing list of serious and difficult issues that the province faces.

Again, this certainly applies to Ontario, with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives more intent on discrediting the sitting Liberal government than they are on pushing an alternative vision for the province, while the sitting Liberal Government simply attempts to defend its record.

When debates over the issue of fixed-term parliaments have arisen in the past, some people pointed to sitting governments calling elections unnecessarily early rather than serving out their complete mandate. I have found some interesting statistics that indicate that this isn’t really the case. In Canada, parliaments, both federally and provincially, tend to last about four years without fixed-term parliaments legislation.  The New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy conveniently informs us that since 1785, elections have been held in New Brunswick on average every 48.3 months (which you can find on page 6 of this PDF presentation). The Parliament of Canada website informs us that the average duration of majority governments in Canada since 1867 is 4 years and 6 days. Canada has had a fair few minority governments over the years (11), which last on average 1 year, 5 months and 9 days, and so if you calculate the average for all parliaments from the return of the writs to dissolution, the average duration drops to 3 years, 3 months and 27 days. Elections Ontario doesn’t provide averages, but it does provide the dates of general elections from election day to dissolution. I didn’t want to calculate the average duration going back to 1867, but from the 24th Parliament onwards (1951 to current), the average duration of a parliament in Ontario was 53 months (please note that I rounded off the dates for reasons of laziness and practicality).

Perhaps the statistics from only two provinces and the federal government aren’t quite enough to form an overall generalisation, but I will nonetheless.  My point here is simply that in Canada, there isn’t that much evidence to support claims that sitting governments tend to call elections well before their fourth year in office (particularly when you take minority governments out of the equation, and most provinces don’t end up with minority governments that often since most of them tend to be dominated by two parties). On occasion, a sitting government would call an election earlier than that. Sometimes their gambit was successful, but often, they’d pay a price for going to the polls unnecessarily early. Similarly, the only governments that drag out their term to the maximum limit are governments who know they’ll be defeated – badly – at the polls. It is seen as, and rightly so, a desperate bid to hold on to power for as long as they possibly can. I would argue that instinctively, most opposition parties know that, coming into a government’s fourth year in power, an election will be imminent and would thus organize themselves accordingly. There are always signs that a party is contemplating an election call, knowing the exact date doesn’t provide that much of an advantage.

Don Desserud’s sums up quite well the merits of moving fixed-term parliaments:

I do concede that with fixed-date elections, political parties should have an easier time attracting quality candidates. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any objective way to measure whether this has in fact happened.

But frankly, if that’s the only reason left for keeping the new system, I suggest we explore other means for attracting good people to run for office.

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.

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Fixed-term parliaments: the bill

As the current session of the UK parliament draws to an end (they adjourn on 27 July 2010), the Coalition government finally tabled its two political reform bills: the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  I will focus on the former; at 158 pages, I’ve not yet managed to read the latter (but I will).

The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is rather straightforward and addresses most of the concerns that had been raised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee during their questioning of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on 15 July 2010 (for any political reform geeks out there, you can watch Clegg’s appearance before the committee here).

The Bill provides for fixed days for polls for parliamentary general elections, with the polling day ordinarily to fall on the first Thursday in May every five years. Consequently, the first election under this change, as has been previously announced, would be 7 May 2015. The Bill does allow the Prime Minister to alter, by statutory instrument, the date of the election, but to a day not more than two months earlier or later than the scheduled polling day.

As I’ve previously stated in other posts, the current maximum duration of a UK Parliament is five years. This was set by the Septennial Act 1715 (as amended by the Parliament Act 1911). Under this Act, if a Parliament is not dissolved in the period up to five years after the day on which it was summoned to meet, it automatically expires. Consequently, setting the fixed-term at five years isn’t a deviation from actual practice; what is different is that normally, parliaments do not sit for the full five years. There currently exists nothing regulating how early a new election can be called – that has always been a prerogative power exercised by the Queen – by convention on the advice of the prime minister. What this bill seeks to do is end a prime minister’s ability to call an election at any time of his or her choosing during the course of a parliament.

Of course, a government must retain the confidence of the House in order to govern, and sometimes, it loses this confidence. This very rarely happens in the event of a majority government, but when we have a minority government, or as in the case in the UK currently, a coalition government, the likelihood of an early defeat on a confidence motion is far greater. The new Bill takes this reality into account.

Should there be a vote of no confidence in the government, an election must be held unless within the period of 14 days the House passes a motion expressing confidence in a government. The intent here is to provide an opportunity for an alternative government to be formed without an election. So if no alternative government that can command the confidence of the House emerges within 14 days, Parliament is automatically dissolved and a new election called.

But what if MPs want a new election, but can’t bring about a successful no-confidence vote? A separate motion can be put forward to dissolve parliament. However, for this to pass, the number of MPs who vote in favour of dissolution must be a number equal to or greater than two-thirds of the number of seats in the House.

As stated, the first fixed-term election to be held under this Bill, should it pass, is set for 7 May 2015, and each subsequent election would take place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth year after the preceding general election, so 7 May 2020, 8 May 2025, etc. But what happens if there is an earlier election, triggered by either of the circumstances described above?

In the case of an early election called  before the year in which the next election was scheduled, they simply reset the five year clock, meaning the next election would occur on the first Thursday in May five years later. For example, if the Coalition government were to be defeated on a no-confidence motion in 2013, two years before the election scheduled for 2015, and no alternative government emerged within 14 days, an election would take place. The next election would then be on the first Thursday in May in 2018 – five calendar years later.

However, if an early election occurred in the year that of scheduled general election – so in the current situation, let’s say February 2015, the next general election will be held on the first Thursday in May four years later, so May 2019. This is the only part of the Bill that is perhaps somewhat confusing on first read. The explanatory notes say:

The effect of this is that when an early general election is held, the election day of the first Thursday in May is restored at the next election, and that the duration of the Parliament resulting from the early election will normally not be more than five years in length.

What this means is that if the government were to be defeated on a confidence vote a couple of months before a scheduled general election, if the first-Thursday-in-May-five-calendar-years later period was used in that situation, the next Parliament would actually last longer than five years. For example, if the current Coalition government were to lose a confidence vote on Monday 2 February 2015, and no alternative government emerged in the 14-day period (which would most likely be the case – who would want to govern for 2 months?), then an election would be held, probably some time in March 2015. If the next election followed the first-Thursday-in-May-five-calendar-years later rule, then the next election would take place on 7 May 2020, which would result in a Parliament that exceeded the five-year maximum duration. By scheduling the next election four years later, there is no danger of that happening.

But this is what seems confusing. If parliament is dissolved earlier, say 4 February 2013, with an election in March 2013, then the fixed-term clock resets to the first-Thursday-in-May-five-calendar-years later, meaning the next election would be on 3 May 2018 – which is more than five years. It’s five years and a couple of months. However, buried in the back of the explanatory notes, we find mention that a “minor consequential amendment” to section 76ZA of the Representation of the People Act 1983 will be required “on account of the fact that parliaments, under this Bill, may extend a short period beyond five years.” Since this Bill will repeal the Septennial Act 1715, a Parliament will no longer automatically expire if it is not dissolved in a period up to five years after the day on which it was summoned to meet.

This Bill will not receive second reading and proper debate until the fall, when the House resumes sitting.

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