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.
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.
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.