Friday, November 18, 2011

Fixing Elections (at least, the dates thereof)

Hope everyone's had a good week. Mine was pretty uneventful. Except for that whole "announcing my intention to run for office and receiving hundreds of messages of support" thing.

I wanted to touch base on the recently released overview of the legislation to be debated during the fall sitting - in particular, Bill 21 (Election Amendment Act). In this Bill, as I understand it, the Lt. Governor will be asked to issue a writ of election every four years, between the dates of March 1st and May 31st, starting in 2012. The election period itself will be 28 days, as is the norm here.

Okay. Are we all on the same page so far?

Opposition to this news was fierce and as predictable as you might expect. Premier Redford (it IS "Premier Redford", Wildrose media copy writers, not "Ms. Redford") promised fixed election dates during the PC Leadership race. What we have, through this Bill, isn't a fixed date as they have elsewhere in Canada or in the U.S., but it is certainly a sign that the Premier is willing to give up at least some of her power to, in fact if not in law, call elections whenever she darned well pleases. You'll recall that there were many pundits who ruminated about a snap election call immediately following the post-leadership Cabinet shuffle in October.

This Bill would, as described, take the option of the "snap election call" off the table. For that matter, it would force the hand of a Premier who was otherwise disinclined to face the voters, as well. We've seen Premiers wait nearly the full 5 years in the past, and we've seen Premiers go back to the voters barely 3 years into their mandate. This bill would put the peg squarely at April 15th every 4 years, and give the government 6 weeks of "wiggle room" on the leash in either direction, in the event of natural calamity, budget deliberations or important matters of government not yet resolved, etc.

It's an extreme example, but serves the argument well: Can you imagine if, by law, an election had to take place on the third Monday of June each year, starting in 2011? On the third Monday of June this year, there was still smoke rising from the rubble of Slave Lake. How do you have a partisan exchange that anyone can care about when you have hundreds of Albertans watching their homes smoulder?

That writ would have been issued, under law, on May 23rd. One week AFTER the tragedy - so sure, you could "suspend" the law in an emergency, the same way the "no deficits" law was suspended. But if you're going to bring in a law that will be selectively enforced, you shouldn't bring it in at all. Laws aren't supposed to be flexible, or they'd be called "guidelines".

Is this the "fixed election date" that I, and many other political nerds, really wanted? Not really... we wanted a day - etched in stone. We wanted to be able to say "the next provincial election will be May 14th, 2012. The one after that will be May 9th, 2016. The one after that will be May 11th, 2020". The argument is simple: Fixed dates give Elections Alberta the chance to find people to work the polls and enumerate the voters. They give the parties time to find good candidates, and fundraise. They show a commitment to democracy, by taking the power out of the Premier's hands to catch the opposition parties unaware.

And while this Bill isn't the Bill that I wanted, or that I would have written...  it DOES accomplish those 3 things.

Elections Alberta knows it MUST be ready to go by March 1st, 2012. And again on March 1st, 2016. Although, admittedly, the fuzziness of the exact election period will make it harder to hire staff, since most people need to know when they'll be starting, or will find other jobs. The opposition parties know they have to be fully ready to go by those same dates. And, as the Calgary Sun put it in their editorial today, "... it's hard to believe any opposition party worth its salt could be taken by surprise after this 90-day election period is set in stone...".

Do many Albertans care about democratic reform?

I'd like to think so, but I'm a realist. *I* care about it. Deeply. But I'm part of a small minority on this issue.

This Bill isn't going to turn the balance of power on its ear, and it's not the first shot in a "democratic reform revolution".

But it IS the first step in an EVOLUTION of the way in which we elect our governments.

The first legislated, fixed provincial election date in Canada was held in British Columbia in 2005. We're behind, but we're not THAT far behind.

Evolutions are, by their very nature, slow and gradual.

But when the Biggest Dog in the Yard volunteers to be put on a shorter chain - that's progress.

It's not perfect.

But it's a start, that the Premier was under no obligation to make.

She CHOSE to give up this power, in the interests of a more transparent and democratic system.

And that's something I think we can ALL get behind.


Steve Clemens said...


While fixed election dates sound like a nice idea, what happens in the situation where there is a sitting minority government that loses the confidence of the legislature? This would (and should) force an election to be called, which will more than likely be outside the fixed election date window. In my opinion, any electoral reform should not remove or muffle the voice of the opposition, especially in a minority parliament.

What do you do with the fixed date then? If you leave it as is, you cut the term of the incoming government, potentially to a couple of months. The other option would have to be one of fixing majority terms, or tying the hands of the governing party to call elections outside the window. Eg. something like "the upcoming election must be held on a date between 45-48 months from the previous election, except in such situations as..."

If I were to support somethign like this, it would have to have some teeth. We can't forget that the federal Conservatives eschewed the very legislation that they wrote, in the same governmental term that it was written in, the moment it became inconvenient for them. For all the good that law did, they may as well have just stayed at home for the duration it took to write it.

Ael said...

Fixed and semi-fixed dates are silly. It extends electioneering beyond the limits of human endurance.

See the 2+ year presidential "race" for living proof.