David Russell

Prime Ministerial Prerogative
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A matter of timing: PREROGATIVES: The PM's power to arbitrarily time an election to political fortunes does a disservice to democracy.

The Vancouver Sun. October 19, 2000.

Ahh. Another election call is imminent.

Some 31/2 years into a five-year mandate -- 31/2 years after the previous five-year mandate -- the prime minister is planning to send the nation into another round of introspective rhetorical questioning: Who are we? What do we want? Who can or really will give it to us?

A federal election campaign has an interesting and sometimes positive impact on the country. People who ordinarily give little thought to national affairs spend time actually thinking critically about policies and platforms of the federal parties. At the coffee house, in chat rooms and around the kitchen table Canadians concern themselves with matters of the state.

But the early election call highlights a real problem with prime ministerial privilege: the prerogative of calling an election whenever he or she wants.

Many of the prime minister's powers require the approval of cabinet or the House of Commons. In our parliamentary system, we rely on debate, discussion and voting to provide us with the checks and balances of an open, democratic process not dictated by the fancy of the prime minister.

But open process breaks down when it comes to the timing of an election. Indeed, since a majority government really does drive all legislative agendas, it isn't surprising that a majority leader can choose election timing willy nilly.

In fact, prerogative in election timing is afforded to the prime minister by tradition only; there is no actual statute that gives that power to the prime minister exclusively nor excludes it from other members of the cabinet or caucus. This, of course, makes Jean Chretien's assertion that election timing is for him and him alone to decide -- with consultation from his wife, Aline, he assures us - - seem even more arrogant.

Allowing the prime minister to set the timing of an election almost invites manipulation of the election process. This isn't an issue of Liberal or Conservative or New Democrat tradition. This is a natural inclination to reach out to the voters after a particularly successful program or policy implementation: See what we've done for you? It's payback time.

By contrast, American federal elections, for example, are different in that you can predict them. You can set your watch by or plan your vacation around them. On the first Tuesday of November every leap year, Americans are going to the polls -- at least those in the minority in that country who can be bothered to vote.

True, even in a system where elections are predetermined, the sitting government knows that the period immediately preceding an election is the best time to introduce pleasing public policies. They also know that no matter what the polls say, come November of the fourth year, they must face the electorate.

At the current rate of federal elections, 31/2 years into a possible third Liberal mandate we will have had three elections instead of the two required. And let's face it. Elections aren't cheap. One can't help but wonder the total cost of cranking up the Elections Canada machine simply because the prime minister is inclined to do so.

Political strategy sensibly dictates that a government goes to the polls when it's popular with the public. It doesn't matter if it's a full year and half under the five-year mandate; if you think you can win -- go. That doesn't exactly spell out an integrity-laden approach to governance.

Furthermore, this prime minister's prerogative also allows the governing party to call an election when his opponents are least prepared. Two of Canada's five major political parties have undergone pretty significant upheaval through mergers, leadership campaigns and important byelections. Even the federal New Democrats - - who we could argue should be prepared to campaign -- have not nominated candidates in each of Canada's 301 ridings.

Allowing the prime minister to choose when he wishes to drop the election writ based on the lack of preparedness of the opponents serves no one but the incumbents. There is an inherent disadvantage to the parties that are at the mercy of the prime minister's secrecy around election timing. But the disadvantage to those parties is based solely on logistics -- not platform, ideology or policy.

Surely, a reformed electoral system with fixed election dates and mandates offers a more level playing field for all candidates. If all parties know unequivocally when they need to be fully prepared for a national campaign, they could plan leadership campaigns, platform conventions and nominating meetings accordingly.

While it may seem strategically sound for a governing party to strike when their metal is most hot -- and their opponents' most cool -- the Canadian electorate deserves to choose among candidates it believes truly have the policies they believe to be best for Canada -- not just for the party that had the upper hand in preparing its election campaign.

Port Coquitlam resident David Russell is a high school teacher, a kids' television show host and a freelance writer.

Copyright 2000 by David Russell