Sunday, August 24, 2008

The fix is in

For all the recent talk Deceivin' Stephen's musings about forcing a general election before Parliament reconvenes, I'm surprised there's been relatively little analysis of how that threat relates to the ongoing by-elections. Which is a shame, since the interaction between the two offers a vivid example of exactly the type of mischief which a fixed election date is supposed to avoid.

After all, it's fairly well recognized that political parties treat by-elections somewhat differently from general ones, primarily due to the greater attention to results within a single riding (as well as the ability to focus resources more narrowly).

And the current set of by-elections is no exception: as many as four candidates would figure to spend at or near their riding limit in Guelph, with at least three likely to do so in both Westmount-Ville Marie and Saint Lambert. Or from a party perspective, the Libs and Cons would seem likely to spend near their maximum levels across the board, with the NDP, Bloc and Greens each maxing out their possible spending at least one riding as well.

Which raises one obvious source of potential for abuse if Harper were to call a general election. The opposition parties, holding no control over whether a general election would be called, have little choice but to run their by-election campaigns on the basis that they'll actually mean something. (I suppose one or more could gamble by reducing by-election organization and spending - but they'd have no assurance that the general election call would come, and would face a serious risk of being seen as having lost ground if the by-election went ahead.)

In contrast, the Cons alone would be able to decide in advance to call a general election. They'd then be able to spend little money on the by-elections, and use the by-election period to get a jump on national organization while the other parties are focused on the by-election ridings. The end result would then be a potentially significant cash and organizational advantage in a general election campaign where national trends would almost certainly overtake the effect of all work done on the by-elections.

Now, that would be the effect if the Cons decided absolutely to call a general election. (And I have to wonder whether Harper's decision to call the Don Valley West by-election makes sense if the Cons hadn't already made that call.) However, there's at least as much potential for abuse if Harper instead uses the path of the by-elections to influence the timing of a general election call.

Presumably the Cons would be happy to let the by-elections run to their conclusion if they see any potential to pick up seats or momentum in the lead-up to a likely fall election campaign. But if local polling doesn't go their way, they'd effectively be able to take a mulligan on the by-elections by torpedoing the process before any vote actually happens.

Needless to say, a government unilaterally cancelling electoral processes which are about to produce unfavourable results would seem more the mark of a tin-pot dictatorship than a democratic regime. But that's exactly what Harper is claiming to be able to do - even after having promised to put an end to manipulations based on election dates.

In sum, the timing of Harper's threat to ignore his own fixed-date legislation raises more than just a broken promise, but also the possibility of serious abuses of power. And the fact that Harper doesn't seem to see the slightest problem with his actions should only reinforce the need to vote that power out of his hands.

Update: Greg highlights how the Cons focused on exactly the above types of problems as their main reason for passing the fixed election date bill in the first place.

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