Saturday, June 27, 2015

On fragile fixes

Some high-profile commentators seem to be accepting a highly dubious conclusion about the federal election date expected this fall. So let's take a quick look at what a "fixed" election date actually means for a government which has no qualms about breaking the rules - and why the fact that we're seemingly on track for an October election doesn't mean we can rule out an abrupt change in course if it suits the Harper Cons' purposes.

Here's what the Canada Elections Act now says about election dates:
56.1 (1) Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.
(2) Subject to subsection (1), each general election must be held on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election, with the first general election after this section comes into force being held on Monday, October 19, 2009.
Of course, we know from his 2008 election call that Stephen Harper sees no problem treating the fixed date as flexible when it comes to calling an early election. But since it's probably too late for him to see any advantage in doing that this year, does he have any avenue to delay an election?

I don't see how the answer is anything but "yes". After all, the election date in section 56.1 is itself a product of a statute passed by Parliament. And so if Harper were determined to delay an election, it would seem a simple enough matter to recall Parliament to either change the wording of section 56.1(2) to fit some preferred future date, or eliminate any mandatory wording altogether.

Alternatively, the election writ itself arises out of the advice of the Prime Minister. So what would happen if Harper simply advised the Governor General not to issue the writ necessary to start an election campaign if he were once again ready to provoke a constitutional crisis for political gain? My guess would be a flurry of litigation - but probably not an election until that was resolved.

So Harper almost certainly has some options to avoid running the fall election on schedule. But we wouldn't expect him to exercise any of those options until absolutely necessary - which is why we haven't had much reason to talk about a possible delay until now.

One way or another, Harper's main decision still comes down to the question of whether his prospects are better in an election this fall, or in one at some other date.

Given that the October election date was set by the Cons' own legislation, we have to assume that the Cons' re-election plans involve reaching voters just in time for that date - with years of governmental messaging going into that effort. And those years of planning, not the fixed date, figure to be the main factor that would keep them on schedule if the polls suggest any hope that their strategy might actually work.

But if it's clear by the end of summer that the Cons don't stand a chance in a fall election, they're not without some means of hunkering down in office for a little while longer. And I've yet to see any reason to think that devotion to fixed election dates is the first principle Stephen Harper would place above his desire to cling to power.

[Edit: fixed wording.]


  1. Anonymous10:09 a.m.

    Fully expecting it.

  2. I've been thinking about this since I read the words "assuming it will be called" in this Harris article.

  3. Start a war and invoke the war measures act?

    1. Actually, the statute which replaced the war measures act (the Emergencies Act, online: ) sets out a specific list of actions which may be taken in response to an emergency (see sections 8, 19, 30 and 40 as to various types of emergencies). And while the government may intrude on individual rights in other ways, it doesn't have explicit authority to intervene directly in the conduct of an election - though is the one scenario where its order-making power is general rather than limited to specified actions.

  4. Except there is research that voters punish governments that practice such timing manipulation:

    In the case of the recent Quebec & Alberta elections we have seen just what happens when even relatively popular governments are seen as trying to gain a timing advantage.

    It should also be taken into consideration that the Senate Scandal will fester well into 2016. Harper has no practical reason to call an early or late election. Both will cause difficulties.

    1. Thanks for the link to the paper, though it seems to me to be based primarily on early, "snap" elections called out of perceived current strength rather than delays in timing arising out of perceived current weakness. It's entirely plausible that the same effect might arise there as well, but I'm not sure we can assume it to be true - and even if it exists, the Cons would presumably be weighing the damage of manipulating the timing against the prospect of improving their chances outside of that factor.