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Fixed election dates is an issue both federally and provincially. In 2006 Mr. Harper brought in legislation to limit the term of a federal government to four years; thereby fixing the date of the next general election to the fall of 2009. An election begins when the Prime Minister asks the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and to authorize the writs of election. Assuming the government has not lost confidence, the timing of the election call resides completely with the Prime Minister and is a considerable advantage for the leading party. By taking advantage of short-term events, opposition weakness, or sudden good news the Prime Minister can sway an election to his or her advantage. As a result governments may be winning elections they otherwise would not and manipulation of election dates for political gain erodes the citizen’s view that elections are important and should be participated in. So fixed election dates are correctly deemed a good thing. Mr. Harper said it himself in 2006, “ … fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage."
However fixed election dates cannot work. Why? Canada and its provinces use a confidence system of governance. If the government loses the confidence of the House it must resign and an election must be called to restore confidence regardless of any fixed election date scheme. Also the right of a Prime Minister to ask for dissolution of Parliament is constitutionally protected. Any law passed by Parliament fixing election dates cannot interfere with that power. So even with fixed election dates on the books what sanctions can be used to prevent a Prime Minister from calling an election by resigning before the next election date? And this of course is precisely what happened and why we went to the polls a full year before the ‘fixed’ date.
Fixed election dates is a needed reform but is incompatible with our confidence-style of governance. So let us take a hard look at whether Canada and its provinces should move beyond confidence based governance.