Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this private member's bill, Bill C-250, since it would bring about a major change to the regime by which general elections and byelections are called. Thus it would be worthwhile to take a few minutes to outline the current regime and to note its historical development.
Governments under our Canadian system of parliamentary democracy do not have a free rein in calling general elections. There is a constitutional constraint. Section 4 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for a maximum duration of five years for Parliament, barring exceptional circumstances such as times of war or a national crisis. Within this constitutional limit, the conventions of responsible government make the Prime Minister personally responsible for tendering advice to the Governor
General as to when Parliament should be dissolved and the general election called.
The obvious exception to this practice is in the event that the governing party loses the support of the majority of members of the House of Commons. If this should occur, the governing party would be forced to seek the Governor General's advice which would include the possibility of Parliament's dissolution and a general election call.
Byelections occur within the life of an existing Parliament. When a vacancy occurs in the House of Commons the Speaker, once advised, sends a warrant to this effect to the Chief Electoral Officer. Under the Parliament of Canada Act the government is required to issue a writ advising of the date for the byelection. This writ must be issued within six months after the receipt by the Chief Electoral Officer of the warrant of the Speaker.
This regime has evolved over several hundred years of parliamentary practice. At its core is the relationship between the House of Commons and the executive branch of government. The cabinet is ultimately responsible to the House of Commons. The leadership provided by the cabinet drives the overall work of a parliamentary session. The cabinet has a key influence on the House's legislative agenda. The cabinet plays a pivotal role in controlling the time, regulating the business and to a large extent harnessing the energies of the House. It is within this overall context that Parliament is summoned and dissolved on the advice of the Prime Minister to the Governor General. The Prime Minister, although not always, usually exercises this responsibility after consulting members of his or her cabinet.
The House of Commons, on its part, is able to hold the cabinet accountable through its work. This includes subjecting the government to oversight and review through the House debates, question period, the work of parliamentary committees, the budget debates, and bills and resolutions introduced by private members, such as this one. The government cannot hold on to power after it has lost the support of the House of Commons.
There is another important dimension to this relationship. It concerns the role of the Prime Minister as primus inter pares or first among equals. He or she must be able to give direction to the government's policies and legislative agenda, to bring about cabinet solidarity and to foster cohesion among its caucus members. Without this authority the government's ability to obtain and maintain the support of the House could be at risk. The Prime Minister's power to advise on the call for a general election is one of many key elements in our parliamentary form of government which works to support the Prime Minister's pivotal leadership role.
Bill C-250 would create a hybrid system for calling general elections. Within the constitutional limits of section 4 of the charter, the bill would provide for a set term of four years for each Parliament. Elections would be held every four years on the third Monday of October. The bill also provides for exceptions to this rule. It does not purport to take away non-confidence votes from the House of Commons. This could still be done and an election called if required. As I understand it, the four year election clock would then be re-started at this point. Of course the four-year rule would apply only if there were no immediate national crisis.
This hybrid system would continue with respect to byelections. If required, Bill C-250 provides for two annual dates for byelections, on the third Monday of April and on the third Monday of October. There are exceptions to deal with unique situations.
My colleagues on the opposite side of the House have advanced three arguments in support of this hybrid system: first, that fixed dates for general elections would remove what they view as a built-in bias in favour of the governing party, namely, the ability to call a general election at a time most favourable to its interests; second, that a hybrid system for calling elections would be less costly to administer and organize; and third, that setting fixed dates for general elections would end needless House time wasted on election speculation and remove one of our favourite national pastimes.
We also heard criticism about the current regime for calling byelections, criticism that the period of time is too long between a vacancy being created and the calling of a byelection, thereby detrimentally affecting constituents, or criticism that this period of time is too short, a so-called snap byelection to favour the re-election of a member who has resigned in political difficulty.
The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, known commonly as the Lortie commission, also heard these arguments in 1990 and 1992, but the commission did not recommend moving to a system of fixed dates for general elections or a hybrid system as is represented by Bill C-250.
The royal commission pointed to several drawbacks which it felt were persuasive. The commission emphasized that although fixed election terms are not uncommon in democracies, they are not the rule for parliamentary democracies. Rather, countries which have adopted fixed election terms are, as a rule, systems characterized by the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government. The United States is the best example of that.
The commission went on to note that unlike the U.S. executive branch of government, the Canadian Prime Minister and his or her
cabinet are held accountable to Parliament and exercise power only so long as the confidence of the House is maintained.
The commission indicated, as I did earlier, that the threat of a possible dissolution of the House by the Prime Minister assures his or her voice is the most influential in cabinet, as it should be, and also encourages the loyalty of caucus members toward government policies and legislation. The removal of this convention would undermine the role and responsibilities of the office of the Prime Minister and disrupt the balance between the legislative and executive branches of government.
The commission also questioned whether a hybrid system would in practice remove the perceived bias of the governing party in calling elections to suit its political agenda. It noted that a hybrid system could still allow any governing party to take steps to engineer its own defeat in the House, should this be judged to be in its own political interest.
Another concern was the commission's fear that fixed date elections might lead to lengthy and much more costly election campaigns. The commission pointed to the U.S. experience with fixed elections and long campaign periods. It noted the rising cost of U.S. presidential elections, which are often launched 18 months or more before election date. This was contrasted with the Canadian experience, which is a historic movement toward shorter campaigns, a longstanding tradition of not starting the campaign in earnest until the writs are issued, and the development of stringent election spending limits for candidates and political parties.
I would like to turn to the issue of whether fixed dates for elections would actually reduce the cost of election administration. It has been assumed that savings would materialize largely through better scheduling and planning of door to door enumeration to register voters, but we are in the process of moving away from this system. Members will recall that Bill C-63, which was passed by Parliament last December, provides for a permanent register of electors. The permanent register will provide for a continuous, up to date listing of electors to replace the cumbersome and costly system of door to door enumeration.
The more modern and efficient electoral system, which a permanent register will bring, will over the long term significantly reduce the cost of elections and thus largely remove the major cost disadvantage associated with calling elections at the discretion of the crown.
I would also like to talk to the issue of byelections. Bill C-63, which I noted earlier, also amended the Parliament of Canada Act to ensure that any writ calling for a byelection could not be issued for at least 11 days prior to the receipt of the Speaker's warrants. This was intended to address the opposition's long standing concerns about so-called snap byelections.
Also, if we examine this government's record to date with respect to the calling of byelections, we would find that all were held within six months of the vacancy occurring. The majority were actually held within three months. In my case, it was held exactly three months after the seat became vacant.
If we go back 10 years we would find that the average time period between the vacancy and polling day was approximately six months. So we are making progress in that sense.
I would also note that to save on administration costs, if more than one vacancy occurred within the period of time, the practice has tended to be to set aside one polling day to run a series of byelections across the country. This practice is, in large part, responsible for some of the longer-