Mr. Speaker, the legislation before us is certainly worthwhile. Everyone will benefit a great deal from having elections held on a fixed date in the Canadian parliamentary system.
I would like to tell the government that the Bloc Québécois members will definitely support this legislation because, in our view, it represents a step forward. People need to understand that we again have a minority government. In recent years, we have had several elections in a short space of time. Canadians need to know that since I became a member of Parliament in 1993, no majority government has completed its full mandate, which should run between four and five years. Choosing an election date has become a political plaything for a prime minister, who tries not to find the best way of accommodating voters, but to find a time when public opinion may give him popular support. It has become a guessing game, with absolutely disastrous consequences.
First, people get fed up with having hundreds of millions of dollars of their tax money spent to hold an election four, six or eight months before it is required. Holding elections on a fixed date is sound fiscal policy. It is wonderful. A normal mandate runs for four years. This gives the government time to do things, and no one has to deal with the stress of an unexpected election campaign.
There is a serious shortage of women in politics. But let us look at what is required of candidates who want to join us here in the House of Commons or serve in the provincial legislatures. We are talking about professionals, business people, people who have some responsibility in society. They are expected to announce six, seven or eight months in advance that they intend to run for office. Imagine a wife and mother or a career woman who also has family obligations. She has to tell her husband and children that she plans to run as a political candidate in the next election, with all that involves.
This is fine if the election is called a month later: people announce their intention to run, then they start campaigning. We know how it works on the ground: we campaign daily, selling memberships leading up to a convention and convincing the organizers. That is how we work. However, the election might not happen until seven months later because the Prime Minister decided to put it off since the polls were not looking very good. Then people find themselves in a pseudo-campaign situation for six or seven months while they prepare and wait for the big day. Obviously, they have to keep working at it because everyone knows they intend to run.
This kind of cat-and-mouse game is detrimental to recruiting candidates. If we know that the election is to take place on such and such a Monday in October of such and such a year, people can plan for it, at a time that suits them, and then announce their candidacy.
I sincerely believe that one of the major advantages of this bill is that is would simplify life for people who want to enter public service, but who are not prepared to play around with their careers for five, six, seven months, or maybe even a year while they wait for a general election to be called. This is an extremely important part of planning the transition from private life to political life for people who decide to take the leap. This is an important element.
The second very important element is that democracy works best when everyone, even the men and women in politics, knows that there are fixed elections. Fixed elections enable us to take more coherent, organized action rather than playing the will-he-or-won't-he game with the Prime Minister.
I believe that there is nothing worse for democracy than letting the Prime Minister decide when to hold an election based on when public opinion tells him he is at his best, and then surprising everyone with the election announcement.
In my opinion, an election is not a game. An election must be taken seriously, approached honestly and not be a surprise. It must take place in its own time in order to allow citizens to express their opinions. This is another extremely important consideration.
Past prime ministers toyed a great deal with election dates. Oddly enough, this card has almost always been played in the month following the arrival of a new leader of the opposition. That indicates that the prime minister would take stock of the situation. If the Bloc Québécois was holding a leadership convention, the time was right to call an election two months later. How considerate. There is no time to organize as everyone is caught off guard.
A leadership race is currently underway in the Liberal party. It would be tempting for a prime minister, in these circumstances, to call an election perhaps two, three or four months after the new leader is chosen so as to not give this individual the time to organize.
I must say that the Prime Minister is being reasonable and sensible when he tells citizens that he is setting aside this prerogative, which is his to exercise, and doing so deliberately. He says that he will not play games with the opposition parties or public opinion. He will simply respect the mandate given. Obviously this bill does not and cannot change the constitutional powers of the Prime Minister and the Governor General, particularly those of the Governor General.
A responsible government assumes that the Prime Minister could, at any time, if defeated in the House, go to the Governor General and advise him or her that he no longer has the confidence of the House. That goes without saying.
The Constitution has not been amended. However, the Prime Minister, by putting forward this legislative measure, and even if he does retain the authority to act otherwise, places considerable political pressure on himself and on those who will follow .
People would not understand, for example, if the Prime Minister, after tabling this Bill providing for elections in October of 2009, should decide to call an election in 2008, with three months notice—because the polls were favourable or because of some other circumstances—perhaps because he was hoping to achieve a majority government. That would not be well received. The voters would say he was two-faced, saying one thing when talking about principles but acting in an entirely different way when it is time for action.
It is no secret that in tabling this bill, the Prime Minister is creating a framework that he will have to respect in all situations and that he must accept. In addition, what he is doing will have consequences for others. He is agreeing, for himself, to give up that prerogative of playing with election dates. As a result, it won’t be done any more.
Once he has taken this step, the path will be marked out for subsequent prime ministers, who will have to respect this legislation which is a very clear expression of the will of the House of Commons.
Moreover, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer has very complex work to do to prepare for an election. At present, the possibility that there might be an election at any time during the government’s mandate requires Elections Canada officials to be in a state of constant readiness. Some rather large expenditures are linked to that state of affairs. I am not just talking about the mandate of a minority government. It is true even in the context of a very strong majority government, as we have seen in the past.
It seems to me that with a fixed election date, in the context of a majority government, Elections Canada could better plan its work and its schedules and be better prepared, more adequately prepared, when the situation required it. That is also an absolutely remarkable benefit.
In addition, elected members have many other matters to be concerned with than the need to be re-elected, perhaps in a year-and-a-half, two years, or three-and-a-half years. They have a great deal of parliamentary work to do and lots of work in their ridings. Having a certain, predetermined room for manoeuvre will allow members, through agreement with all parties, to plan the work of parliamentary committees and the legislative agenda to be accomplished. The government and the opposition will be able to plan better and work more effectively. It avoids unpleasant surprises and enables parliamentary committees to schedule their work so that within one mandate a number of problems could be dealt with. Parliamentary committees will be able to plan their work and establish a schedule that respects dates known to everyone.
A clear democratic advantage ensues, for this leads to improved democracy. As for the practical organization of elections, this will also allow for a better electoral process. It also has the advantage of making it possible to better organize the work of Parliament. It also allows very worthy candidates to better plan the announcement of their candidacy, which is not currently the case. This could draw more women to political office, and certainly more senior level professionals who cannot risk putting their careers on hold for months at a time.
Furthermore, researchers looked at approximately 40 parliamentary democracies from around the world and found that only 12, including Canada, do not have fixed election dates, or at least an electoral period established within a couple of months. In short, only 12 out of 40 do not have elections on a certain day or during a certain period. This means that accepting fixed election dates would be a step towards progress. It would mean joining the 28 other parliamentary democracies that have established this rule. This also prevents overlapping with unsuitable periods for an election, such as during holidays or during periods that could interfere with elections being held in other areas of our public life. This allows us to simply declare late September and October, every four years,as the election period for the House of Commons, as we would all know that the election is held the third Monday in October. Everyone could then plan their schedules based on this information.
We therefore support this bill. It does not change our democratic habits in any drastic way; it merely specifies the importance of fulfilling four-year mandates.
I have served several terms in this House since 1993, and I have never seen a government complete its mandate. When a minority government was elected, reporters asked me whether I was disappointed that we had another minority government, because that could mean an election in the relatively near future. I told them that whether we have a minority or a majority government, it never completes its mandate. The legislation before us will allow governments to complete their mandates. That is what we hope and want. For a minority government to complete its mandate, it needs to do one very simple thing: respect the members of this House.
Any government that decides to respect the will of the House of Commons will easily be able to complete its four-year mandate. From now on, the Prime Minister and the cabinet—the executive—will have to agree to govern by consensus. The opposition has the power to allow the minority government to continue or to defeat it. Of course, our goal is to allow the government to govern. But the government has the responsibility to develop the tools it needs in order to govern. With a minority government, an election might be held in October 2009. This government would have to try to govern more openly to rally the forces of the NDP, the Bloc Québécois, the opposition as a whole or the Liberal opposition. This is possible. It has happened in the past, and it generally means more responsible governance.
Fixed election dates can benefit both majority and minority governments. We all try to the best of our ability to ensure that the government governs properly, over the course of a full mandate. Canadians do not like having too many elections and want us to act responsibly. The bill will make that possible.
Again, without eliminating the Governor General's prerogative to dissolve Parliament, the Prime Minister has set an extremely rigid set of parameters for himself, and he will have to abide by those parameters or else lose all credibility. When he has followed those parameters once, his successors will be morally obliged to do the same. This is a step forward. I salute this initiative. The Bloc will support it on its merits, as it approaches every piece of legislation tabled in this House.