Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to the opposition motion calling upon the government to take steps to hold elections on a fixed date.
I will, however, make no secret of the fact that I have some serious reservations about the wisdom and appropriateness of such a change. I would add, and I will return to this point later, that the opposition's sudden desire to make such a change with no further ado does raise some questions.
First of all, I would like to raise the point that it is important to make sure that changes to our electoral system are not made lightly and without sufficient thought. This is particularly the case when it comes to the ability to call an election, since this is at the very core of our Westminster-style parliamentary system.
There have been past studies of this issue, including the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, better known as the Lortie commission, which recommended in 1991 against the introduction of a fixed date for elections. The Conservative party of the day had what I consider the wisdom to follow that recommendation. As hon. members are aware, the government has initiated a consultation process in order to advance its program of democratic reform.
Today's motion calls upon the government to turn its back on that process and move ahead without even consulting Canadians or taking the time to weigh the pros and cons of the proposed change. A question arises as a result. Reference has just been made to giving Canadians the opportunity to express their opinion, yet if a fixed date for elections is decided upon, as the motion today suggests, Canadians are not being given that opportunity. We must find out what they think.
What is more, if I remember correctly, the policy of what was until just recently the Canadian Alliance was not to move immediately to put in place a system for elections at a set date, but rather to consider the question after consulting Canadians in a national referendum.
That approach at least had the merit of acknowledging the importance of such a change, which ought not to be made lightly and even less so without seeking Canadians' point of view.
The motion before us today throws all caution aside and seems more motivated by a desire to avoid an election and to back the government into a corner than by any real desire for constructive public debate.
I do not mean that the question of fixed dates for elections is frivolous or unimportant, or that it should not be publicly debated; quite the contrary.
However, I think it is important to remember that changes to our electoral system, particularly serious changes that may have a significant impact on our system of governance, should not be made in a hurry, on the eve of an expected election, or for reasons of election strategy.
We must ask ourselves what effect a system of fixed election dates would have on ministerial accountability. Some people claim that fixed election dates would bring greater accountability. But it was precisely the fear of a lessening of government accountability that led the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to object to fixed election dates. In November 2000, its opinion appeared in the National Post , and I quote:
Legislation requiring fixed terms would either permit the house or legislature to call early elections or it would not. If it did, the result would differ little from our current system. If it did not, such legislation could hardly be said to increase government accountability.
Fixed election dates have some advantages. The primary one is that they make it easier for governments to govern...But such advantages are similar to the advantages of a blank cheque, and thus typically come at great cost.
For anyone who favours reform that increases, rather than decreases, government accountability, the idea of fixed electoral terms will not be an attractive one.
Today's motion recognizes the need to maintain the principle of responsible government, thus allowing elections to be held when the government loses the confidence of the House.
Without a doubt, this is an essential element, but one which to my way of thinking fails to address all the concerns I have just listed.
Even if an exception were specifically provided recognizing the principle of responsible government, I am not sure that in practice the introduction of a fixed election cycle would not diminish the accountability of the executive and the ability of the opposition to force the dissolution of the House.
This is not just a change in the electoral and parliamentary machinery. This is a change that would affect the political culture and conventions of our system by introducing a foreign element.
This type of hybrid system was also rejected, as I said before, by the Lortie Commission.
According to the commission, even if there were agreement on the constitutional amendments needed to introduce fixed election dates, it is far from clear that the results would be satisfactory and would lead to greater government accountability; quite the contrary.
Aside from the principle of responsible government and the related constitutional issues, the commission was concerned about the consequences of a system with fixed election dates on the duration and cost of elections.
Taking the U.S. experience as an example, the commission found that fixed election dates might contribute to prolonging the campaign process and compromise the effectiveness of election spending limits on parties and candidates.
Adopting a fixed election cycle would deny Canadians major democratic advantages related to the flexibility that our current system allows.
It is not unusual for a new prime minister to be appointed following a change in the governing party's leadership. In this context, it is not uncommon for a new prime minister to call an election and thus obtain a popular mandate.
Similarly, a government wanting to present a new platform or an important initiative may feel the need to obtain a clear mandate from the electorate beforehand.
These are perfectly legitimate choices in terms of democracy and would be impossible in a fixed election date system.
The motion before us today for fixed election dates may seem appealing at first glance. However, I fear that it is merely an illusion of progress.
We must resist adopting an easy solution that would create more problems than it would solve. Above all we must avoid hastily making changes to our electoral system that would have profound consequences and possibly adverse effects.
Even if I thought introducing a fixed election cycle were a good idea, which I do not, and putting aside any constitutional difficulty this might create, I would nonetheless be opposed to this motion for procedural reasons.
The spirit of democratic reform demands that we first consult the public on major changes to be made to our electoral system. Wisdom demands that we make reforms in a reasoned manner.
The motion before us does not satisfy either of these two criteria. That is why I intend to vote against it.