Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this opposition day motion that calls for general elections to be held on fixed dates, unless the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons. I do not support the motion, for a number of reasons, and I would encourage all members to vote against it.
There are a number of good reasons why our present system serves us well, and has done so since Confederation.
Part of the reason why fixed election dates are not a good idea for Canada becomes clear when we compare our present system with non-parliamentary systems.
First, it is worth noting that most parliamentary systems based on the Westminster system do not prescribe fixed election dates, except insofar that they usually have maximum terms. In the Canadian case, the duration of the House of Commons is set out in section 50 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which states:
Every House of Commons shall continue for Five Years from the Day of the Return of the Writs for choosing the House (subject to be sooner dissolved by the Governor General), and no longer.
This is further reflected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states:
No House of Commons and no legislative assembly shall continue for longer than five years from the date fixed for the return of the writs of a general election of its members.
Of course an election may be called by the Governor General earlier than the maximum term on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Alternatively, based on constitutional convention, a defeat in the House on a motion of non-confidence usually results in an election being called.
In contrast to most parliamentary systems, legislatures in a number of non-parliamentary systems hold elections at fixed intervals. For example, the United States has fixed election dates. As a rule, these non-parliamentary systems are characterized by a separation of powers. The executive is not chosen by the legislature and cannot be removed by a vote of its members.
I bring forward this comparison because sometimes, in our zeal to copy from other systems, we lose sight of the fact that we have our own unique system of government, for good reason, and it is not always easy or advisable to apply parts of other systems to our own.
In Canada we must assess the idea of fixed election dates through the lens of our system of responsible government. Our system is based on the principle that the Prime Minister and the ministers are responsible to the members of the House of Commons and, through them, to the Canadian electorate. In order to maintain power, the governing party must maintain the confidence of the House or risk being defeated.
An important element that must be considered in this debate is the role of the Governor General of Canada, who has the constitutional prerogative to dissolve Parliament and to sign the formal proclamation that announces the election. This power is an integral part of our parliamentary system and cannot simply be ignored.
In discussing this issue further, it is worth looking back at the work of the 1991 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. That royal commission, popularly known as the Lortie commission, studied the issue of fixed election dates in the context of its broader review of the election period and administration of the vote.
The commission concluded that fixed election terms would create several major problems.
First, the commission noted that fixed election terms would raise important constitutional considerations. In this regard it is interesting to note that the commission specifically looked at the model suggested by the motion that we are debating today: a combination of fixed election dates, unless the government loses the confidence of the House.
Specifically the commission had this to say about this proposal. It stated:
It might be possible to adopt fixed dates for federal elections and retain the constitutional principle that defeat on a motion of non-confidence leads to a government's resignation, but the result could well be an unsatisfactory hybrid. If a government fell, an election would have to be held earlier than the fixed date...In addition, a government could take steps to engineer its own defeat in the House of Commons if it judged that the timing of an election would serve its interests.
I would like to repeat what the Lortie commission said “a government could take steps to engineer its own defeat in the House of Commons if it judged that the timing of an election would serve its interests”. It is very important to keep that in mind. It serves to illustrate the dangers of trying to impose an electoral constraint on our present system without thought for the reasons why our system functions the way it currently does, and indeed the advantages of our present system.
More important, the commission concluded the following about the constitutional constraints:
To implement a system of fixed terms with no exceptions, a constitutional restructuring of our federal legislative and executive institutions would be required. Even if agreement on the necessary amendments could be achieved, it is not at all certain that this would lead to more responsive government.
The commission was bang-on with regard to its overall assessment of fixed election dates.
What at first glance may seem like an innocuous measure which is very easy to implement, in fact it could have far reaching consequences for our Constitution and our system of government without even addressing the question of whether it makes sense.
Another difficulty mentioned by the Lortie commission relates to the issue of the length and nature of election campaigns. In the United States, for example, because the date of the next election is always known, campaigns effectively last much longer that in Canada. I mentioned that earlier and I think it is worth repeating.
The commission noted that presidential campaigns are often launched 18 months or more before election day and that many members of the House of Representatives never really stop campaigning. We have heard stories that some members of the House of Representatives in the United States, where they face elections every two years, spend half their time campaigning, perhaps even more, and half their time raising money for their campaigns. If the voters were asked, one really wonders whether the voters really want their representatives campaigning and raising money for their campaigns or whether they would like to have their representatives working for them, the voters.
The Lortie commission postulated that a similar scenario could well appear in Canada if fixed election dates were adopted, which could lead to the undermining of objectives of spending limits if candidates began to campaign and spend prior to the election period. Lortie has noted that the longer and more expensive election campaigns that could be created by fixed election dates are anathema to the desire of Canadians. Needless to say, in the end the Lortie commission did not recommend that we change our system to adopt fixed election dates.
Again, we have heard about some of the horrendous costs involved in the campaigns in the United States leading up to fixed elections. For example, in the year 2000, in the Senate race in the state of New York, the republican and democratic candidates allegedly spent about $100 million. Imagine, two candidates in one Senate election spending $100 million.
So far I have attempted to show that there are many disadvantages to changing our system by adopting fixed election dates. No less of an authority than the Lortie commission made it quite clear that such a change would not be easy, nor would it be necessarily effective.
Beyond this, what are the benefits of our current system? In one word, I can sum them up: flexibility. Flexibility is the beauty of our system. For example, from time to time an issue of such tremendous national importance arises that it is advisable for the Prime Minister to have the power to call an election in a timely fashion.
In those kinds of scenarios we would not want to restrict the Prime Minister from taking action that would ultimately be in the best interests of all Canadians. Fixing election dates would handcuff the Prime Minister as he would have to wait for a particular date.
Under another scenario, our present system allows a new prime minister to seek a new mandate from the electorate when there has been a change of leader for the governing party. If it appears that seeking a new mandate is warranted, again it would be wrong to restrict the prime minister's ability to do so.
The ongoing examination of our institutions of government is an important priority that the government takes very seriously. We have demonstrated our commitment to renewal through our actions, in particular, with the democratic reform action plan.
On the issue before us today, however, I do not believe a convincing argument has been made that fixed election dates are a good idea. The merits of the motion have not been demonstrated and there are many good reasons to oppose it. I would therefore encourage all members of the House to vote against the motion.