Canada’s fixed election date stays unfixed

It may be written in law, but it’s certainly not carved in stone. In fact, our federal fixed election date is anything but. Opposition parties are preparing for a federal election to be held not on Oct. 19, 2015, the fixed date for the next vote, but next spring, about a year from now.

It may be written in law, but it’s certainly not carved in stone.

In fact, our federal fixed election date is anything but.

Opposition parties are preparing for a federal election to be held not on Oct. 19, 2015, the fixed date for the next vote, but next spring, about a year from now.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has found a rationale to ignore a fixed election date in the past in a minority parliament, but it would be extraordinary for him to do so with a majority.

Extraordinary, but perfectly within his right.

Under legislation pushed by Conservatives after watching in frustration as Liberal Jean Chrétien picked the most advantageous moment to seek his trip to the voters, the next election is to be held the first Monday in October in the fourth year after the previous vote.

But the legislation does not override any decision by the Governor General — taken at the behest of the prime minister — to dissolve Parliament. And when Harper’s decision to make an end run around his own legislation in 2008 was challenged in the courts, he was found to be well within his rights and there was no differentiation between minority or majority governments in the court decision.

Liberals and New Democrats may be simply prudent, ensuring they are not caught flat-footed.

Or they may be sowing the seeds of doubt simply to give the impression that Harper is preparing to break a promise, even if there has been no recent signal to that effect from his office. But Harper himself may have signalled just that when he responded to former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae in the Commons on June 20, 2012.

“We have noted,’’ Harper said, “that the date in law for the next election currently conflicts with several provincial elections that will occur at the same time.

“We are talking to our friends in the provinces about how to resolve this. I can assure parliamentarians we will bring forward a proposal on this well before the next election.’’

The federal date does conflict with elections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Prince Edward Island. It could also potentially conflict with campaigns in Newfoundland and Labrador and, in the extremely unlikely event that the Kathleen Wynne government survives until then, Ontario.

Both Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall have asked Ottawa to move its federal election date, but both provinces have the ability to push their votes to the following April if Harper does not move.

Would it be easier to move a federal campaign up to next spring — when the Conservatives would be at the usual four-year expiry date for a government anyway — or juggle campaigns in almost half the provinces in the country?

Opposition parties see the provincial conflicts as a canard, but one which could be used by a prime minister who will want to seize on momentum from a surplus, pre-election budget likely to be tabled next March, meaning we could be in a federal campaign a year from today.

Moving the vote up six months or so has enormous repercussions.

If Harper wants to go that route, speculation about his future will soon become irrelevant because he would be rapidly approaching a window where he would not give his party time to properly choose a successor if he wants to step down before a spring campaign.

His contentious elections act would also have to speed its way to Royal assent so that one key provision, which has the backing of all parties, can take effect.

New Democrats have flagged a clause in the bill that provides for a six-month phase-in period to build a robocalls registry, which compels companies to register the calls with the CRTC.

If Harper wants to go to the polls next May, the elections act will have to be given Royal assent by November in order for the registry to be established for the election.

A spring election would also likely occur during a period of transition for students, making it more difficult for them to vote. They would be more likely to vote for either Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, if historic voting patterns hold.

Harper can take us to the polls next spring and he just might. But to respect at least the spirit of his own law, he should do what he promised “and bring forward a proposal well before the next election.’’

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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