Opinion piece by Susan Delacourt

Opinion: It is most opportunistic for Liberals to call an early, unnecessary election

Nova Scotia is about to have an election. So far, all premiers who called such elections during the pandemic won majority governments. Ahead 9-12 points in the polls, and with a clean-shaven face, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems on the verge of calling an election as well. Under law, this means that parliament will be dissolved for 36-50 days. Much can happen in such a long period.

I am a general internist, not a lawyer. Although born in Montreal, I lived for 24 years in the United States, and never studied the parliamentary system in high school or university. I imagine that many Canadians (especially new ones) are in the same situation. Here is what I have learned:

During this period, the Privy Council guidelines state that, “The government cannot assume that it will command the confidence of the House after the election; it is incumbent upon a government to act with restraint.” This is the “caretaker convention.” Although it must have a free hand to deal with natural disasters, government activity in matters of policy, expenditure, and appointments should be restricted to matters that are “routine, non-controversial, or urgent and in the public interest.”

Three main areas are now of great concern: stimulating the economy and an orderly opening of the US-Canada border, dealing with natural disasters such as wildfires, and coping with possible surges in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perrrin Beatty of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce warned recently, “When we get into an election, governments tend to shut down. They don’t want to make decisions that are profound.” Again, the Privy Council states that during an election, the government must “avoid participating in high-profile government-related domestic and international events, including federal/provincial/territorial events, international events, and the signing of treaties and agreements.” Trudeau has promised to permit fully-vaccinated Americans to enter Canada by Aug. 9, and those from other countries by September. In view of the increased number of cases in the US, France, and the UK, will all these agreements be fully signed before he calls an election?

Due to climate change, over 800 people in BC have died of hyperthermia and there are now about 300 wildfires at any one time (plus others in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northern Ontario). Ottawa is providing air and evacuation support. Yet according to Cordy Tymstra et al on wildfire management, “About 10 per cent of emergencies in Canada require engagement and assistance from the federal government. When an emergency has national consequences, the federal government may, with legislative authority, intervene or share the management responsibility.” What happens when the parliament is dissolved?

Canada now has vaccinated a slightly higher proportion of its population than has the US, where, in 12 states, less than 40 per cent of population is fully vaccinated. As Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC has concluded, “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.’ COVID-19 rates are up in all 50 states and case rates have risen by 70 per cent in one week. Yet the vaccination rate of Alberta is similar to that of Iowa, British Columbia to that of Kentucky, Quebec to Indiana, and Ontario to California.

Recall that Yukon, with a 72 per cent rate of fully vaccinated persons on June 1, had no active cases. However, by July 6 it had 360 and by July 13, 480. Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have eliminated most restrictions. It remains to be seen how many new cases occur a couple of weeks after the Calgary Stampede.

One would have expected that the Olympic athletes would have been fully vaccinated. Yet somehow, so far over 60 have somehow tested positive. As new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated, “Anyone who hoped that vaccines on their own would solve the problem – they won’t.”

During the election period, although federal MPs receive their salary, those who are not cabinet ministers have no legal status. Note that of the 34 MPs from Alberta, 33 are Conservatives and one is NDP – all without a voice in a dissolved parliament during the election.

Moreover, should the pandemic or a natural disaster require urgent action, recall that the War Measures Act was replaced in July 1988 by the Emergencies Act. It differs from the former in that any temporary laws are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and importantly, “A declaration of an emergency by the Cabinet must be reviewed by Parliament.”

It is most opportunistic for the Liberals to call an early, unnecessary, unwanted election. In the interest of all Canadians (66.9 per cent who voted against them in the last election), there are far too many unknowns during the next few months. We need to retain the ability to recall parliament for an emergency session so that backbenchers and opposition MPs have a forum to discuss and question policy and funding initiatives, and can hold Trudeau and his government fully accountable.

Ottawa physician Dr. Charles S. Shaver was born in Montreal. He is past-chair of the Section on General Internal Medicine of the Ontario Medical Association.