Sunday, December 18, 2005

Her Majesty's Yankees?

Wednesday morning I woke up to the news that Queen's Park had amended the province's elections act to fix the date of elections to every four years:

Ontario sets fixed-election date for 2007 News

A new law passed Tuesday tells Ontarians exactly when they will choose their next provincial government, but critics say riding and funding disclosure changes have no guarantees.

Ontario's next provincial election will happen on Oct. 4, 2007. From then on, Ontario voters will go to the polls on the first Thursday in October every four years.

The changes are part of the Election Statute Amendment Act which passed third and final reading in the provincial legislature by a 60-19 margin.

Ontario is the third Canadian province to set election dates in law. British Columbia was the first, followed by Newfoundland and Labrador in 2004. Manitoba has also considered making the change.

"First Thursday in October every four years" has a rather American ring to it. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I'm unclear as to why there's a sudden vogue for this among several of the provinces. First of all, we already have constitutionally-fixed terms for all legislatures in Canada: no parliament may sit beyond five years from the return of the previous Writ of Elections. That's typical across the entire British Commonwealth. In practice, most jurisdictions in Canada aim for elections every four years or so anyway. So why the need to carve it in stone?

And I'm wondering if it's practical. A feature of the Westminster system that's absent from the US system is the institution of non-confidence votes. Generally, they're not an issue; most governments are insulated from non-confidence votes by having a majority of the seats in a given legislature. But as we've just seen, this isn't always the case: we're in the middle of a federal election campaign right now because the government fell in a non-confidence motion in the House of Commons. This kind of thing is impossible in the US system, from which the idea of fixed dates for elections comes to us.

So what are the ramifications? If a leglislature knows it's going to the polls on the first Thursday of October in year 20XX, does that mean they can't be prematurely defeated by the failure to pass a budget (a non-confidence issue)? Or does an early election throws out the next scheduled date and pushes it back to the first Thursday of October four years from the snap election? Or, is the date maintained, and whoever wins the snap election only gets the balance of the current four-year term? How does this work with our existing traditions?


Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Actually, it's mostly superficial. A non-confidence vote would still bring down the government, and the government still has the right to go to the lieutenant governor and ask to be dissolved. Really, all it legally does is move the term limit from 5 years to four.

Changing the actual system would require a change in the provincial constitution, though I don't know exactly what the process for such a change is.
Opposition critics were divided on whether setting election dates in four-year increments is indeed a good idea.

New Democrat critic Peter Kormos called the change a "fraud," saying the government can still bring down the house by simply going to the lieutenant governor.

"There's some knee-jerk appeal around fixed-election dates," Kormos said. "But understand that we already have fixed election dates - we have five-year terms."

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

So, after a quick bit of research, the Legislative Assembly can change Ontario's constitution unilateraly as long as it doesn't:
- a) alter the role of the Lieutenant Governor
- b) alter the role of English/French within the province

Changing to a totally fixed election date would be a change in the role of the Lieutenant Governor, and thus would require a constitutional amendment at the federal level.