Dan Gardner

Andrew Coyne: Stephen Harper ignores fixed election date law and no one seems to care

Oh for the love of God, people, would you give it a rest? I have just ploughed through what I would conservatively estimate is the four hundredth column I have seen speculating on the date of the next election. The recipe is always the same. Here are the reasons many people think the election will be in the fall. However, here is why I, Pundit predict the prime minister will go in the spring. Or, in the alternative, the reverse. Season to taste.

Why this has become such an obsession with my fellow thumbsuckers is hard to fathom since, unless you are privy to the prime minister’s innermost thoughts, it is inherently unknowable. Mind, that’s true of the future generally, which is why such speculative pieces are usually pointless, not least since there are no consequences for being wrong — for by the time the future arrives to confound it the column will be, conveniently, in the past, never to be mentioned again. Or as Dan Gardner, author of Future Babble, puts it, “heads I win, tails you forget we made a bet.”

What’s interesting about all this election speculation, pointless as it is, is the underlying premise: that the date of the next election is in fact open to question. By law, that is not supposed to be the case. By law — An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2007, c. 10 — the next election date is set in stone: October 19, 2015. So the real, unspoken premise is this: that the prime minister does not feel bound to follow the law — his own law, as it happens.

If the spirit and purpose of the law is utter meaninglessness — then what on earth was the point?

Not only does he not feel bound by it, but neither do the rest of us seem inclined to insist that he should. We have all somehow come to accept that it is perfectly normal, even acceptable, for the government — the government! — to disobey the law if it feels like it, as if the laws that are binding upon the rest of us were not binding upon the governments that pass them. This is surely an astonishing state of affairs, in a democracy, a measure not only of the corrupting effects of power but of how the rest of us have been corrupted along with it.

Experience, that is, has taught us to expect no better, and expecting no better, we can hardly be outraged to find our expectations are confirmed. Recall that this prime minister has once before defied his own legislation, in calling the election of October 14, 2008 — more than a year in advance of the date fixed in law. He paid no apparent price for it then. Why would he now? And if he expects to pay no price for it, why would he not consider it? Which being so, why would we not spend idle hours blithely speculating on whether the prime minister will or won’t obey the law, as if it were a game of chance?

Yes, yes, yes, I know: it’s not technically a breach of the law. It says right there in the Act: “Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.” And who advises the Governor General, which advice he is bound to accept? The prime minister, of course. So yes, in terms of the strict letter of the law, the prime minister is obliged to call an election on “the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election,” unless he isn’t.

But that wasn’t the way the law was sold. “Fixed election dates,” then Government House leader Rob Nicholson boasted at the time, “will improve the fairness of Canada’s electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage.” And it’s clearly not the spirit and purpose of the law. Or if it is — if the spirit and purpose of the law is utter meaninglessness — then what on earth was the point?

Critics of the law would no doubt agree. Constitutionally, they point out, the Governor General’s discretion cannot be constrained; that being true, the law cannot be binding on the government; and so long as the law cannot be enforced, it is an absurdity. But no law is perfectly binding. If a government no longer wishes to abide by it, it always has the power to repeal it, by act of Parliament.

Laws, then, are a kind of solemn undertaking. As an assurance of its good faith, the government puts its intentions in writing, in the knowledge that should it ever wish to be released from its pledge, it will have to ask Parliament to pass a new law, formally and publicly, and to accept whatever consequences follow. That is what we expect, or at any rate what we used to expect. And what is ultimately binding on the government is that expectation: the expectation of good faith. Or as it is sometimes put, “the honour of the Crown.”

We should not have to wonder whether the laws Parliament passes are of any worth or meaning, or whether the government we elect will seek refuge in fine print and Clintonian wordplay to wriggle out of them. We should not have to worry that our government is trying to con us. We are entitled to some expectation of good faith, and if we have lost even that then the implications are a lot worse than an untimely election call.

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