Andrew Bates

electric newspaperman

The Alberta provincial election is necessary, and the fixed-election-date law isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on


It's hard enough to get voters to the polls, so why would you tell them it's illegitimate and then spend a month trying to get them to care? (Photo k-ideas/flickr)

It’s hard enough to get voters to the polls, so why would you tell them it’s illegitimate and then spend a month trying to get them to care? (Photo k-ideas/flickr)

The premier has changed, the opposition party has lost more than half its MLAs, a new budget has changed the province’s taxation structure and voters haven’t weighed in on any of it. I can’t think of better reasons for an Alberta provincial election.

Everyone is saying that Alberta Premier Jim Prentice is about to call a provincial election tomorrow, and a popular talking point from opposition parties is to refer to it as an “illegal” or “unnecessary” election, because it conflicts with fixed election date laws. Here’s Wildrose Party candidate and former Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation Derek Fildebrandt doing it:

And Marie Renaud, the NDP candidate in St. Albert:

And Connie Jensen, provincial secretary for the Alberta Party, back in January:

This rhetoric has been common since the rise of fixed election dates over the last ten years, with the Conservative Party attacking Michael Ignatieff for wanting an “unnecessary election” in 2011. But Canada got its fixed election date law in 2007 and the Prime Minister called an election in 2008. If the federal election does take place as scheduled in October, it will be the first time since then that a Parliament went the distance.

It is clear that election fixed-date laws aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Last Monday, an Alberta judge dismissed an injunction to limit the next election to the time frame specified in the law–between March and May of next year–on the basis that the law doesn’t actually limit the discretion of the Lieutenant-Governor to call an election. From the Edmonton Sun:

Calgary lawyer Michael Bates acted for lawyer Tom Engel Monday, who filed an injunction application that would require Premier Jim Prentice to call an election within the fixed time frame of March 1 to May 31, 2016.
The PC government passed an amendment to Alberta’s Election Act in 2011 that fixed a time frame for a provincial election to take place every four years.
“We don’t pass laws that don’t mean anything,” Bates argued.
“The premier’s powers exist within that window (of the fixed time frame). There is otherwise absolutely no reason whatsoever to have a window.”
The government’s lawyer David Jones argued the amendment does not restrict the Lieutenant-Governor’s ability to call an election for any reason, including a recommendation from the premier. Jones said the 2011 amendment upheld existing election laws.
Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Ken Nielsen said there is a “very strong argument” that the amendment still leaves the Lieutenant-Governor with unfettered discretion to call an election.

Essentially, the fixed-date laws don’t prevent a premier or Prime Minister from asking the Governor-General or Lieutenant-Governor to call an election, nor does it prevent an election if the government loses the confidence of its legislature. So why was the law passed in the first place? According to the Calgary Herald, the government thought Albertans were very concerned with election timing and didn’t want a premier to schedule a snap election just to catch the opposition unawares.

The fact though, is that in practice, nothing stops a premier or Prime Minister from calling an election whenever he or she pleases. What it does do is give a sitting government a free pass out of being pressured into having an election.

I’m very much in favour of elections. Whether it’s an unpopular policy or a scandal or a newly-minted party leader or just a desire to govern for a little while longer, I feel strongly that the government needs a mandate to operate and it is correct to turn to the voters to ensure that it has one. Fixed election laws give a leader a chance to dodge and coast.

With the shock of the Wildrose Party floor-crossing, I understand that now is not the best time for the opposition to mount a campaign and that might be behind some of these jitters over having an election. But in the last 12 months, major changes have happened with little concern for voters.

I didn’t like that I didn’t get to vote for the premier because I am not a member of any party, I didn’t like that the floor crossers had no respect for the voters that preferred Wildrose policies and I didn’t like that the PCs offered to adopt Wildrose policies that their own voters rejected. The legislature and government that voters chose, with a seat balance of 61-17-5-4, Alison Redford as premier and Danielle Smith as opposition leader, bears little resemblance to the 70-5-5-4-1 legislature Alberta currently has. I have no idea what the outcome will be, but I want a choice.

Both the Wildrose Party and the NDP have said they’ll have full candidate slates ready for a spring election. It would seem, then, that the best reason to attack the PCs for calling an election that’s so sorely needed is just to score points; to make them look that much worse. But why, if you’re trying to increase public participation and voter turnout, would you attack the legitimacy of an election just before you spend a month trying to convince Albertans to pay attention to you and get to the polls?

Regardless of the letter of the law, everyone seems pretty certain that the writs are dropping tomorrow and the courts have no intention on stepping in. If you intend on having anything to do with the election and you know this law doesn’t matter, don’t pretend it does just to make you look good. Though I think it was right that the injunction to block an election call failed because elections are a necessary part of our parliamentary democracy, I like the basis of its argument: that it is silly to have a law that nobody respects.

From the Sun article: “Honour the act, or say it’s a sham and repeal it … let’s be honest with this.” Sounds like a plan to me.