Backgrounder - Fixed Election Dates
• The Conservative Party’s election platform for the January 23, 2006 federal election indicated that it would: “introduce legislation modelled on the BC and Ontario laws requiring fixed election dates every four years, except when a government loses the confidence of the House (in which case an election would be held immediately, and the subsequent election would follow four years later)” (p. 44).
• Currently, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, having the confidence of the House of Commons, to select what he or she regards as an opportune time for an election to renew the government’s mandate and to advise the Governor General to dissolve the House in time for that election.
The New System Proposed in the Bill
• Under the proposed system, general elections will be held on a fixed day. Specifically, the bill provides that general elections must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election.
• This does not affect the prerogative of the Prime Minister to advise dissolution at any time prior to the stipulated date, in the event of a loss of confidence. Where a government loses the confidence of the House of Commons, a general election would be held in accordance with existing practices. The general election following this would then be set for the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year.
• The bill also sets out that the date for the next general election will be October 19, 2009, unless the government loses the confidence of the House prior to this time.
The Powers of the Governor General and Confidence
• The power to dissolve Parliament, an historical prerogative of the Crown considered essential to the principle of responsible government, is expressly conferred on the Governor General in section 50 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 50 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides: “Every House of Commons shall continue for Five Years from the Day of the Return of the Writs for choosing the House (subject to be sooner dissolved by the Governor General), and no longer.”
• The proposed bill explicitly states that “nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.
• Thus, the Prime Minister will still be able to advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament in cases where the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons.
• Should an election be held as a result of a loss of confidence, the next election would be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following the election that results from a loss of confidence.
Other Jurisdictions with Fixed Election Dates
• British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario have legislated fixed election dates, and other governments have indicated that they are considering recommendations for similar legislation.
• Countries that have a fixed term include: Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.
• Countries that have a fixed term, but that allow for some degree of flexibility (e.g., an election must be held within a period of two months) include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, and Spain.
• Those countries that have unfixed election dates include: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, India, Ireland, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, South Africa, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
Key Advantages Of Fixed Election Dates
• There are many advantages to legislation providing for fixed election dates:
Fairness: It is unfair that the governing party should be permitted to time an election to exploit conditions favourable to its re-election. Fixed election dates will level the playing field and provide greater fairness for all parties.
Transparency and Predictability: Fixed election dates will provide transparency as to when general elections will be held. Rather than decisions about election dates being made behind closed doors, general election dates will be public knowledge. Election dates will now be predictable.
Improved Governance: Fixed election dates will allow for better policy planning. For example, members of parliamentary committees will be able to set out their agendas well in advance, which will make the work of committees, and Parliament as a whole, more efficient.
Higher Voter Turnout Rates: Holding elections in October, other than when a government loses the confidence of the House, could improve voter turnout. The weather is generally favourable in most parts of the country, fewer people are transient (e.g., most students will not be in transition between home and school at that time, and seniors will not be deterred from voting, as they might be in colder months), and citizens will be able to plan in advance to participate in the electoral process.
The Third Monday In October As The Fixed Date For General Elections
• One objective of setting fixed election dates is maximizing voter turnout. Given weather conditions in Canada, the best available months for a fixed date for general elections are from May to October. July and August are not advisable because of the high number of vacationers. May and June are not recommended as many university students have ended their terms by then and are in places where they may be less likely to vote.
• Weather conditions for election campaigns are normally favourable in the Fall in all parts of Canada. Seniors will not be deterred from voting during this period. Moreover, most snowbirds will not have departed for the south before the late Fall.
• The third Monday in October was chosen as a day that is least likely to conflict with provincial fixed election dates, statutory and religious holidays, and municipal elections.
• Another factor to consider in choosing a fixed date is the Parliamentary financial procedures. The business of supply is the historical heart of parliamentary procedure. The Standing Orders require that the Main Estimates be tabled by March 1. Elections held in the spring would disrupt the normal process for Parliamentary review and approval of the spending plans of the government.
• Finally, Citizenship Week is celebrated by the Government of Canada in the third week of October each year. It aims to raise awareness of the privileges, rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Participation in a general election is a fundamental right and responsibility of citizenship.
ELECTION DAY CONFLICTS (Cultural or Religious Significance or Elections in Other Jurisdictions)
• In the current system, the date of the general election is chosen by the government, so it is rare that a polling day is chosen that comes into conflict with a date of cultural or religious significance or with elections in other jurisdictions. However, with the introduction of legislation providing for fixed election dates, there is some possibility that the stipulated election date will occasionally be the same as a day of cultural or religious significance or as an election in another jurisdiction.
• The Ontario fixed election dates legislation provides that, if there is a conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance, the Chief Election Officer may recommend an alternate polling day to the Lieutenant Governor in Council, up to seven days following the day that would otherwise be polling day. (The Newfoundland and Labrador and the British Columbia fixed election dates legislation is silent on this issue.)
• Using a variation of the Ontario legislation providing for fixed election dates, our bill empowers the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend an alternate polling day to the Governor in Council should he or she find that the polling day is not suitable for that purpose (e.g., because it is a day of cultural or religious significance or a polling day for a municipality or province). The alternate day would be either the Tuesday or the Monday following the Monday that would otherwise be polling day.
• Allowing alternate polling days to be held on the following Tuesday or Monday is consistent with the current practice of holding elections on a Monday or a Tuesday.