By DAVID JOHNSON
SO HERE WE ARE, a federal election called, a Governor General visit done, we vote again on Sept 20.
At a time where the BC Wildfire Service becomes more stretched than ICU’s last year, and people hauling hose are as exhausted as respiratory therapists … I have to think about politics?
Pundits abound with negative opinions on the timing, and opposition leaders cry foul … and they’re not wrong. This is obviously a prime minister’s dice throw of trying to wrestle a majority government out of us. On the rebound of this, there are very reasonable calls for another attempt to legislate fixed election dates and remove this power from the PM’s office.
That ain’t gonna happen, possibly ever, and here’s why.
Canada is one of the few democracies that still give the top dog this unilateral power. In the U.K., Parliament has to vote by two-thirds to hold a snap election, whereas in Germany Parliament has to hold a no confidence vote AND be unable to form a new coalition government. Other examples are scattered amongst the democratic world. Generally snap elections require a pretty high bar to send voters to early polls … but not in Canada.
In 2007, Stephen Harper tried to mandate fixed elections but was overturned by the courts because the Constitution gives the sole power to the Governor General to grant snap elections. The reality that the Gov Gen is a puppet of the existing government, turns us back full circle to the prime minister’s office having this power.
This can only be changed by a Constitutional amendment, which normally for most things is a process that requires resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and two-thirds of the provinces (seven) having at least 50 per cent of the population of all the provinces combined. A ridiculously high bar to be sure in the divisive regionalist temperaments, that is today’s Canada.
Unfortunately, removal or alteration of the capabilities of the Governor General is not within the normal amendment process, but kicks to life Section 41 of the Amendment Act of the Constitution which specifically lays out that removal or amendment of the offices of the Queen, Governor General and Lieutenant Governor actually requires unanimity, expressed by resolution of Parliament and of all the legislatures.
Let me repeat that: UNANIMITY of Parliament AND ALL Legislatures.
That means that just one individual votes in either Parliament OR any one Ledge in Canada would negate an amendment covered by Section 41.
Let that sink in.
Add to that the required timelines for any Constitutional amendments, to even proceed to the uphill battle to just change that section, then to amend the Gov Gen’s power in this way, is akin to climbing Everest … without oxygen … or snow gear … or feet.
This is possibly the number one most poignant failure of our Constitution, regarding the way it was crafted. Changing high level, key points of it is functionally impossible.
But the election call forces us to set all that aside.
Today we have to accept that it is up to the PM to decide when to send us back to the polls, and during the past two years the opposition has been very reluctant to force a no confidence vote in the House, each party for their own reasons.
Opposition parties knew that voters simply had no appetite to be forced to consider things as trivial as an election when what mattered was health, safety and feeding the family during Covid. All of this forced the House to work together as well as they could … and gosh darn it … they did ok’ish.
Opposition parties have been reasonably happy to negotiate their party platforms into Liberal policy, over a wide spectrum of issues. The NDP arm wrestled the Liberals into actually announcing a federal Pharmacare program with what looks like real dollars and teeth in it, and in response the Liberals got votes on a budget and carbon taxes. Conservatives agreed to Covid fund relief as long as they could push through a few things, even the Bloc negotiated a few languages act and Labour Code changes.
Also, during these two years there were a plethora of government house and private members’ bills of little daily consequence that passed unanimously or near to. It is fair to suggest that government and also the opposition avoided rocking the boat, and concrete partisan ‘just vote against anything they vote for’ mentality seemed to have taken a back seat.
For the last two years, we have noticed that debate and bill readings, passings and bill amendments have gone more smoothly than they have for years … many years for some. History shows that if the opposition is strong and willful enough, it will throw a government under the no confidence bus in short order, if they think an election will benefit them … but that hasn’t happened.
Now that we have turned the corner on Covid vaccinations, the Liberals have determined that people are somewhat calmer and able to consider things like politics. In a world where a fourth wave of Covid variants and the reality of rampant wildfire activity … this presumption by the Liberal Party might turn out to be the greatest political misread in Canadian history.
As many are trying to decide just what aught to be crammed in a car in case of the need to escape, they are asking us to banter about this parallel universe regarding who has the best economic policies to govern us for the next four years. The Liberals still think that seats can be gained here and there, what they may not have considered is that low turnout rates might hamper their dreams for a majority.
To carry on here, we have to remove our delta variants and wildfire hats, and try to look at this election call from a more humdrum, everyday perspective. We are, after all … voting for a four-year mandate that will one day transcend today’s top-of-news headlines of filling ICUs and evacuation orders.
The Liberals are coming off the original Covid crisis fairly well considering their success in getting shots shipped into Canada and into arms, and helping the provinces roll on the process to get it done. Polls agree that they are riding on a passing grade for issue number one across the country. This is a polling reality, easily repeatable and can be known as fact.
Other than a fairly nasty Governor General fiasco, they are also riding on a bit of a hayride of staying out of trouble on controversies that would generally affect voters across the country. Most of the flubs of the past are either too long ago for people to care about anymore (SNC-Lavalin), or eye-rolled by the masses as a truly dumb move by an entitled dufus (blackface and Indian formal dress embarrassments), and the more recent Trudeau mis-step not recusing himself regarding the WE charity/ Canada Student Services Grant scandal. On that one, people simply realised that beyond the recusal mis-step, nothing really happened there.
Lately, they managed to otherwise keep their nose clean, and these days that’s a good temperature to call an election in, cause that’s the world we live in; no scandalous news … is political hay worthy of chucking.
The Liberals are also very cognisant that to call an election now might earn a few ridings in Quebec back from the Bloc. Blanchet for the Bloc has been quite content with the seats taken from the NDP last time out, and the Liberals might easily cherry pick a few back.
Liberals also know that the Federal NDP is still pretty broke, and as every month rolls by their bank account grows, but if rushed there are NDP seats there that were close in 2019 that they would love to snag.
Most of all it’s about jumping into an election now, before Erin O’Toole can get a strong footing nation wide, as people are still in “Erin who?” mode.
The Conservatives are still bruised by the Andrew Scheer failure and the party’s subsequent retraction to its prairie stronghold as well as fence sitters’ very negative reactions to his uber continuous, personal attacks on Trudeau. It just didn’t work. Scheer himself became an albatross around his party’s neck. Even in the conservative heartland of Alberta, 40 per cent of the voters, who self-identify as Conservative supporters, disapproved of the outgoing leader’s performance.
It is hard to see how anyone could have done worse for their party. His cross Canada gain of 22 seats can only be viewed as an outright failure, considering it was a recovery election from the 2015 Harper drubbing the party experienced.
In the end in 2019, Conservatives lost seats in Quebec even if they picked up seats in most other regions overall. We can expect O’Toole to spend a lot of time in Montreal trying to tip the blue iceberg back over.
O’Toole has been very careful to stay on the more centrist side of small-c conservatism, trying to anchor a wide berth for voters to jump on board, and stay clear of personalizing any issue he may have with Trudeau, knowing to stick to the issue and ‘leave the man out’. Hopefully, Scheer’s legacy will be that a Trump-like personal attack-dog approach simply does not work in Canada, regardless what the F*** Trudeau bumper sticker crowd think.
The main problem for the Conservative Party is that Canada has a massive list of issues that voters will want to know exactly where O’Toole is on the spectrum issue by issue, and there just isn’t enough time to ferret it out before voting day, to get a full measure of the leader.
The usual fiscal Conservative mandates may need to be shelved if not softened significantly, as even though they have an eight-point lead (Ipsos) regarding the economy, an immediate turn to debt and deficit spending retractions might turn off voters struggling to get through the month.
A more careful, less sledgehammer approach towards fiscal management will need to be the Conservative mantra, and we shouldn’t be surprised if the direction taken by O’Toole is more about ‘helping Canadians’ than pure economic repair.
So … yes, the reason for an election right now is purely political, but that shouldn’t surprise us.
All of the major parties would be doing the same thing given the chance, if they were in government. As a matter of fact, Harper himself did this in 2011 when forced to a non-confidence vote over F-35 procurement, and subsequently won with a majority mandate.
Interestingly, whereas it was a clear and vocalised goal that Harper expected a majority so he didn’t have to bother with the opposition and have complete control, Trudeau on announcement day avoided the word ‘majority’ completely. Liberal focus groups must have suggested that such an overture would be seen as too bombastic for the present climate and would have cost votes all on its own.
It’s a precarious, yet interesting time to call an election. John Horgan here in B.C. made the same call and benefitted from it, and perhaps the federal Liberals are reading the same playbook.
Other than shots, masks and delta variants … and wildfires … our next pre-election conversations will be about remote voting, repairing the economy, cost of living, healthcare, climate change, Canadian Forces, Afghanistan helper refugees and a few more issues that we all can easily compartmentalize as comparatively mundane.
Now … did I pack enough masks into the wildfire evac box?
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.