Fixed election periods? Take your pick: hypocritical, cynical, impractical or all of the above

An Alberta monogamist with his many wives and children. Alberta’s “fixed election dates will be flexible.” Do we speak English here any more? Almost anything in Alberta may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Government House Leader Dave Hancock.

Premier Alison Redford’s unfixed-fixed election dates bill is touted as a way to make Alberta’s elections just a little bit more fair to everyone.

As the Calgary Herald blandly stated in a story on a related topic, as if it were an undisputed fact, the Conservative government’s legislative scheme of having a three-month fixed-election period has the goal of putting “all political parties on equal footing in campaign planning.”

In fact, Bill 21, a.k.a. the Election Amendment Act, 2011, does nothing of the sort, and it’s hard to believe levelling the proverbial playing field was the intention of its drafters.

Indeed, combined with the vagaries of buying advertising and former premier Ed Stelmach’s election-speech muzzle law, the vague and confusing third-party advertising provisions of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act of 2010, it has the opposite effect.

Whatever the Conservatives’ goal may actually be, one can plausibly argue that the election period bill is a cynical effort to tilt the playing field even further in favour of the governing party.

Conservative propaganda touts the bill as a sensible compromise between the benefits of a fixed election date (what benefits? – ed.) and vagaries of weather and happenstance that know no date.

“There needed to be some flexibility that any future premier needed to have,” extemporized Government House Leader Dave Hancock in the St. Albert Gazette, presumably while keeping a straight face. “If you are in a particularly bad winter, you might want to have a later election date.”

Oooh! Alberta’s not like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, both of which have fixed election date laws that actually fix the election date, insofar as that is possible in Canada. But then, there’s never any bad weather in Saskatchewan in November, or in B.C. in May. Right?

Actually, whatever reason the Alberta government finds to move some future election date, it’s unlikely to be bad weather. There’s nothing Conservative parties in Canada like better than plenty of snow on election day, and this Alberta political party is no exception. Inclement weather suppresses the vote and gives the party with the most corporate bucks the best chance of moving its supporters to the polls.

However, Bill 21 introduced an interesting new wrinkle to the art of election manipulation – especially when combined with the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, the unconstitutional but as-yet-unchallenged provincial law that suppresses the right of third parties to use advertising to criticize the government during the election campaign. (All we need to do now is ban criticizing the government after the election and we’ll have the place in a full neo-Con “free-speech” lockdown.)

This limits criticism of the government during the election period, leaving the field to cash-poor opposition parties and the deep-pocketed governing party.

Meanwhile, Ms. Redford’s new rules let the government pretend to have imposed a fixed-election date while retaining the entire advantage of being able to pick the precise moment of the election and spring it on the opposition.

This is the way our system works, warts and all, and has been argued in this space before, it is essentially impossible to change it because Westminster-model Parliamentary democracy is enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.

To repeat the civics lesson: Our system of government is called “responsible government.” This phrase means that the ministry (that is, the cabinet) is responsible to the Legislature (that is, in Alberta, the Legislative Assembly). If the Legislature votes no confidence in the ministry, the government must fall and either an election must be held or the Crown’s representative (the Lieutenant Governor) must ask the Opposition if it can form a government.

So fixed election dates – or for that matter, three-month fixed election periods – are simply impossible to legislate or otherwise guarantee in the responsible government system. Anyone who is paying attention, and that obviously includes Premier Redford and the other advocates of this legislation in her party, knows it.

What is irritating about the Redford “fixed-period” law, however, is not the fact it’s a meaningless gesture that the government can ignore with ease whenever it suits it, but the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to change the system while doing nothing of the sort.

Also annoying is the way it illustrates how no one in the paid media seems to understand the English language any more. Examples of this are legion. My local community rag, for example, announced in a headline: “Fixed election dates will be flexible.” This is a good one, akin to saying “Monogamists may now take multiple spouses.” But that’s a current event to write about another day…

In addition to retaining the traditional surprise factor in favour of the government, Bill 21 tilts the playing field even further against opposition parties – especially those on the progressive side of Alberta’s political equation that rely on donations from ordinary citizens not huge corporations to finance their campaigns.

It’s hard to believe this is not intentional. Examples:

  • Advertising: Now political parties need to book billboards, TV time and newspaper space for a full three months – because if you don’t book you don’t get the space, simple as that. This is expensive and impractical, especially for small parties with limited budgets. Of course, it’s no problem for the government, they know when the gun’s going to go bang, so they can tie up available ad space, just like before. Plus, of course, they have sufficient money to buy it all if need be.
  • Campaign space rental: Same problem. Now opposition parties have to rent campaign space for the full three months. At up to $4,000 a month for appropriate office space, times 87 ridings, this can burn through a limited campaign budget pretty quickly.
  • Candidate leaves of absence: Parties that rely on working people for quality candidates now have another problem – the need created by Bill 21 to arrange very long leaves of absence for their candidates. Employers will resist the longer periods, and many candidates will feel they can’t afford to go without pay that long.
  • Volunteers: Bill 21 also makes it harder to get volunteers – no problem for corporate-financed parties like the Conservatives and the Wildrose Party that can buy the help they need, but a major issue for everyone else.

In other words, Bill 21 is either the all-time exemplar of unintended consequences, or it’s a manipulative and cynical attempt to do one thing while trying to fool voters into thinking the government is doing the opposite. I know what I think.

Either way, it’s another broken promise by the Redford Government, a list that is growing rather long these days.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments on "Fixed election periods? Take your pick: hypocritical, cynical, impractical or all of the above"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dave, this is why, parties need to unite to form a united opposition block. Again, you can extoll the virtues of ND's stealing seats from Libs, but your own article is an admission of a Tory free ride. You have to take some crow for not willing to realize that a divided opposition will make for another Tory win. The ND's can be Tory enablers or seek to restore democracy. Its dying before our eyes. These guys can do anything they want.

  2. Carlos Beca says:

    Anonymous an opposition block will not happen in Alberta. Write them an email asking for that and you will see what you get back!!

    They all want power on their own and only their policies work, everybody else is an idiot. This is the consequence of our competitive, individualistic system and society reaching its limits of shelf life.

    The whole system has to go. :)

  3. anne wilson says:

    That's silly. The Liberals are closer to the Tories, so an opposition of NDs and Liberals would be hypocritical and opportunistic. The NDs aren't stealing seats, they're providing a better alternative to the Liberals.

  4. David J. Climenhaga says:

    I agree with Anne Wilson. The Liberals, especially under Dr. Sherman but even before, have much more in common with the Conservatives than with the NDP. Also, for all we may disdain the worst Conservative tricks and habits, we have to admit that they are genuinely popular with a majority of Albertans. Time and again I have heard my Albertan relatives say things like, "sure they're terrible, but who else is there?" When they did, I had to concede they had a point. Something that I find really exciting now, and very hopeful for the future, is that the NDP is finding good candidates that offer progressive Albertans a better choice than in the past. We also have to give the Wildrose Party some credit for offering a credible alternative on the right, which has had the effect of getting lots of people to think maybe the world wouldn't end if these Tories left office. As for the Liberals, Anonymous 11 is certainly entitled to his opinion, but I am confident the next general election will make it clear that the Liberals are now passing into history.

  5. Carlos Beca says:

    Well I was referring to the block idea suggested by Anonymous and I believe I was clear about it. I do not believe that is possible at all not only because the Liberals are closer to the conservatives but just simply because they just would not do it. None of them is interested in shared power. This was my point.

  6. Anonymous says:

    @Carlos, DJC, Financially speaking, the Liberals are where most Albertans ARE. That is they want fiscal, responsible spending that is accountable and transparent and spent where it needs to go, for solutions. Socially speaking, the Liberals are just as left as ND's, they believe in free choice, and all of those other progressive ideals Albertans hold dear. They are centrist, they are not Conservative.

    The ND's are left socially and left financially. You ND's will NEVER get the majority to back you, unless you become more fiscally minded.

    Having said that, DJC, you are grossly underestimating the Libs. The opinion polls, have never really reflected the total amount of % of liberal votes that are actually cast. You know why? most Liberals don't like to identify themselves on polls, because they may end up tagged on some list, if they don't answer PC. I can say the same for ND's. Just watch the polls after the election.

    You hate to admit it and don't like it DJC, your ND's DID court the ALP leader, don't deny it or make excuses, yes it was true, you guys were hoping to bag him, but your policies WILL NOT ring with most Albertans, that is a fact. You are also entitled to your opinion. He was the Orange conservative. Humanitarian, but let's spend smart. Its like co-existing between orange and blue. The AP does lack financial backing and media coverage, thanks to the Tories. Anybody with a Lib sign or a membership could get mobbed. Success will come in dosed amounts. Success will build on success. Thanks for confirming your short sightedness. As a ND minded leader, you fail to see that the centre and the left are humanitarianly speaking, almost eclipsing circles. Financially, centrists and conservatives are better book keepers. At the end of the day, you have to have policies that resonate most voter's wishes. The only difference between the Tories and the Libs is the Tories have lots of money to win and they are for all intense and purposes, a huge corrupted cesspool with lots of inertia and trough drinker$. They write bills to boost their own power. Divided opposition parties will continue to enable the status quo. One day wisdom will shine on you DJC. But not today. Good article though.

  7. Anonymous says:

    @Anne, you really should be spending more time in THIS universe. It may surprise you to know that you guys have only two seats. The Liberals have no enmity with you. These guys in power are getting an unfettered free ride to do as they please, while ND's are busy smxking hxsh pipes wishing the demise of even a small bit of ability to question these dictators. Sorry Anne, but you have to get real. Some Albertans may not be a whole lot crazy about the Liberals, according to DJC, but you have to admit, the ND's will never capture the imagination of the Sheeple of Alberta, unless Oil drops to $10/bbl and there are soup line ups. Until that happens, it is probably best to find a political solution that will best represent democratic balance in this province. Centrism IS the most balanced, NOT extreme right or left. Once you re-enter the universe most Albertans live in and the Euphoric high lifts from within, you will truly realize, extreme left and extreme don't really appeal to MOST albertans. I respect your opinion.

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