Ho, Hum, Fo, Fum — On With the Vote

In a little over a week from now, according to the media (who love a horse-race and thus are excited at the prospect), Prime Minister Harper will make the trek up to Rideau Hall and ask the Governor-General for a Writ of Election. Shortly after Thanksgiving, by mid-October, we can expect to have finished the campaign, voted, and returned the new Parliament to Ottawa.

Forgive my lack of enthusiasm, even though I do believe the backing, filling, posturing, foaming at the mouth, back-pedalling and abstaining has gone on more than long enough and that it is time for all of us, in all 308 ridings, to have our say — not the blogosphere’s, not the media’s, not the politicians’ and not the parties’. Still, I just can’t find it in me to get all trigger-finger itchy about the prospect of throwing my incumbent MP out (much though I think she deserves it for her performance, and much though I think her party deserves a good long time in the deep woodshed, not simply banished from the Government benches for a term). Nor do I particularly want the Prime Minister returned to power, save only that I want the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal and Offici(ous) Opposition to take power even less.

Patrick Ross has offered his views as to why we might withhold a vote from the Conservatives for undermining the spirit of their legislation to fix election dates, as has Raphael Alexander, who sums it up as a minor transgression rather than an issue to turn a vote upon. Bloggers from the Liberals and points “further left”, of course, can be pointed to as seeing this as an issue to turn an election on (in favour of their candidates of choice), such as the always worth reading Steve V. So is the threat by Prime Minister Harper to seek dissolution rather than waiting to either fail a confidence motion — or meander his way to the fixed election date of 19/10/2009 — worth worrying about, or not?

The past two decades — concentrated in Western populism, most recently expressed in the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance federally and the BC Liberals provincially — have seen issue after issue brought forward to restructure our system of Queen-in-Parliament to have more of the features of a constitutional republic (with the Crown now serving as the Head of State to a Head of Government with far more “Head of State”-like features). One of these concerned removing power from the office holder to call an election willy-nilly because the polls were right, or announcements were pending, or just to take advantage of a disadvantaged opponent, as was the pattern of Jean Chrétien in power (for instance). This leads to the idea, found in strong-executive republican models such as are used in the United States, or France, of a fixed and predictable election date.

I do not support these (despite Chrétien’s abuse of Prime Ministerial perogative). Our system of governance depends upon the Opposition being perennially “prepared to govern” (and showing us that they are, indeed, fit for purpose: this is the essence of my rejection of the Federal Liberal Party and Stéphane Dion, for neither, since January 2006, have demonstrated that fitness for power). Just as the Government can fall at any time — and especially so when it is a minority (never forget that backbenchers can and have revolted even in strong majorities!) — so, too, the Governor-General need not issue a Writ of Election simply because the Prime Minister demands it. She can turn instead to anyone whom she believes can command the Confidence of the House. That it has not happened since 1926, when Lord Byng quite rightly refused William Lyon Mackenzie King his Writ — that Arthur Meighen could meet the House and carry on for a few months shows the rightness of the Governor-General’s assessment — and when the election came the Canadian people returned King rather than Meighen, a judgement on Meighen, not on the Governor-General (as many Canadian historians trying to “bury” the Constitutional protections of the Crown over politicians would have it).

This power is not in abeyance. Nevertheless, I do not think Her Excellency will refuse the Writ, if it is asked for. Still, it is good to know our system — and not to focus on those elements drawn from other systems where they are an integral part of “how it all works”, but are a graft that sits poorly on our way of doing things (much as Trudeau’s precious Charter is a similar graft denying Parliament its perogatives).

As with many things in politics today, power and truth make uncomfortable bedfellows. Prime Minister Harper is legally correct to say that he retains the privilege of requesting a dissolution of Parliament. The “truth” — really, a pravda, or propaganda statement — surrounding fixed election dates, however, was that he yielded this power, tying his, and his successors’, hands. This discomfort this gives to his supporters is the result of this collision between power and truth.

Come election day, though, how we got to the polling place will be the least of the concerns motivating most voters. In other words, it is just another annoyance, to use Raphael Alexander’s view, as opposed to a support-breaker, as Patrick Ross intimated, and certainly not a sustainable issue, as supporters of the Prime Minister’s opponents would have it.

The real question will be — and this applies to all of the over 1,600 candidates expected to run nation-wide as much as it does to the party apparatus backing each of the leaders and the national “air war” for support — what is on offer? What do you stand for? What will you support if you are in Opposition; what will you bend on if you are in Government? (The likelihood of yet another minority is strong enough that these are viable questions.) For Liberal MPs, in particular, “are you going to stand in the House and vote?” might be appropriate.

At the moment my vote is available; I do not go into this campaign already decided. I should be very satisfied with a Conservative Minority Government coupled with a strong NDP Opposition, and the election of a few Green MPs (save only in Central Nova). But who will get my vote in Vancouver-Quadra? Until I see who runs, and what each of the candidates says for themselves, on top of party platforms, I will not know.

All candidates should also be aware of one other thing: “none of you” is a vote, whether carried out by formal abstention in front of the Deputy Returning Officer at my polling place (no crying foul, please: if you can abstain in the House we too can abstain) or simply by joining the near-majority of Canadians who consider the whole game a sham and a waste of their time and don’t vote at all. (I’ve only ever missed one Federal election, due to a strike in France which delayed my return to Canada, but the past two elections I have considered the “not voting” option as one of my choices.)

In any event, whether I’m excited about the prospects or not, I am more than ready to see the back of this Parliament — and the back of the defeated leader(s) after this election. So off you go, Prime Minister. Let’s get the Writ and get it all over with.

It’s time for a new beginning in Ottawa.

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