“If governments are to remain responsible to the people who elect them, then elected representatives must have the power to force unpopular and corrupt governments to return to the people to obtain a fresh mandate.”
Last week the B.C. Liberal Party announced that, if elected, it would introduce fixed electoral terms for B.C. MLAs. According to Opposition leader Gordon Campbell, the Liberals would enshrine the change within B.C.’s Constitution Act within 90 days of gaining power. Fixed terms would simplify election planning, but is this enough to justify overturning centuries of parliamentary tradition?
In the United States fixed terms are the norm rather than the exception. In contrast, British and Canadian parliamentary tradition has long accepted the idea that responsible government requires flexible election dates.
The reason is simple: if governments are to remain responsible to the people who elect them, then elected representatives must have the power to force unpopular and corrupt governments to return to the people to obtain a fresh mandate. Should a government lose the confidence of our elected representatives, then it cannot continue to govern, even if it is not yet nearing the end of its mandate. Fixed election dates would make this aspect of responsible government a thing of the past.
In Canada, the struggle for responsible government originally occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century. Men such as William Lyon MacKenzie and Robert Baldwin of Upper Canada, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Louis La Fontaine of Lower Canada, and Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia all argued passionately and persuasively in favour of the principle that governments must be responsible to the electorate, rather than to the Crown. Without the consent of our elected representatives, they argued, no government can be permitted to remain in office.
Although elected legislative assemblies had existed in Canada in one form or another as early as 1758, it was not until 1848 that the principle of responsible government became accepted in practice. Prior to 1848, legislative assemblies remained responsible to the British Crown, rather than to the electorate. When the Province of Canada won responsible government in 1848, La Fontaine became premier. Nova Scotia adopted many of the same principles of responsible government that same year.
Today, the idea of responsible government remains a central component of Canadian democracy. We still accept the idea that governments can govern only with the consent of our elected representatives. If cabinet loses the confidence of these representatives-for example if the government is defeated on a major bill, or if the opposition is successful in passing a non-confidence motion-then, according to convention, it must call an election or else resign.
Lack of confidence can occur for a variety of reasons. For example, if there is a minority government, it becomes necessary for cabinet to obtain the support of individuals outside its own party. Should these MPs or MLAs become convinced that the government is no longer acting in the best interests of the electorate, they can then cause that government to fall.
Similarly, should a prime minister or premier become corrupt, it is important for ordinary MPs or MLAs to have the power to force that prime minister or premier either to resign or to call an election. Without this option, complex impeachment procedures, such as those in the United States, would need to be brought into place. U.S. President Richard Nixon, for example, remained in office much longer than he should have. The reason is that under the American model, the executive is not responsible to Congress to the same degree as Canadian premiers and prime ministers are responsible to their respective legislatures and parliaments.
The idea that a government should continue to govern for a full four or five years without the confidence of the legislature, or of parliament, is thus anathema to parliamentary tradition. And if opposition MPs or MLAs are given the power to force a government to face the electorate, surely the government itself should be able to exercise this same power. For if MPs or MLAs of any party become convinced that it is important to consult the electorate, it can only be in the interest of democracy that they be given the power to do so. Should free trade, or Quebec separatism, or any of a host of other issues unexpectedly become important, why shouldn’t MPs and MLAs be able to consult the ballot box for direction?
Of course, even with flexible election dates, many Canadians today believe that governments require greater, not less, accountability. Because prime ministers and premiers have such tremendous influence over the careers of ordinary MPs and MLAs, backbenchers are often unwilling or unable to vote against cabinet policy, or even to voice opposition to such policy in caucus. Thus, what we require is more, not less, power for elected members and for ordinary citizens. The ability of MPs and MLAs to vote against cabinet on many issues without having their caucus memberships threatened becomes crucial. Similarly, the ability of ordinary citizens to recall their MPs and MLAs only serves to strengthen, not weaken, the practice of responsible government.
In contrast, the idea that the life of a government should, for a time, lie beyond the reach of both citizens and their elected representatives runs counter to many of the principles underlying democracy itself. Legislation requiring fixed terms would either permit the house or legislature to call early elections, or it would not. If it did, the result would differ little from our current system. If it did not, such legislation could hardly be said to increase government accountability.
In this context, it is also worth remembering that not all institutional change is for the good. Prior to Confederation, women were permitted to vote provided that, like men, they owned a sufficient amount of property. Following Confederation, this right disappeared for over half a century. It was not until 1918 that the conservative prime minister Robert Borden passed legislation that once again allowed women and men to vote as equals in federal elections, and it was not until 1960 that another conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker, passed legislation that removed all remaining forms of racial and religious discrimination from the federal election act.
Fixed election dates have some advantages. The primary one is that they make it easier for governments to govern. They give governments a fixed, predictable period of time in which to bring forward their legislative agendas. But such advantages are similar to the advantages of a blank cheque, and thus typically come at great cost. For anyone who favours reform that increases, rather than decreases, government accountability, the idea of fixed electoral terms will not be an attractive one.
Andrew Irvine is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.