Canadians are familiar with the procedures. The prime minister visits the governor general – the Queen’s representative at the federal level – and asks her to dissolve Parliament, leading to an election. This could come at the end of the statutory four-year limit to the life of a parliament. Or it might happen after the government’s defeat on the budget or another crucial piece of legislation. Perhaps a straight motion of nonconfidence could bring the government down.
However, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the new Governor General Mary Simon to dissolve parliament on August 15, his minority government was not even two years into its mandate. The other parties had not brought down his government and were willing to prop it up for the foreseeable future. No one had forced his hand. He could easily have waited until autumn 2023.
But Canadian prime ministers typically despise minority governments. Some years ago, Stephen Harper had requested an early dissolution on the grounds that parliament had become dysfunctional. For him dysfunctional meant that it was not doing his bidding but was exercising its constitutional responsibilities in holding his government accountable for its actions. Trudeau is no different from Harper in this respect, going to voters early in hope of obtaining a majority government.
Why vote now?
Canadians can be forgiven for taking a cynical attitude towards such actions. A decade and a half ago, Harper himself had adopted legislation ostensibly establishing fixed election dates. Of course it did nothing of the kind but only set the maximum life of a parliament at four years. Within those four years, a prime minister could still request dissolution at his own discretion. Which means that nothing really changed. A government can still time an election to its own advantage, which many, including yours truly, believe amounts to an abuse of its power.
Thus the current election campaign is not only about the usual political and economic issues that divide the parties; it is also about Trudeau’s gamble. Will he receive his coveted majority? Or are Canadians as divided in their partisan loyalties as they were in 2019? Trudeau may lose his gamble and retain only a plurality of seats in the Commons, prolonging his frustration for another four years. Or he may lose even more than that and suffer outright defeat at the hands of Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives.
Checks and balances
If that happens, will O’Toole bring a different spirit to his office? Will his government, whether majority or minority, be less willing to employ the tactics of Harper and Trudeau for partisan advantage? While Trudeau may be in a gambling mood, I am not: I wouldn’t bet on it. The temptations that come with political power are often too great, even for someone with good intentions and promises of reform.
At its best, a democratic political system should function in such a way as to limit the ambitions of a would-be leader. The American founders famously set up their checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power in any one person or branch of government. In our Westminster system, the House of Commons is expected to check the government of the day, but the latter’s frequent control of a majority of seats coupled with strict party discipline make our hallowed principle of responsible government less than fully effective. Add to that the fact that no governor general has refused a prime minister’s request for dissolution in nearly a century, and we have what some have labelled prime ministerial government, or even elective dictatorship.
Sadly, none of the parties has expressed an intention to change this process for the better. For now that spells a continuation of the status quo, at least until ordinary Canadians begin to pressure our political leaders to reform our democratic system.