Fixed election dates to become law in Canadian federal elections

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A bill that would set fixed election dates in Canada every four years is scheduled to receive royal assent and become law today.

Since confederation, a sitting government could choose any date for an election as long as it was less than five years after the writs were returned for the previous election, unless it was defeated by a motion of no confidence. By convention, elections have been held every four years, often when the governing party was doing well in the polls. Bill C-16, first introduced in the House May 30, 2006, would create predictable election dates every four years.

The bill was one of the democratic reforms originally promised by the Harper conservatives during the 2006 election campaign. Rob Nicholson, the past minister for democratic reform who introduced the bill, said that the new law will make elections fairer for all parties: "fixed election dates will improve the fairness of Canada's electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage."

The bill comes amid speculation as to how long the current minority parliament can last. When the bill becomes law, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be unable to call an election on his own. The opposition parties would still have the power to force an election with a vote of no-confidence against the government.

Under bill C-16, an election would have to be called for the third Monday of October four years after the last federal election unless opposition parties force one earlier. If the date conflicts with a provincial election or a religious occasion, the election can be moved by a few days. The Senate proposed more situations for which the date could be moved, but that amendment was rejected by the House, with some parliamentarians saying that a government could find limitless opportunities to move the date, and that it was ironic for the unelected Senate to propose amendments on a bill concerning elections.

Fixed elections would only apply to the federal level, but the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador have already implemented fixed election dates for their own provincial elections, and New Brunswick is considering them.

Under the law, the 40th Canadian federal election would be scheduled for October 19, 2009.