The fallacy of fixed-date elections

“There is no such thing as a truly fixed-date election in Canada,” says Dr. Don Desserud, professor of political science and dean of arts at UPEI. Desserud will be a guest on CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon on Thursday, September 15 to discuss the question: do you support fixed election dates?

“There are laws in some provinces which make it appear as if we have fixed-date elections,” he explains, “but we don’t. A fixed-date election would require an overhaul of the Canadian constitution, and frankly, our entire system of government.”

Elections in Canada are called provincially at the request of the premier, and federally by the prime minister. Respectively, the requests are made to the lieutenant-governor or governor general.

“This is a tradition we inherited from the Westminster system, and it is enshrined in the Canadian constitution,” says Desserud.

Fixed-date election laws in provinces such as Prince Edward Island set a date when a premier must request a dissolution of parliament. Desserud points out there is nothing to stop a premier from requesting dissolution before the set date.

“If a premier requests an election and the answer is ‘no,’ the premier has lost the confidence of the lieutenant-governor,” says Desserud. “She or he has no other option but to resign. When the premier resigns, the lieutenant-governor has little option but to dissolve parliament anyway, and call an election.”

Desserud explains there is a growing perception among the public, rightly or wrongly, that governments call elections at times that most benefit the ruling party. This is why the idea of fixed-date elections has grown in popularity as a solution to this perceived problem.

In his 2007 brief to the senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, titled “Bill C-16: what is the problem for which this is the solution?”, Desserud argues this perceived problem is deceivingly simple.

“If governments don’t want to call elections early,” writes Desserud,” then they don’t have to, not unless they lose the confidence of the House. If they believe it is important to hold elections at regular dates, then that’s what they should do. They do not need legislation to given them that power. As far as I can tell, Bill C-16 is really just a promise that the government will not go to the polls before it has to. I do not see why it needs legislation to shore up such a promise.”

Maritime Noon begins after the noon newscast on all CBC Radio One stations in the Maritimes.

Guest post: "Canada's Arctic military footprint"

The following is the first of a two-part series by Dr. Peter McKenna, professor and chair of Political Studies at UPEI. It was originally published in the Charlottetown Guardian on September 1, 2011.

 Having returned in mid-August from Operation NANOOK 11 as an invited observer — which involved roughly 1,100 Canadian Forces ( CF) personnel from the Navy, Air Force, Army and even Special Forces ( JTF II) in Resolute Bay, Nunavut — it’s not hard to tell that both the Canadian government and the military are preparing for a larger presence in the North. And the fatal crash of a First Air 737-200 aircraft last weekend highlights the need for search and rescue assets on the ground in Resolute.

In fact, the construction has already begun on the Resolute camp for an Arctic army training centre for 100 soldiers, who could then be utilized for rapid deployment to places further north. And there was lots of chatter about turning the Resolute facility into a future forward operating base for enhanced operations in the North.

In part, our military engagement in the Arctic is intimately connected to the defence of Canada’s sovereignty, establishing a firm presence in the North and perfecting their military skills ( through a host of training exercises and simulations that turned into reality with the First Air tragedy) under tough weather, terrain and logistical conditions. Showing the Canadian flag ( and enforcing Canadian law), asserting sovereignty via surveillance/ patrolling, and demonstrating a capability to respond in times of crisis ( such as an air or shipping emergency) are all part of the messages that official Ottawa wants to send to Canadians as well as those from other Arctic countries.

The signature red-capped and rifle-toting Canadian Rangers ( as part-time reservists), who have a long and storied history of maintaining watch over Canada’s Arctic, were well represented in OpNANOOK. In addition to providing a permanent presence in the North, they participate regularly in sovereignty and surveillance patrols, provide local knowledge of the weather and the land, and offer support to natural disasters and humanitarian operations. In many ways, the 4,000plus Rangers are Canada’s eyes and ears of the North.

Canada’s elite Special Forces ( probably a handful or so) in their tan berets could be spotted around the Resolute camp. Since they were basically operating on their own, not much was said about what exactly they were doing there. We were told they were engaging in specialized expeditionary training with their own equipment-testing their performance capability in austere conditions and rugged terrain ( where it could come in handy in other parts of the world).

While we didn’t actually observe the unmanned aerial vehicles ( UAVs) in action, a Gagetown, New Brunswick, regiment was gearing them up ( five U. S.-manufactured ScanEagles and one night-time version) for their first-time deployment in the windy North. Although the Nunavut government and the Inuit of Resolute Bay gave their permission for the flights, there were restrictions on where the UAVs could fly.

The UAVs ( at a cost of roughly $ 200,000 each) were going to be used as part of the larger operation’s search and rescue simulation — feeding back video images of the mock disaster scene. But their chief functions or missions involve surveilling convoy and troop movements, detecting improvised explosive devices ( IEDs) and observing harbours ( looking for fuel resupply).

This begs an obvious question: why is there this burgeoning military presence in Canada’s High Arctic — especially since, unofficially at least, many in the military dread a posting to the North?

Yes, there is the whole sovereignty question and symbolism, nationalistic Canadian sentiments about the Arctic and its domestic political import for federal politicians.

There are also real issues around global warming and thinning ice, increased shipping and anticipated resource development, and the potential for a maritime and environment disaster.

Of course, it is also important to be sending out the right signals to our Arctic neighbours like the Americans, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Russians.

We certainly want them to know — via our military presence — that we take the North seriously and that we are prepared to defend it ( and whatever resources it contains).

But there is probably more going on here than that — particularly from a military standpoint. In part, the military says to itself that since we are here, however reluctantly, we should try and use this training in the North for other future missions.

That would explain the emphasis on the “ expeditionary” purpose/ capability of the operation: that is, not for future military use in the Arctic, but for somewhere else in the world ( perhaps Asia, the Middle East or even North Africa).

More significant, one could argue that the senior military leadership views the Arctic ( especially in a post-Afghanistan milieu) as a means of further justifying its reason for being. Stated differently, it gives them a mission priority that has the firm backing of the Conservative government in Ottawa.

This is critical because it allows the military to make the case to their political masters that the defence budget should be insulated from any deep cuts in the rush to balance the federal books. If anything, they will argue that military resources should be bolstered if the Harperites want the CF to be meaningfully engaged in the Arctic, properly equipped for northern conditions, and operationally/ strategically robust.

Indeed, the one thing that the Department of National Defence ( DND) does not want to see happen is additional resources going to the Coast Guard instead of them. It would be better for the military to wrap itself in an Arctic mission ( and to secure the requisite procurement) rather than have the Coast Guard squeeze out more money for sovereignty patrols, scientific investigation and a polar-class ice-breaker.

In short, the Canadian military is perfectly content to play around in the Arctic just as long as the money taps stay open and they can utilize their training there for other “ hot spots” around the world. And if this is the case, you can look for the CF to deepen its military footprint in the Arctic going forward.