I confess. I spent a quiet weekend that my Nova Scotia journalist colleagues no doubt filled to the almost end with feverish when-will-he/will-he pull the plug media speculation about the date of our next provincial election. That’s because I spent my weekend in the relatively un-suspense-filled and almost completely Nova Scotia-free world of Havana, Cuba.
“From Canada you say? Vancouver? Toronto? Cigar, my friend?”
It seems as good a place as any to consider the state of our democracy.
The fact the question of when we will go to the polls is a question at all, in fact, speaks clearly to the state of that democracy.
When he was in opposition, Stephen McNeil supported the notion of predictable, level-playing-field, fixed election dates. But, as premier, he (like premiers before him) has done nothing to change the rules. That’s because the rules favour the party in power and its leader, who gets to choose — by himself — the moment he believes is ripest to get his party re-elected.
Stephen McNeil has used that timing power this spring to orchestrate a forget-the-last-three-years’ budget, balanced — for this brief moment in electoral time — on the backs of teachers and other public sector workers, and stuffed to credulity-bursting with a Santa’s bag of goodies that will not have to be paid for… until, and unless we re-elect him.
McNeil has tilted the table to help himself.
He has also left in place the tired first-past-the-post electoral system that works tirelessly to thwart the real wishes of the electorate. It is possible — likely — in our three-party system for a winning party to fall short of a majority in the popular vote and still end up with a majority of the seats in the legislature.
And then, of course, to govern as if it had won every vote and every seat.
Speaking of which, how many of us voted to impose a contract on our teachers?
Or to gut our thriving film industry? Certainly not film industry workers. Before the last election, they heard McNeil pledge to keep their industry-growing film tax credit program in place for another five years. But their hope for stable, long-term prosperity — and McNeil’s promise — was soon sacrificed on the altar of a short-term balanced budget. There is an irony now in the fact the Liberal party talking points for this coming election include a pat-itself-on-the-back boast about its recent promise to increase funding for the film industry.
The Liberals taketh away.
And the Liberals giveth back (for now).
That ultimately may be the real problem with our democracy. It is impossible for the average voter to believe anything any politician promises.
On its own slow march to majority government, it is worth remembering the New Democrats promised no new taxes and no cuts to government programs. And then claimed they had no choice but to abandon those promises after we’d elected them because they could not possibly have foreseen an economic situation foreseeable to almost everyone else.
Our last Progressive Conservative government, the one the NDP defeated, had created its own, similar-to-McNeil’s untethered-to-reality, chicken-in-every-pot, promise-filled budget on its hopeful way into the 2009 election campaign.
The Tories lost, in large part, because we believed the NDP would be different.
They turned out not to be as different as we’d hoped.
So we — thanks again to that first-past-the-post system — gave the Liberals all the keys to government.
Which brings us to now. Why should we trust the promises any politician makes to win our vote?
We have a tendency to look down on countries like Cuba whose political system does not include our form of “free and fair” elections.
But how free? How fair?
The state of our own democracy could use its own consideration.
I realize I’m swimming against the tide on this, but I don’t actually support fixed election dates. They make sense in a presidential system, but not in a Westminster-style parliament. If we eventually manage to get proportional representation (and perhaps even if we don’t) we will likely see more minority governments in the future. Then the timing is not always in the hands of the Premier, and cannot be constrained by law if he/she loses the confidence of the legislature. And as we saw with Harper, it is very easy to manufacture an early election even with a fixed election law. Fixed dates also risk having effectively much longer election periods (i.e. the entire last year) and make it easier for all parties to bypass election spending rules by timing spending immediately before the start of the official campaign period.
What I would like to see instead is an extension of the election period to around two months. Election periods have been reduced by several weeks in my memory, and the shorter the period the more advantage there is to the governing party by controlling the timing.
Jamie: The fixed election date laws in place federally and in other provinces do not prevent an earlier election in the event of a vote of no confidence. The Canada Elections Act, for instance, does not even technically prevent a majority government from calling an earlier election (although the political consequences of doing that would be high).
In effect, fixed election dates are therefore only a check on majority governments. In my opinion, considering the massive power wielded by a majority government, that is positive.
The risk of an “early election” being manufactured in Nova Scotia is also far less severe than in, say, the United States, because Nova Scotia political parties simply don’t have the resources to campaign at full tilt years in advance like they do in the US (where there are almost no limits on who can donate how much). It’s a valid concern, but one that’s unlikely to make a huge difference in this province.