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Fixed election date fad
May 15, 2008

In reality, a fixed election date is nothing new for Manitoba provincial elections. Once the first election was held on December 27, 1870, the next two election dates were fixed for every four years in the same month — December 30, 1874, and December 18, 1878. 

But after 1878 and with the evolution of a party system, provincial elections were called whenever deemed appropriate by the premier in power, although within the rules of the British parliamentary system elections were mandatory before the expiration of a five-year term.

It was after John Norquay took over the reins of government from Robert Davis that the party system became established in Manitoba politics, although Norquay termed himself non-partisan and candidates announced themselves as either Government or Opposition. Yet, it is commonly conceded among historians that Norquay and his followers were “Conservative” and the Opposition was “Liberal” in political leaning.

Just a year later, tradition was broken when an election was called for December 16, and the mythology of partisanship was dropped with the election fought along party lines.

At the time,  the Manitoba Free Press declared it was the only time party politics became an election issue in Canada — “either Liberal or Conservative — and, we, therefore hope that the day is yet remote when it shall split our Local House.”

But the split was completed. When the next election was held on January 23, 1883, party battle lines had truly been drawn. “As the day of battle draws near the winnowing process is thinning the number of candidates down, and by the time the contest takes place, there will probably be an average of two candidates in each of the constituencies representing the issues that divide the two great political parties,” commented the Free Press.

Historians concede there was little to distinguish the political platforms of the two provincial parties — what was really at stake was the power to control the legislature and the purse strings of the province.

While the Free Press at the time argued that Manitobans were “unconstrained and unbiased by party split or party bigotry,” the era of party politics had arrived. And, it was party politics which ended Manitoba’s fixed election dates, as the ability to call elections became a powerful  tool in the hands of incumbent premiers.

Yet, it’s a weapon that Manitoba Premier Gary Doer seems willing to abandon. To the surprise of many, Doer announced the NDP government will introduce fixed election date legislation. While Opposition parties, including the Conservatives under Opposition Leader Hugh McFadyen, had for some time been calling for the similar legislation, Doer continually resisted the urge, saying he was against regular election dates in Manitoba.

The premier had to admit he had flip-flopped on the issue, saying he now realizes it is a measure needed to get more people to the polls. Apparently, Chief Electoral Officer Richard Balasko played a role in convincing Doer that fixed election dates would translate into greater voter turnout. Elections Manitoba also wants more time to enumerate voters and set up polling stations in remote northern communities. Under existing rules, election campaigns in Manitoba are only 35 days in duration.

In last May’s election, only 58 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, and in 2004 the number of people voting was just 54 per cent. In previous provincial elections, the percentage hovered around 70 per cent of eligible voters.

Perhaps Doer was simply enthralled with the process south of the border — people are turning up in droves during the presidential primaries. 

Fixed election dates are the norm in the United States, which is why Democrat and Republicans have been deciding on candidates for the U.S. presidency in a process that seems to drag on forever. Not only is voting on whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will lead the Democrats a long drawn-out process, but its very length underpins the one great problem with the system — candidates. whether running for Congress or the presidency. are continually engaged in money-raising activities. Millions of dollars are used by candidates to win a Senate or House of Representatives seat. In the case of Clinton and Obama, they are not even at the stage where they will be running as the Democratic presidential candidate, but still need millions to win the party’s candidacy.

The American system is not a glowing endorsement for fixed election dates. In fact, it seems that once elected, American politicians’ primary concern is raising money for their next election campaign.

Manitoba’s rules governing election spending will be changed under Doer’s announcement, while it also contains an increase in party spending from $50,000 to $75,000 in non-election spending by parties. Under the Doer proposal, eligible political parties will receive $1.25 per vote to a maximum of $250,000 to help cover election expenses.

The Doer announcement pegged the next provincial election for June 14, 2011. The only thing that could upset the schedule is an NDP defeat on a confidence vote, which is improbable due to the party’s overwhelming majority. The only other delay for an election found in the 48-page document is the potential postponement to the fall in the event of a major spring flood similar to 1997’s Flood of the Century. The postponement gives farmers time for harvesting as well as the weather remaining warm enough to accommodate northern voters.

Other provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have fixed election dates. In Alberta, fixed-election date legislation was shelved for fear unions would time strikes to coincide with elections.

While Manitoba and Canada have done extraordinarily well governing under the parliamentary system inherited from Britain, the populist appeal of fixed date elections now holds sway across the nation. Essentially, fixed election dates have become a fad, although in Manitoba’s case, it’s  the revival of an earlier fad.