Election tradition

Bill Blaikie, the popular Transcona-Elmwood NDP MP, is not running in the upcoming federal election, but as a guest columnist for Sun Media, he makes a valid point in writing that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was “acting in contempt” of his own fixed-election date legislation by calling an election for October 14. 

Harper used the excuse that Parliament was “dysfunctional” to call the election instead of waiting until October 19, 2009, under the rules of the legislation he championed.

“Parliament isn’t dysfunctional just because it doesn’t do everything a minority prime minister wants it to do,” wrote Blaikie in the column headlined The Evolution of Stephen Harper that appeared in the Winnipeg Sun and other Sun Media newspapers across Canada. “A minority prime minister has a duty to respect Parliament’s will, work with it and to see amendments to government legislation as part of the process rather than a breakdown of authority.”

Blaikie also referred to calling the election a day before four byelections as “an act of wanton political cruelty to the candidates,” and more important “an act of naked political self-interest.”

Many people may not agree with Blaikie’s politics, but he is noted as a great parliamentarian and is well respected among his peers, regardless of party affiliation. In fact, Blaikie was named as the winner of Maclean’s magazine’s second annual Parliamentarian of the Year award in 2007 — an award voted upon by other sitting MPs.

“He’s been in the thick of things, playing a role in shaping laws as historic as the Canada Health Act and the Clarity Act,” said the Maclean’s article announcing his award. “Now a deputy speaker of the House, he brings unquestioned credibility to the job of keeping order and setting a civil tone. But even during the many years when he was a front-bench NDP critic, he had the rare ability to quiet the house when he rose to his imposing six-foot-six height to ask a question in his rumbling bass-baritone.” 

Actually, Blaikie is the continuation of  a tradition of outstanding socialist parliamentarians from Winnipeg, which include Stanley Knowles, who won 12 federal elections, and James Shaver Woodsworth, a Labour MP first elected in 1921 who served in the House until his death in 1942, and was one of the founders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP.

When Woodsworth rose in the House to speak against Canada entering the Second World War, his stance was not dismissed offhandedly and his speech was called “noble.” Prime Minister Mackenzie King said: “There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament.”

Knowles was noted for his mastery of the procedural rules of the House of Commons. He was so respected by his peers that when he retired from politics, Knowles was made an honourary officer of the House in 1984 so that he could sit at the clerk’s table. Until his death in 1997, Knowles could be seen at his place at the clerk’s table, listening to parliamentary debates.

Blaikie’s opinions should be regarded with careful consideration. He is not a politician noted for expressing an opinion solely for its political opportunism. 

That he believes Harper was acting in “political self-interest” is obvious. 

There was absolutely no reason for the prime minister to call an election unless he firmly believed that the time had arrived when the Conservatives could win a much-coveted majority in  the House.

Harper sensed weakness in Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, who has shown an inability to sufficiently explain party policies such as the carbon tax. It also doesn’t help that Dion’s conversational English has not shown much improvement since he was first elected Liberal Party leader.

In Quebec, the nationalist movement is slumbering as a result of a lack of interest, which has encouraged Harper to believe he could marshal nationalist sentiment in the same way Brain Mulroney had done to win his consecutive majority governments. It has been years since the Tories have been a force in Quebec, but the faltering Bloc Québecois support in the province has given Harper hope for a breakthrough.

Whether he looked at vote-splitting between the NDP, the Green Party or the Liberals, Harper recognized he was in a position of strength that may only deteriorate over time. There was also the possibility of a worsening economic position in Eastern Canada, although thus far the nation has been blessed with a “relatively” healthy bottom line.

In effect, time was Harper’s worst enemy which required him to act quickly and disregard the very legislation that his government enacted. But Canadians should be thankful that the prime minister chose to set a precedent. The fixed-election date legislation is not part of Canada’s parliamentary tradition. Instead, it was a “sop” to populism intentionally fomented by Harper during the last election to win over a smattering of cynical voters. Such populist measures based upon the American model can only succeed to a point, which is why the Tories failed to win a majority the last time around.

There was absolutely no need to enact fixed-election dates and that was proven when Harper ignored his own law. In the case of a ruling government, the parliamentary tradition is that an election be called when the government has lost a confidence vote in the House. An election can also be called at the discretion of the prime minister, but beware the consequences of offending the Canadian people if such an election is deemed at the time to be inappropriate.

Blaikie was right to chastise Harper for ignoring his own legislation, but he didn’t go far enough. He should have added it was “bad” legislation that does not follow the traditions and practices of Canadian parliamentary democracy.