We’re having pandemic elections in New Brunswick, BC, and Saskatchewan. Why not in Canada too?

Oct 21st, 2020 | By | Category: In Brief
“After the Rain” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, October 2020.

UPDATED 4 PM ET, OCT 21 ; 2, 9 PM ET, OCT 22 ; 11 PM ET, OCT 23 ; 12 NOON PT, OCT 24. RANDALL WHITE, TORONTO. TOO EARLY IN THE MORNING, OCTOBER 21, 2020 : This Wednesday, October 21, 2020 marks the one-year anniversary of the October 21, 2019 Canadian federal election that gave us the perhaps not-stable-enough configuration of political forces that prevails in Ottawa today, in the time of the coronavirus.

Already, according to calculations advanced in the Wikipedia article on “Federal minority governments in Canada,” the Justin Trudeau Liberal minority government bequeathed by the 2019 election has lasted longer than six of the 14 minority governments that have so far marked the now long-enough history of the Canadian confederation of 1867.

When Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats finally backed the September 23, 2020 Liberal Throne Speech, while the other opposition parties turned thumbs down, it did seem that Justin Trudeau’s 2019 minority government might conceivably last as long as his father’s 1972 variation on the theme — kept in office until 1974 by David Lewis’s New Democrats.

As matters stand right now, however, the Conservatives seem determined to scandal-monger over the WE charity controversy that almost certainly cost Liberal seats in the October 21, 2019 election. Both the Bloc Québécois and possibly enough even the New Democrats seem unwilling to confront the Conservatives rather than the Liberals once this issue becomes the focus of debate. And all this has raised the prospect that another federal election not much more than a year after the last one might finally be the most sensible way of dealing effectively with the worsening pandemic across Canada.

From Michael Seward’s Toronto street scene photos, October 2020.

As the Legislative Assembly of Ontario showed recently, when it unanimously supported a motion from Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter to not hold any snap election in Ontario before the June 2, 2022 fixed date, the prospect of any major democratic vote in the midst of the current COVID-19 does strike many as weird, considered in the abstract.

Similarly, “NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus” recently urged that treating opposition demands for a parliamentary committee on the WE controversy as a confidence motion that could lead to a fresh election would be “one of the most irresponsible things anybody’s ever done in the history of Canada.” (And “Conservative Leader @erinotoole says he does not have confidence in the Liberal government, but he does not want an election.” Mmmmm … how does parliamentary democracy work again?)

Yet what all arguments against a Canadian federal election in the time of the coronavirus must seriously come up against is the recent provincial snap election in New Brunswick, that allowed a Conservative minority government to win a more stable majority — and the BC provincial election this coming Saturday, October 24, in which a NDP minority government will be reaching for the same objective.

(There is also a Saskatchewan provincial contest on Monday, October 26, but it is at least a fixed date rather than a snap election. The Saskatchewan Party has had a majority government for the past four years, and it will almost certainly win another this coming Monday. The prospect of a snap election soon in Ontario also seems especially weird, since the present Ford government has a stable legislative majority that can at least in principle manage the pandemic until the next June 2022 fixed date.)

From Michael Seward’s Toronto street scene photos, October 2020.

Back in the Canadian federal arena today Aaron Wherry at CBC News in Ottawa believes the “most likely scenario remains a compromise that avoids an election. If that happens, of course, another flashpoint will emerge in the Commons a week or a month from now, another occasion for more manoeuvring. The example of our last era of minority Parliament (2004 to 2011) suggests that there will be (at least) another half-dozen opportunities to worry about the possibility of an election before the next election actually occurs.”

This may prove happily quite right. But what it leaves out is the fact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the likes of which did not seriously form part of the essential background 2004 to 2011. Under the Trudeau Liberal government, for instance, Canada has now put more per-capita resources into the fight against the coronavirus than any other G20 country — something else about which the Conservatives have started to complain. Regardless of political philosophy, it is hard to see how the practical management of these resources will be improved by what the Conservatives call a “special committee on allegations of misuse of public funds by the government.” (Whatever the partisan gains to opposition parties may be in the next election.)

“Urban Botany.” Photo by Michael Seward, October 2020.

In fact, the most important truth of the moment may be that, even in Canada, our 2020 political debate has become too toxic and narrowly partisan to allow minority governments to work, as they did when Lester Pearson’s Liberals and Tommy Douglas’s New Democrats (and even the Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives) created the modern Canadian federal-provincial welfare state in the 1960s. It may similarly be that in 2020 only a majority government in Ottawa (as in New Brunswick and BC?) can manage the Canada-wide response to the pandemic effectively, from a public interest rather than a partisan political point of view.

From this angle as well, it may finally be that a fresh election is the best thing that can happen for effective management of the pandemic. And whatever the case, if Premier Horgan’s New Democrats handily enough win a majority government in BC this coming Saturday, this will certainly strengthen the hand of those federal Liberals who argue that Prime Minister Trudeau’s minority government could do the same thing in a snap federal election soon.

On the other hand, if the BC New Democrats do badly on Saturday because voters really do not want more pandemic elections, then maybe federal New Democrats who talk about a federal election as “one of the most irresponsible things anybody’s ever done in the history of Canada” won’t sound quite so over the top.

UPDATE, OCT 21, 4 PM ET : It now seems clear enough that there will not be a Canadian federal election over this issue in the very near future. See, eg : “NDP says they will not support House vote that would trigger election” ; and “NDP won’t give Trudeau ‘excuse’ for election, Singh says ahead of confidence vote in Commons.”

UPDATE, OCT 22, 2/9 PM ET : The Conservatives are apparently tabling another motion today that could arguably also trigger a snap election. According to CBC News : “The Conservative motion will not be put to a vote until Monday. It’s not clear whether the government will opt to make this motion a confidence vote as well.” See also “The Liberals had the leverage this week — but it might not last … The panic in Parliament is over for the time being. Same time next week, everyone?” As of Thursday evening, October 22, “the Liberals say they won’t declare the vote on the motion a matter of confidence, reducing the chance of a snap election.”

All this nonetheless draws further attention to the BC provincial election on Saturday, October 24. According to Éric Grenier’s CBC Poll Tracker for BC, although the race is tightening somewhat, the NDP still seems likely to win a majority government. M. Grenier’s CBC Poll Tracker for Canada (in both this and BC cases dated October 20), reports that whether the Trudeau Liberals could win a majority in a snap election soon “remains a toss-up.”

UPDATE, OCT 23, 11 PM ET : See today’s Canadian Press piece on “Companies warn Conservative motion could deter domestic production of PPE.” It notes that : “Canadian Exporters and Manufacturers president Dennis Darby says members of his group are ‘very concerned’ that proprietary, sensitive or confidential business information will be released as the result of a Conservative motion … to be put to a vote in the House of Commons on Monday.”

UPDATE, OCT 24, 12 NOON PT : While waiting for the results of today’s very interesting BC election, here is a somewhat longer term view of federal election prospects from the always interesting Chris Hall : “MPs are set to vote on another pandemic motion on Monday, this one brought by Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner. This time, the government hastily proclaimed it would try to honour the motion if it passes and would not treat the vote as a matter of confidence.”

(And see Mr. Hall’s excellent piece at large : “Party strategists brace for a long winter of cliffhangers in the Commons … One party strategist says that, for Liberals looking ahead to a pandemic election, time is the enemy.”)

For a somewhat deeper view of the Ottawa politician bringing the motion see this tweet late last night from Lorne Nystrom, Saskatchewan NDP MP from days alas gone by : “Michelle Remple is an immature, nasty, simplistic uninformed Conservative MP. The good thing is she is doing her own party harm.”

And finally (and the very last update I promise) for a high-spirited message from the almost certain winning side in today’s BC election (unless opinion polls are in very big trouble indeed) see Anne Kang’s “Today is the day! Go vote from 8AM-8PM.”

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