What determines the date of an election? The short answer: "politics."
Canadian governments are elected for a maximum five-year term, but there is no legislated
minimum. Rarely does a government serve out its full term, and it's up to the prime minister to
decide when to go back to the people to seek re-election. This is usually in the fourth or early in
the fifth year of a mandate, and a key factor in the timing is how confident the prime minister and
his advisers are that conditions are favourable for re-election. When they feel the time is right,
the prime minister advises the Governor General that Parliament should be dissolved and a general
A different situation prevails in the United States, where politicians are elected for a fixed
term of four years. The electoral calendar is so structured that there are national elections every
two years. The president is elected for a four-year term, and half-way through his term, members of
Congress face the voters to seek their four-year terms. There have been calls primarily by the
Conservative Party of Canada for Canada to adopt a fixed-term system.
Three provincial governments have already decided to go that route: B.C., Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. People in B.C. go to the polls every four years on the second Tuesday in May. The next date is May 2009. The government has passed a law that would send Ontario voters to the polls every four years, on the first Thursday in October. The law has yet to receive royal assent. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the next election will be in October 2007.
Only once in Canada has a government held office for more than the statutory five-year
maximum. This was during the First World War, when the Conservatives under Robert Borden stayed in
power for about a year beyond the expiration of their term in order to avoid the disruption an
election would cause. However, Parliament did not sit during the extended period, so no laws could be
passed. Government expenses were covered by warrants issued by the Governor General.