Election soon, or election later? For Trudeau, it's a gamble either way

Canada has a fixed-date elections law — but that doesn't mean elections happen on fixed dates. The exact timing of an election is a political choice and for Justin Trudeau, it's a choice between two sets of largely unknown risks.

An early election poses political risks for the Liberals. So would waiting.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault, left, speak during a child care funding announcement in Montreal, Thursday, August 5, 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Federal elections in Canada don't happen on a schedule. More often than not, they happen when someone in a position of power thinks it would be a good idea to have one.

Justin Trudeau seems to be the leader who thinks so right now. There's at least some chance he'd end up regretting the decision to trigger an early election. But there's an equal (perhaps even greater) chance that he'd regret passing up the opportunity.

It is a feature — not a bug — of the parliamentary system that an election can occur at almost any time, either because the prime minister has requested the dissolution of Parliament or because the House of Commons has withdrawn its confidence in the government. In Canada, even the threat of an election call can be a tool both for accountability and for conflict resolution.

But that means the exact timing of an election is a political choice.

According to the letter of the Constitution Act of 1867, the House can sit for as long as five years between elections. There might be general agreement now (perhaps because of our exposure to American presidential elections) that a vote should occur at least every four years. But even by that standard, most federal elections of the past 25 years have come "early."

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien with then-finance minister Paul Martin in 2002. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In 1997, Jean Chrétien called an election after 43 months in office. It was at the time the shortest turnaround for a majority government since 1911. Three years later, Chrétien went even earlier. The opposition parties accused Chrétien of being vain, arrogant and cynical. The Liberals returned to power with a majority both times.

After succeeding Chrétien as prime minister, Paul Martin decided to go early too by calling a vote for June 2004. Martin's government was reduced to a minority and the opposition parties voted to defeat it in November 2005.

Fixed, but not in stone

When Stephen Harper became prime minister with a minority government, he passed legislation that said elections should be held on fixed dates every four years — but the law didn't actually prevent a prime minister from going to the governor general and asking for Parliament to be dissolved. And that's what Harper did when he decided he wanted an election in 2008.

The opposition parties criticized Harper's "broken promise." The Conservatives gained 16 seats.

Two and a half years later, the opposition parties chose the timing of the election when they found the Harper minority government in contempt of Parliament. Harper complained the election was "unnecessary." The Conservatives were returned with a majority.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to the crowd after winning a majority government on election night in 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

With that majority in hand, Harper decided to honour his fixed-date election law in 2015. But after amending elections regulations to allow for more spending by parties over a longer campaign period, Harper had Parliament dissolved in August 2015 for an election in October, setting up the longest writ period in modern Canadian history.

In theory, that gave the well-financed Conservative party an advantage and significantly curtailed the ability of outside groups to advertise ahead of the vote. But the Liberals won a majority.

Finally, in 2019, the country experienced a relatively unremarkable election call — the vote was held according to Harper's fixed-date law and the campaign lasted six weeks.

The timing is now a campaign issue

A little less than two years later, with the Liberals doing reasonably well in the polls, Trudeau seems set to call for a new vote. The Conservatives and New Democrats are already arguing that a vote now would be both unnecessary and — in light of the pandemic — reckless.

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A pandemic hasn't stopped several provinces from holding elections, some of them earlier than necessary (NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh should be familiar with the contest in British Columbia). And it's fair to wonder whether the opposition parties would feel differently about the necessity of an election right now if they — and not the Liberals — were leading in the polls.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh visits the Parkdale Public Market with Angella MacEwen, left, NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre, in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

But at some point, Trudeau would have to actually explain why an election is a good use of anyone's time right now. After some grumbling in the spring about the opposition parties tying up business in the House, Trudeau mostly stopped publicly entertaining the idea of an election this summer.

However unpleasant Parliament was in June, it's not obvious that Trudeau couldn't try again in September; the NDP is now loudly insisting that it is "ready to work."

So the prime minister might need to point to something more than opposition intransigence — which, presumably, would be his first task after he finished having tea with the governor general.

Singh has gone so far as to suggest that Gov. Gen. Mary Simon should refuse Trudeau's request to dissolve Parliament. This far removed from the last election, such a move would be unprecedented and arguably undemocratic. 

Indeed, the handy thing about calling an election is that voters are immediately granted an opportunity to pass direct judgment on that decision.

Ontario Premier David Peterson (right), NDP Leader Bob Rae and Conservative Leader Mike Harris (left) stand together prior to a leaders debate in Toronto in August, 1990. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

It's at this point in any professional analysis of election timing that we're obliged to remember the example of former Ontario premier David Peterson. Peterson had a massive majority and was just three years removed from the previous vote when he called an early election in the summer of 1990. He was promptly thrown out of office.

Elections are always choices about the future. Peterson's story is a reminder that the public's tolerance for early elections can't be taken for granted.

But there's another event in Canadian political history that teaches a different lesson. Justin Trudeau is probably familiar with it already.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gives a speech on election night Oct. 30, 1972. He lost his majority that year. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

In 1977, Pierre Trudeau had a majority government but was facing pressure from advisers to call an election just three years after the previous vote. Trudeau had been in office for nearly a decade, but the arrival of a separatist government in Quebec seemed to give new purpose to the prime minister. Support for the Liberals was up, the economy was doing well and Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives were struggling.

Trudeau considered triggering an election, but ultimately decided to wait.

"It was Trudeau's worst political decision," the historian John English wrote in Just Watch Me, the second part of his two-volume biography of Trudeau.

Trudeau also resisted pressure to call an election in 1978. By the time he did call an election, in the spring of 1979, the economy and the public mood had soured. The Progressive Conservatives won a plurality of seats and Pierre Trudeau lost power.

If not for a remarkable and unlikely comeback — and a legacy-defining final term in office — that would have been the end of the elder Trudeau's political career.

Maybe the younger Trudeau wouldn't suffer for waiting now. But sooner or later there has to be an election. And since the Liberals don't have a majority, Trudeau isn't the only person who could trigger an election between now and 2023.

Going for an early election is always something of a gamble. But not going now would be a gamble of a different kind — one that assumes the political climate for the federal Liberals won't be less favourable months from now.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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