Fixed elections would give voters a double-edged sword of sorts

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to pass fixed election dates into law.

By Greg Neiman

Black Press

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to pass fixed election dates into law. That was back in 2001. But as Premier Christie Clark attempts to climb a 20-point gap in opinion polls in the current B.C. election campaign, it’s likely that on the whole, she’d rather have had the opportunity to pick another time than now to face voters.

B.C. voters go to the polls May 14.

Since 2001, all provinces and territories have embraced fixed election dates — except Nova Scotia and Nunavut. Alberta (in 2011) and Quebec (in 2012) have passed the concept into law, but have yet to fight an election under it.

Would being able to call a snap election at a propitious moment, or having the ability to delay an election until the political climate gets better, have benefited the beleaguered B.C. premier?

Perhaps, but those considerations are now beside the point.

Fixing election dates by law is now a means by which voters can enforce accountability on a government, on a timeline outside the government’s control. It is a double-edged sword that cuts into an incumbent government’s power to control the political agenda.

It cuts the ability of government to use short-term swings in the economy as proof of good management. It means that government must keep faith with the electorate through good times and bad — which is a lot harder.

It also means that opposition parties have a more equal chance to present their long-term platforms as alternatives to going with the flavour of the day (because tomorrow, the flavour will probably be different).

For instance, Clark is promising a balanced budget within one year. You’d think a premier leading a party 12 years in office would be able to propose credible numbers to prove it. That would be a big boost to a campaign, wouldn’t you say?

But it doesn’t seem to be working. Polls report that NDP challenger Adrian Dix leads Clark on every important campaign issue — including economic management.

What are those issues? Top of mind is climate change.

Whoever thought a government could fall over fears of rising sea levels and bug-eaten forests drying out and burning up?

And who would think that the NDP, not the Greens, who be the chief beneficiary?

But that must be a quirk of B.C. politics.

Clark says she’ll freeze their carbon tax — Canada’s first — at $30 per tonne of fossil fuels burned. Knowing the power of a major energy play (as is occurring in the northeastern part of the province now), she’s reluctant to put the brakes on that development.

But the NDP doesn’t trump that with a raise, just a pledge to turn the carbon-tax revenue over to cities to enhance public transit. And it’s enough to win approval of big-city voters.

But rather than trying to dissect a B.C. election from Alberta, let’s look for lessons that could be applied here, in the spring of 2016.

Alberta’s premier, Alison Redford, has but three years to see our province back on an upswing. A balanced budget “next year” might not be enough.

That means a lot of things for the energy industry, which is out of Redford’s control, but there are a lot of other economic issues she can control. Economic inequity is one of them.

After 12 years of a Liberal government in B.C. (which acts in a manner indistinguishable from a Progressive Conservative one), B.C. voters don’t seem willing to give the government credit for anything.

Stephen Smart, the West Coast columnist for the CBC, quipped that Clark could sing the praises of the blue sky in B.C., and people would just accuse her of ignoring the clouds.

How much does that sound like Alberta to you? We have Canada’s highest levels of income inequity, and the demographic that sees the government as favouring its richest minority above them grows larger every year.

Will they believe it when Redford tells people their lives have been made better under her government?

Clark’s promise of a Prosperity Fund, to be built on newfound energy wealth, isn’t gaining much electoral traction. How much hope do jaded Albertans have, after almost 30 years, that our Heritage Fund can do anything to help our present, or our future?

Next election, Redford will not be able to decide when the gate opens to start the race. There’s no option for the backroom guys to decide “the right time.”

Watching her next-door-neighbour premier lose to the NDP ought to get her thinking about 2016.

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