If all goes according to plan, Alberta will have a provincial election this spring. But what if it doesn’t go to plan? What if we don’t have an election this spring?
Oh, I know we’re supposed to. Heck, we have a provincial law that says the election is to be held sometime in a “window” between March 1 and May 31 every four years. According to that timetable we are due for an election.
But critics of Premier Rachel Notley have suspected she won’t follow that timetable. For the past year or so, they’ve wondered out loud time after time if she’s going to call the provincial election early. You know, so she could catch the opposition United Conservative Party off guard before it could choose a leader. Or once the UCP had a leader, before Jason Kenney could get a seat in the legislature. Or once he had a seat in the legislature, before the UCP could hold its founding convention.
And through it all, Notley was adamant she wasn’t going to go early. But what if she were to go late? What if Notley—fearing defeat in a spring election to Kenney’s UCP—wants to buy herself more time, specifically more time to let the economy recover and to ensure the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is well and truly underway?
Mucking around with the election timetable is a risky proposition. Voters tend to punish politicians who play games with the timing of elections, such as Don Getty, who lost his own seat in 1989, and Jim Prentice, who lost his whole government in 2015.
But what if Notley believes she has nothing to lose?
Our fixed election laws are a cynical sop to those who think making our system more American somehow makes it more democratic.
Constitutionally, she doesn’t have to call an election until May of 2020, Alberta’s election law be damned. The fact is, Canada’s Constitution trumps provincial law. When it comes to a fixed election date, the law is more concept than commandment. And as we saw with Prentice’s decision to hold an election one year early, the law is as malleable as Silly Putty.
We’ve known that since 2011, when then-premier Alison Redford introduced the Election Amendment Act. This was Redford fulfilling a promise to enact fixed election dates, which she made during the 2011 PC leadership race. Trouble was, she couldn’t get her caucus to agree to it after they pointed out that fixed election dates were an import from US politics, at odds with our Westminster parliamentary government. Our system, for example, sometimes results in minority governments that fall after a few months. As a compromise, Redford agreed to a three-month window.
But even that doesn’t get around the fatal flaw in any fixed-election-date legislation: the Queen. Or, more to the point, the Governor General federally and lieutenant-governors provincially. Constitutionally, only the Queen’s representative can dissolve Parliament and call an election. There is a line to that effect in Alberta’s Election Act: “Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Lieutenant-governor, including the power to dissolve the Legislature, in Her Majesty’s name, when the Lieutenant-governor sees fit.”
Yes, the federal government has a fixed election date and so do several other provinces, but their laws are just as illusory as Alberta’s—a cynical sop to those who think making our system more American somehow makes it more democratic. And they are all clay in the hands of artful politicians. Or, at times, victims of minority governments. The federal law promises an election “on the third Monday in October every four years.” Yet in 2011, for example, the election was held in May after the government of Stephen Harper lost a confidence vote.
All a prime minister or premier need do is ask the Queen’s representative to dissolve Parliament or a legislature—and governors general et cetera tend to follow politicians’ advice. That’s why, when Prentice went early, he merely had to ask Alberta’s Lieutenant-Governor for permission. To go late, Notley would have to change the provincial law. Legislatively she could do that easily with her majority government. But politically she’d be opening herself up to attack from all sides.
She would have to argue she’s acting in the best interests of Alberta, not in the best interest of herself—and that means invoking something as crucial to Alberta’s economy as, for example, making sure the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is underway before an election is held.
Of course, when you ask Alberta politicians about mucking around with the electoral timetable, they insist they’d never do it. They tend to say things like, “Alberta has an election law that confirms when the next election will be.” That, by the way, was a quote from Jim Prentice in May of 2014, one year before he ignored the law and called an early election.
Prentice gambled with the timing of the election—and lost. However, if Notley believes all is lost, she might feel she has no option but to gamble with the timing of the election.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.