Should first ministers be considering snap elections?

Precedent suggests that it can be good to strike while the iron is hot — and also that snap elections can bring governments down. That leaves Canada’s first ministers facing some tricky choices
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 21, 2020
Premier Blaine Higgs addresses supporters in Quispamsis on September 14 after winning the New Brunswick provincial election. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

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Who would have guessed that a guy named Blaine Higgs would turn out to be so influential in the thinking of first ministers across Canada?

No disrespect to Higgs, but if you’re not a serious student of politics in Canada, you’ve probably never heard of him — unless you live in New Brunswick, where he happens to be the premier.

Higgs became the first Canadian first minister to call an election in this COVID-19 era, and political wise guys from coast to coast to coast have suddenly been paying special attention to a province to which most of them had probably never previously given a second thought.

Higgs had been New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative premier atop a minority government for less than two years when he rolled the dice, figuring he could parlay his current popularity into a majority. One week ago today, he discovered he was right and, in doing so, got political advisers across the country thinking: If it worked in the Maritimes, could it work here, too?

Suddenly, British Columbia premier John Horgan is facing intense pressure to dissolve his three-year-old minority government and exploit his positive circumstances. The Angus Reid Institute’s August survey of Canadians revealed that he was the most popular premier in the country, with a 69 per cent approval rating.

Who was second? Ontario’s Doug Ford, whose head must spin from time to time at the astonishing reversal of fortune he’s experienced since the pandemic hit in March. Before that, Ford was mired in an awful slump, fighting media, municipalities, and magistrates at every turn, not to mention having to defend the appalling judgment of his former chief of staff, who made some questionable patronage appointments. Now, however, that same Angus Reid survey shows that fully 66 per cent of Ontarians approve of the job he’s doing. That’s no doubt prompted his advisers to consider whether there’d be any merit to calling an early election, rather than waiting until June 2, 2022 — the date the election is currently scheduled to happen.

It was former premier Dalton McGuinty’s government that passed the so-called fixed-election-date law, taking away that once crucial, discretionary power of premiers to call elections when it suited them, and instead permanently fixing the election date for every four years. (Of course, this applies only during majority parliaments; in a minority parliament, you govern for as long as the opposition will let you — or until you decide to pull the plug yourself.)

Some of Ford’s more hawkish advisers have likely urged him to pass an amendment to the fixed-election-date law, making the following argument:

“Premier, you’re popular right now. I know you saw the Angus Reid poll that came out Friday showing our party at 45 per cent support, the NDP at only 28 per cent, the Liberals at 22 per cent, and the Greens at 4 per cent. Those numbers are awesome. If they were to hold up, it’d be a guaranteed majority government, even bigger than what we have right now. Ontarians have given you the benefit of the doubt during this pandemic. And you’ve led well. But voters are a fickle bunch, Premier, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be this popular two years from now, when the law says it’s time for an election. Pull the plug now, and exploit your unusually high ratings. The public will never elect the NDP again, and the Liberals have an unknown leader heading a party badly in debt and with virtually no organization at all in half the province’s ridings. Some people may grumble at the early call at first, but we urge you to smile your way to a second consecutive majority, which is yours for the taking.”

Of course, Ford also almost certainly has advisers telling him he’d be nuts to listen to those other guys. That conversation probably goes something like this:

“Premier, you’ve got a majority government. The public trusts you because they think you’ve put their interests first, not yours. If you call an election now, they will see that gambit for what it is: an attempt to exploit your popularity for your gain, not theirs. What exactly is the compelling need for an election? You already have a majority government. You’ve already told everyone you won’t campaign in the next federal election, because you’re too busy fighting the pandemic. How could you argue that you’re on COVID-19 24/7 but have suddenly managed to find five weeks to play politics as we head into a possible second season of the pandemic? Premier, it ain’t gonna fly. Keep your head down, do your job, and you’ll be rewarded when the time is right. That time is not now.”

Ford has been asked numerous times by reporters whether he’s considering going to the polls early, and every time (so far), he’s insisted that he hasn’t thought about this at all and that he’ll serve the entire four-year term before seeking a new mandate. He hasn’t left any wiggle room in his answers, either — no Bill Davis-like “I have no plans to call an election” stuff. But, of course, things can change.

The other Canadian first minister who actually is giving this a lot of consideration is, of course, Justin Trudeau. The prime minister insists he won’t put any poison pills in this Wednesday’s speech from the throne. But the buzz out of Ottawa is that the PM wouldn’t be distressed if the opposition were to express no confidence in his government and send everyone back out onto the hustings, even though the last election was less than a year ago. Trudeau’s numbers, despite several recent scandals and other travails, have actually been slightly more buoyant than those he won with last October, leading some Liberals (including David Herle, on his popular podcast The Herle Burly) to conclude that now would be the best time to renew the mandate and that waiting wouldn’t make things any better.

History doesn’t necessarily help us determine the best course of action here. The example political scientists love to cite is former premier David Peterson’s early election call in 1990, which came less than three years into his majority mandate. Peterson wanted to exploit the fact that the PC Party had only just chosen its new leader (Mike Harris); further, he wanted to go to the polls before a looming recession began to bite hard. Strategically, it made sense, but it didn’t work out. Bob Rae’s NDP shocked the province by winning a majority government.

However, seven years later, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called an early election after just three years, and the voters rewarded him with 11 more seats and two more percentage points in the total vote.

But then there’s the case of former Ontario premier Ernie Eves. By March 2002, he’d successfully rebranded the PC Party, transforming it from something too many Ontarians were angry with into a kinder, gentler option. His numbers were good, but, perhaps fearing the Peterson precedent, Eves opted against making a snap election call. Turns out, the longer he was in, the more bad stuff happened and the more disenchanted voters became. By the time Eves had called the election for October 2003, people were ready for a change and made Dalton McGuinty premier. Ask Eves about it today, and he’ll tell you he should have pulled the plug earlier.

So, in other words, every situation is different. At the end of the day, first ministers roll the dice and take their chances. They are celebrated for their brilliance if it works — and wear the defeat if it doesn’t.

That’s politics.

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