Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rex Murphy's Column on Stephen Harper and Fixed Election Dates

Maintaining a mellow frame of mind since my cottage sojourn, I arose early this morning to get caught up on my Globe and Mail reading, even going so far as to read right wing commentator Rex Murphy’s latest column, which, both to my surprise and delight, I found myself in total agreement with. His topic is the issue upon which I wrote yesterday, Stephen Harper’s apparently impending violation of the fixed election date legislation that he so ardently championed three years ago. I have placed certain parts of the column in bold for emphasis.

Was it all a ‘pious hope' dream?
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 22, 2008 at 6:12 PM EDT
So, we don't have a fixed election date after all. How strange.
I could have sworn it was one of the early, and rare, high-minded initiatives of the Harper government. In what is obviously a false memory, I seem to recall it grew out of the Conservatives' own experience in opposition while under the butterfly-brief tenure of Stockwell Day.

Jean Chr├ętien the Heartless pulled the plug on his own government while Mr. Day's wetsuit was still wet. The poor Tories never had a chance. It wasn't fair. That was the lesson – I thought – that Stephen Harper drew from the occasion. And that such a power, solely in the prime minister's hand, warped and bent the democratic process. Something like what intense fire does to steel.

Did not Mr. Harper himself speak to this very point in May of 2006? I have notes to that effect, with Mr. Harper speaking to reporters in Victoria. He said, according to my delirium, that “fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar … and they level the playing field for all parties.”

Furthermore, according to my obviously fevered jottings, he placed great stress on the justice of his proposed reform: “The only way we can have justice is to have a fixed election date, because an election without a fixed election date is a tremendous advantage for the party in power.”

I remember, too, or rather seem to remember, some of the wisest heads in the Ottawa punditry, at the time and later, wondering why a prime minister as smart, as tactical, as Stephen Harper would voluntarily lay aside one of the greatest partisan weapons in a government leader's hand?

Is it not wonderful how once an idea or a notion takes hold of us – however transparently spurious and unlikely – it builds its own evidence? We cannot shake the delusion, however forcefully we try. I begin to have some appreciation for all those folks who've spotted Elvis recently chatting up Roy Orbison at the local supermarket.
For here we are in the declining days of August, and almost every day I read or hear of Mr. Harper threatening or promising to call an election this fall. And evidently in no doubt of his constitutional or political right to do so. So I guess, and this is a chilling thought, I'm just now emerging from a long and continuous fantasy about a prime minister who promised fixed election dates, set the day, month and year of the next election (Monday, Oct. 19, 2009), and who claimed and secured the moral advantage of reforming one of the most unfair and lopsided practices in Canadian democracy.

Or, he did promise the reform. He did pass the law. He did secure the credit for so doing. And now, well, it's inconvenient. Now the Liberals won't call the election when he wants them to. Or, now that he's decided that Parliament is “dysfunctional,” he sees himself as unburdened by the law he passed, the promise he made, and will waltz off to the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament whenever the opportunistic fit is upon him.

Now we hear that, actually, the law he passed changed nothing. I like parliamentary expert Ned Franks's description of that law as meaning “a fixed election date if necessary, but not necessarily a fixed election date,” which the good Queen's professor supplemented with the observation that “it's what in the trade they call a ‘pious hope.' ”

Well, is it too much to remind people that, when the fixed election law was passed, Mr. Harper and his party harvested a goodly store of credibility (election promise kept) and electoral respect (at last, a government “levelling” the field) for the reform? And is it too much to remind people that, at the time, we heard nothing about it being just a “pious hope.”

But, somehow, everyone is now supposed to forget Mr. Harper's seizure of the moral high ground, the wonderful contrast he then provided to the always opportunistic Liberals, to forget the great example of a Prime Minister deliberately tying his own hands on the important matter of when an election is to be called. All that is now “inoperative,” to borrow a word from our American political friends, when statements or actions prove to be a burden to present opportunity. Down the memory hole. It was all a “misspeak.”

I don't think Mr. Harper wants to go into an election this fall in which the highlight will be the nullification of the law he passed to hold one next fall. I don't think he wants to call an election in which the issue is his calling of the election. He chose the fixed date path. And it's a matter of honour that he now follow it. Or at least a genuinely pious

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