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For Whom the Polls TollFor Whom the Polls Toll

For Whom the Polls Toll

Fixated as Canadians are on soundings of popular opinion that foretell who will govern us next, Don Hutchinson writes, the only poll that counts is in the booth where we mark our ballots on Election Day.

Don Hutchinson
7 minute read

Polling doesn’t have the sex appeal of commercials about beer, pickup trucks or electric cars, but it does attract the attention of millions of Canadians. Whether pick-one-from-this-list junk polling on television, radio and social media, or more extensive tell-us-why-you-picked-that-one surveys, we Canadians seem fascinated with selecting a preference from someone else’s opinions or ideas. And the pollsters/politicians know it.

Since 2015, the Trudeau Government has spent more money per year crafting and conducting polling than any government in Canada’s history, tripling the previous high. Is the government checking the pulse of the nation, or grooming it? This month, the Privy Council Office that supports the Prime Minister’s initiatives was advertising for a “Storyteller and Team Lead” tasked to better configure messaging for Prime Minister Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Freeland at $96,000 a year. Bilingualism is preferred.

When the scent of an election is in the air, Canadians, and the media we consume, are almost as fascinated by the work of Abacus and Angus Reid as are politicians and political pundits.

Polling booth, however, is a term we hear less often than we once did during Canadian elections. The historic British term, exported across the North Atlantic to designate the private space in which citizens mark our ballots, has largely been replaced on the nightly news by the American descriptive voting booth and by Elections Canada with voting screen, describing the cardboard cut-out that now designates a polling booth. Whether the cardboard booth carries historic British nomenclature or evidences the increasing influence of our cross-border neighbour on Canadian elections, it will be found at a polling station, where address and identification are verified, and the polling station in turn located within a polling place, the building utilised for voting.

Regardless of the historic concept of counting heads and marking ballots at electoral polls, most 21st century Canadians’ attention to polling and the conversation about it is set more in the context of electoral predictions than electoral participation.

Decisions about when we go to the polls, and even what a political party’s policy proposals and expressed opinions will be, are often made based on attempts to predict results through polling.

Notwithstanding polling and predictions, it has long been said the only poll that counts is the one held on Election Day. The polling booth remains central to Election Day in Canada’s Westminster-style parliamentary tradition. It is an important part in the foundation of our democracy.

Who shows up to cast a ballot remains the final word on which school trustee, mayor, premier or prime minister will represent us, affecting elements of our present and future, sometimes irreversibly.

The Westminster system of democratic governance recognizes three key components: the executive, the legislature, and an independent judiciary. We elect our legislators, from whom the executive is formed, and the executive appoints our judiciary.

Nearing the end of a U.S. presidential election, and the proposed appointment of a justice to the Supreme Court of the United States, some will be thinking these three components resemble the American form of government. They do! For a reason.

Did you know that the congressional officers responsible for advising the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the presiding officer (speaker) of the U.S. Senate on proper procedure have the job title of Parliamentarian? A parliament by any other name….The British history that is foundational to the operation of Canada’s legislatures also informs government process in our southern neighbour’s assemblies. Some U.S. differences from the U.K. Parliament at Westminster have also influenced adjustments in Canada’s parliamentary system, including the timing of our elections.

In the Westminster tradition, a parliament is established and replaced by election, which takes place within five years of the previous election. Without this convention, a party with a majority of seats in the Westminster House of Commons might govern indefinitely.

The preamble to Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 states that Canada has a “Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” incorporating this and many other parliamentary conventions.

Although one would think the preamble sufficient to incorporate the election conventions of the “Mother Parliament,” each of the four original provinces had different perspectives on their own legislative assemblies. As a result, the life of a Canadian Parliament was specified in section 50 of the Constitution Act, 1867:

Every House of Commons shall continue for Five Years from the Day of the Return of the Writs for choosing the House (subject to be sooner dissolved by the Governor General), and no longer.

Federal, provincial and territorial elections early settled into a rhythm of roughly four years for majority governments. Minority governments broke from the pattern, subject to election at any time if defeated by the opposition on a vote of confidence or if the governing party determined itself unable to proceed with its policies.

In the last half century, Canada’s rhythmic four year election cycles encountered two realities; one disrupted electoral predictability, and the other pushed for constancy.

First, election dates were often based on speculation about successful re-election of the governing party or identification of a policy issue significant enough to the Canadian (or provincial or territorial) electorate to advantage the governing party’s likelihood of re-election. As prediction quality of polling methodologies for assessing party policy and popularity improved, pollsters started playing a bigger role in the decision to draw up the writs. Election speculation and dates became less rhythmically predictable as the governing party sought, through polling, to find key issues and the right season in the three-and-a-half to five years window that would be best suited to its success.

Second, the United States has fixed election dates every four years – the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, this year November 3 – which is based on fixed terms of elected office established in the twentieth amendment to the U.S. constitution. Every four years media coverage of the election or re-election of a president dominates U.S. and Canadian media.

In a 1969 speech to the Washington Press Club, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of our current prime minister, described the relationship between Canada and the United States with the following memorable analogy: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Irregularity in Canadian electoral rhythms and regularity of the American rhythm created an appetite for fixed election dates north of the 49th parallel.

In Canada’s 39th Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government introduced legislation to establish a fixed election date for federal elections, the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the previous election. Before becoming law in 2007, the Liberal majority in the Senate amended the legislation to list conditions under which the fixed date could be altered.

After two-and-a-half years of minority government, Harper called an election in 2008. His failure to adhere to the fixed-date law was challenged in court. In the 2009 decision in Conacher v. Canada (Prime Minister), the Federal Court affirmed that, in accord with constitutional convention, the Prime Minister could still seek the Governor General’s approval for an election at any time. Appeals of the decision to the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada were dismissed.

That said, the fixed-date law does produce pressure not to call an election simply for political advantage, diminishing but not negating the tracking of predictive polls before heading to the electoral polls.

Most provinces and territories have enacted fixed-date election laws.

Polling data over the last few months showed significant support for the prime minister and premiers based on response to the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic. This generated much speculation about early elections in several jurisdictions – and even a threat from the prime minister to go to the polls if the Conservatives pushed through a motion to investigate alleged government corruption.

The minority New Brunswick government of Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs secured a majority on September 14, more than two years before the provincial fixed date. Voter turnout was almost identical to 2018, with Covid-19 protocols resulting in no new infections as a result of voting.

A week later, on September 21, British Columbia Premier John Horgan called a snap election, seeking a new mandate for his NDP minority government. Within days, the Covid count started to climb. Still Horgan won his majority on October 24 in an election held a year earlier than BC’s fixed date.

At the federal level, there is much conjecture as to whether Trudeau will eventually follow through with his threat an end Opposition cries of “corruption” by calling an election well before the 2023 fixed date. Doing so would push the opposition parties to either align with policies they find distasteful or to defeat his government on a confidence vote, forcing an election. To maintain polling popularity, however, Trudeau first had pandemic promises to keep. Even before the vote on the recent Speech from the Throne, the government has already negotiated another emergency financial support bill through Parliament, with support of the NDP. The New Democrats claimed victory for a key policy initiative. The Liberals claimed the same victory. It was their legislation.

Whether by lost confidence vote in Parliament or because of seemingly irresistible polling numbers, if Canadians find ourselves soon visiting polling booths, the current Trudeau government may fall short timewise of the average eighteen month lifespan for a federal minority government, which coincidentally was the duration of his father’s second electoral victory, a minority government that followed a four-year majority. In the ensuing election his government’s majority was restored.

Will the next federal election take place on or before the fixed date of October 16, 2023? Might history repeat with a Trudeau majority following a Trudeau minority that followed a Trudeau majority? The former question is stimulating much polling. The latter will depend on what happens when next Canadians mark our ballots in polling booths. That, after all, is the poll that counts.

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