It’s time for Yukon to adopt fixed election dates

Barring an alien invasion or some other kind of apocalyptic scenario, we know the next Yukon election is only a matter of months away.

Barring an alien invasion or some other kind of apocalyptic scenario, we know the next Yukon election is only a matter of months away. Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski has decided to max out his five-year mandate – the second time in a row that the incumbent Yukon Party has decided to govern for as long as the Yukon Act permits it to do so.

At this point, it almost feels like we have a fixed election date. Maybe not in the sense that we know the exact date on which we will go to the polls—the premier still has the discretion to pick a day. But his ability to call a snap election to take advantage of an ill-prepared opposition – as Jean Chretien did in 2000 to take advantage of newly anointed Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s lack of experience – is gone. As is the premier’s option to hold off any further in hopes that his political fortunes start to look up – perhaps until after the announcement of some positive news in the mining sector, or to see if the Supreme Court of Canada hands him some sort of qualified victory on the Peel.

For me at least, the certainty feels good. The ability of an incumbent politician to choose the timing of our next trip to the polls has always struck me as an odd feature of our system of government. Governing already provides one with a number of perks and advantages over opponents. So why should our leaders also get to decide the timing of our next trip to the polls?

Fixed election dates are a relatively minor and easy tweak to our electoral system. Our last federal election date was “fixed” and we knew when it was going to be years in advance.

Critics of fixed election dates argue that they are undesirable because they extend the period of time that politicians spend posturing and give a sense that we are perpetually in campaign mode. And there is some evidence that suggests this is true.

But does that potential downside justify maintaining a system where only one party knows if it ought to be in campaign mode while the others are caught flat-footed when the governing party pulls the trigger? I would say no.

Besides, an extended campaign period gives a greater amount of time to roll out new ideas so they can be evaluated and debated. During the last federal election, for example, each party rolled out its own childcare plan over the course of a year in the lead-up to the election, which left lots of time for extensive analysis instead of the usual hasty debate we are accustomed to.

It is actually somewhat disappointing to me that we haven’t seen anything similar in the Yukon. Neither of the Yukon’s two opposition parties have taken advantage of the long lead-up to the next election to define themselves policy-wise. All they have really told us at this point is that they are not the Yukon Party – which is probably enough for some voters.

Critics also argue that our Westminster system of government – which requires that the leader and cabinet maintain the “confidence” of the legislature – does not really jive with regularly scheduled trips to the polls. A minority parliament could bring down the incumbent government early and – while we don’t have much precedent for it in this country – even the governing party’s own members could revolt against its leader.

But perfection ought not be the standard. The fact that such scenarios can happen should not preclude a general rule that elections cannot be triggered by the leader of the majority party except at prescribed intervals.

Politically, I can’t really blame Pasloski for waiting until the bitter end to pull the trigger on an election. The political winds are, at best, uncertain and he was likely hoping that events would transpire to increase his party’s chances of victory. If I was a betting man I would still put my money on the Yukon Party winning this fall. But it would be one of those gambling moments where you hesitantly move your chips into position with a twinge of instant remorse. How this all shakes out is anyone’s bet.

But really, we shouldn’t be here. That we know the timing of the next election at all is simply because the government has opted to run out the clock. Democracy belongs to voters, and the timing of elections should not be manipulated to serve the political whims of the prevailing leadership. The next legislative assembly, regardless of which party forms government, should introduce a fixed election law to bring certainty and fairness to the process.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.