The provincial election campaign is beginning in earnest, and now is the time for all the parties to campaign on a proposal that just about everyone can get behind: moving the date of our fixed elections.
The province has just gone through the effort and expense of creating a budget that will not be passed before the voters head to the polls on May 14. All that work produces, in effect, an election document that will most likely be heavily rewritten or scrapped after the voters have spoken.
Moving the election date to the fall — October is a good choice — is a simple way to make sure election-year budgets count for something.
When the B.C. Liberals introduced the fixed-election law after their victory in 2001, they set the date for May.
It was no secret that it was unfortunate timing, but once the train was in motion, there was never a good time to make a change.
Regardless of which party wins the election, this is the year finally to bite the bullet.
The province’s fiscal year ends on March 31, and that’s not going to change. The fiscal year determines when the budget has to be introduced, and the fixed election date determines how much time is then available to debate the budget. The legislature has only 10 working days before it breaks for the election — barely enough time to push through the current pile of bills, never mind finishing debate on the budget.
This close to an election, the budget receives even less sober consideration than normal because MLAs will be using it for electioneering. Debates in the house sound more like duelling stump speeches.
It doesn’t even make a very good campaign weapon, because the final numbers for the fiscal year just ended are not complete. The auditor general doesn’t sign off on last year’s books until July.
If we move the election to the fall, the numbers for the last fiscal year and the first quarter of the new one will be finalized. Everyone will have some hard facts to use in trumpeting the government or taking it down a peg.
It might have the unintended benefit of effectively giving us a shorter campaign. With fixed election dates, campaigns get underway months before the date. In July and August, voters tend to tune out politics, so there’s an incentive for parties to cram their campaigning into September and October, instead of dragging it out for the four months before voting day.
One wrinkle would be the occasional year when the four-year provincial election coincides with the three-year municipal elections. This could be avoided by taking up the recurring suggestions to hold municipal elections every four years, starting in a different year.
Both major parties have been rumbling about changing the provincial-election date. In comments to reporters, New Democrat house leader John Horgan and B.C. Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong have said the suggestion makes sense. The Liberals didn’t do it in 2005 or 2009 because it would have appeared they were trying to fix the elections in their favour.
A new government that makes the change could be accused of similar shady motives, trying to extend its first mandate by an extra five months. However, if both parties campaign on a promise to fix this problem, no one can score points later, no matter who wins the election.
Few things in politics are this easy to set right. If the parties are willing to sign on, the voters should give them the chance to do it this year.
© Copyright 2013