Today is Election Day in Manitoba. From all outward appearances, it has been a low-key campaign. A search of North Dakota newspapers failed to turn up any mention that our neighbors would be heading to the polls.
Canadians will vote in a nationwide election within six weeks. The federal campaign has been going on “unofficially” for several months and it has attracted attention south of the border, though not as much as the last Canada-wide election – the one that made Justin Trudeau prime minister. That election took place on Oct. 19, 2015. Manitoba’s last province-wide election was in April 19, 2016. The federal election isn’t a surprise, though the exact date has been uncertain. Trudeau has gotten himself into a scandal, and he might have preferred a later election. Alas for him, however, Canada’s laws limit the government to four years.
This is called a “mandate,” a word that has a somewhat different meaning in U.S. politics. Americans use “administration” or “term” to describe a time in office. On this side of the border the word “mandate” suggests popular support for some kind of action. The current administration claims a “mandate” for a border wall, for example, while the last administration cited a mandate for health care reform.
In the law, of course, “mandate” means that something is required, like mandatory seat belt use or mandatory drug tests.
Politicians on both the federal and provincial levels use the fluid schedule to their own advantage.
In Manitoba, elections are required in the fourth calendar year after a government is elected, but there are special provisions to avoid overlap with a federal campaign. As in other parliamentary systems, elections can occur at other times. A government can “fall,” for example, if it loses support in the representative assembly. This appears to be a possibility in Great Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has run into determined resistance.
While Trudeau’s popularity has suffered, he enjoys a healthy majority in the Canadian House of Commons, so he has let the time run out before calling an election. Under the law, he has the right to set the date; it’s expected to be announced early this week (and might have been by the time this is published). The “unofficial” campaign has been bitter; Trudeau’s opponents clearly sense his vulnerability.
An “official” campaign would be unthinkable in the United States. Canadian candidates aren’t allowed to advertise ahead of an election call. Here, political campaign advertising is likely to occur at any time.
The situation in Manitoba is the opposite. This year’s election is a surprise; it occurs a little more than halfway through the government’s mandate. Brian Pallister, the premier, has a large majority in the legislative assembly, and his election call came not because of the calendar but out of political opportunity. To avoid overlap with the federal campaign, he could have waited until spring 2020, when his mandate expires. Instead he chose an early election, hoping to increase his already large majority, which would allow him to continue – and perhaps accelerate – his agenda. Pallister’s government has brought a significant shift to the right in Manitoba politics; an election victory would entrench that reality.
The official election changes the nature of political discussion, because it allows paid advertising, which has the effect of focusing on individual voters or voter blocs rather than on media reports and loyal supporters. It also constrains what governments can do.
This election call, for example, postponed the government’s delivery on a commitment to North Dakota to match funding for the International Peace Garden. New government funding is prohibited during campaigns lest voters be influenced. The Peace Garden hasn’t been an issue in the Manitoba campaign, though cross boundary issues have often enlivened provincial politics. Previous governments have benefitted from opposition to North Dakota water development projects.
Manitobans don’t vote for vote for province-wide candidates, nor do Canadians vote for national candidates. Instead they vote for candidates in their own constituency (what we would call a “district”). Usually local candidates are affiliated with a provincial or national party. Members of the party that wins the most seats actually choose the premier. Of course, the leaders of the parties are known in advance and they generally speak for the party in election campaigns.
Several parties compete for seats in the single house; the candidate who gets the most votes wins, even if that is short of a majority. The current Manitoba Legislature has representatives of four parties.
Pallister’s Conservative Party seems poised to win. “Polls predict Tory win,” Sunday’s Winnipeg Free Press said. The Winnipeg Sun agreed, but checked with a psychic, who offered reassurance that the polls were right.
The Manitoba system mirrors the Canadian national system – though Canada also has an appointive Senate, the subject of considerable controversy and the object of many demands for reform. In the language of political scientists, Canada’s is a unicameral, multi-party, first-past-the-post parliamentary system (meaning that a plurality of votes wins an election in a constituency).
While this may seem peculiar to those of us accustomed to a two-party, bicameral congressional system, Canada’s example shows that democracy by any name smells just as sweet.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.