Last week was a watershed for so many reasons, none of which sadly seem to be any good. We saw the insurrection at the US Capitol and the damage that created to the very principle of democracy, which all by itself would leave many shaken. But we’ve seen that play out in the middle of a global pandemic, one that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and infected over 20 million worldwide. You can imagine the toxic brew that putting those two things together can bring, as a note from the attending physician of the US Congress which said that “people in the safe room during the riots may have been exposed to the coronavirus”. Because of course that happened.
Here at home our numbers are rising fast and primed to get worse, especially here in Ontario where media reports are telling us that we’re facing forecasts “putting the province on track to report an average of 6,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily before the end of January” and “mobility data showing a spike in movement by Ontarians in the days just before Christmas”, which was right before Doug Ford’s Boxing Day lockdown. Remember, that “urgent” lockdown he announced five days priors, yet told everyone they could wait until Boxing Day, ensuring that so many would get together with their families at Christmas.
It was one of the most predictable things that could have happened this year, and yet Ford is quoted saying on Friday that “when you see the modelling, you’ll fall off your chair”, as if none of this was foreseeable. No, my butt is firmly glued to my chair because this awful news was something most people saw coming when he deferred his lockdown. Anyway, needless to say things are bad overall and most likely getting worse. We’re heading for record COVID-19 numbers, record hospitalizations, full lockdowns and curfews and the foundations of democracy in the neighbouring US shaking. And of course what does all that call for in the minds of some in this moment: a snap FEDERAL ELECTION!!!!
Look everyone, if these were normal times, with normal circumstances, the idea of a snap federal election 18 months into a minority government wouldn’t bother me. That would be quite normal frankly, and we would deal with it. We could then talk about the machinations of who caused it, who overreached, who is going to win, lose and all of that. But clearly these are not normal times. That is bloody obvious and the last thing the Canadian people need right now is a six-week national election campaign. We need our political leaders dealing with this worsening crisis, not getting around the country trying to win your vote.
And honestly, given the public health crisis that we are facing, it’s unclear how you would run a general election in all parts of Canada right now. In the places where we saw provincial elections in the Fall, they were in either relatively small jurisdictions, like New Brunswick, or in provinces with large cohorts of densely populated areas, like British Columbia. All of those didn’t involve the travel logistics and such that come with a federal campaign. Also those provinces had legislated provisions in place that allowed them to run the election itself, something that Elections Canada noted later last year. That concern actually led the Liberal government to introduce legislation to deal with that, for whenever a COVID election came:
If you look at Bill C-19, you’ll notice some very logical provisions for helping run a COVID election if it had to happen. Some of the things this bill would do, if passed, would include:
- Extending the Chief Electoral Officer’s power to adapt the provisions of that Act to ensure the health or safety of electors or election officers;
- Authorize a returning officer to constitute polling divisions that consist of a single institution where seniors or persons with a disability reside, or a part of such an institution, and to set the days and hours that a polling station established there will be open;
- Provide for a polling period of three consecutive days consisting of a Saturday, Sunday and Monday;
- Provide for the hours of voting during the polling period;
- Provide for the opening and closing measures at polling stations;
- Set the days for voting at advance polling stations;
In introducing such a bill, it’s clear that the government appears to grasp that running a general election during this pandemic is a serious matter not to be trifled with. If you go to the trouble to introduce a bill that changes the elections act to respond to the unique challenges of a COVID election, you’d think that you’ve recognized that it might not be a good idea to force one. But I’m left to question that because the Bill itself also includes the following section, which speaks to when this bill actually comes into force. It states that Bill C-19 will “come into force on the 90th day after the day on which this Act receives royal assent unless, before that day, the Chief Electoral Officer publishes a notice in the Canada Gazette that the necessary preparations for the bringing into operation of those sections have been made and that they may come into force accordingly, in which case those sections come into force on the day on which the notice is published.”
That’s a long way of saying that unless the government pulls the plug early, this bill and the necessary changes within it won’t come into force until 90 days after it becomes law. This is a bill that hasn’t even had a minute of debate yet and is nowhere close to passing yet. We can assume that that government won’t go to the polls without this being passed because why else would you introduce this? That 90-day provision is important, because why else would you include that here if not to give the people at Elections Canada the chance to make the changes need to run a proper election? If Elections Canada could pull this off at the drop of a hat in the Spring without extra time, there would be no need to include that.
So that leads me to two conclusions when it comes to this talk of a Spring election. First is that if the Liberal government forces a Spring election, it will be too soon because of where we’ll be at with COVID and Elections Canada will likely not be in the best position to ensure that the election would run smoothly. And secondly, If the Liberals are sincere in their recognition of the dangers and legitimate concerns about running a Spring election during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they won’t try to hold an election until the Fall at the earliest. That would still fall within the timelines of this new legislation, allowing Elections Canada the time to get everything in place to ensure that our strong elections procedures remain strong and unquestionable and allow Canadians and our political leaders to focus on what matters most right now; the bloody pandemic.
Sending Canadians to the polls in the Spring would be one of the worst things our elected leaders could do right now. I understand that in a minority Parliament parties always need to be ready in case it happens, having their candidates nominated and raising funds. But that is different than angling for or trying to force an election. Right now, that would be a dereliction of duty and I pray that those who are pushing for it will come to their senses. Or at the very least, that they will think first of the legitimate concerns that their own legislation brings forward. We’ll see what happens but like so many things so far in 2021, I have a bad feeling about this.