Despite what a prime minister or other politicians will say, calling an election is about one thing and one thing only: winning.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to send Canadians to the polls on Sept. 20 is happening because he and his team perceive a political advantage that they want to press. Just like other prime ministers before him.
A snap election call has a dubious history in this country and among the common threads in the story is timing and tenuous justification. And campaigns do matter. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau is adept on the hustings, but his justification for this election is wispy at best. The prime minister has been telegraphing that one of his grounds for the upcoming vote is a “dysfunctional” Parliament– the same reasoning used by– wait for it– Stephen Harper in 2008.
That was the last time we had a snap election– one called by a government much earlier than required. That 2008 call also broke Harper’s own fixed-date election law, passed a year earlier. At the time, as prime minister, he said, “fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage. They level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody.”
The breach of the law in 2008 prompted the advocacy group, Democracy Watch, to challenge the election call in Federal Court, but a judge dismissed their case. “The remedy for the applicant’s contention is not for the Federal Court to decide, but rather one of the count of the ballot box,” said Judge Michel M.J. Shore in his decision.
While there will never be any true parallels to an election called during a worldwide pandemic, the snap election of 1965 by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson offers some interesting contemplation for today both in terms of the motivation for its call and its results.
Pearson ended John Diefenbaker’s time at 24 Sussex Drive by winning a minority government in the 1963 election. Just over two years later, the Liberal brain trust started strategizing to turn this minority into the coveted majority.
Pearson made his decision to go to the polls after a meeting at the prime minister’s Harrington Lake country retreat and much like Trudeau’s call Sunday “the election announcement was greeted with a national yawn,” according to legendary political chronicler Peter C. Newman. But why the vote?
“Asked by a Toronto Telegram reporter why he had called the election,” Newman recounts in his 1968 book The Distemper of Our Times, “Pearson replied: “I have my reasons. And my reasons are very good.”
The arrogance of the Liberal Party — the long-held notion that they are the country’s “natural governing party”– has always been its own worst enemy and a snap election with little justification left the prime minister and his party vulnerable. Pearson, never the strongest campaigner, was unable to win a majority. Diefenbaker barnstormed the country. Pearson made the mistake of pleading too hard for a stable majority.
“The Liberals talk about a stable government, but we don’t know how bad the stable is going to smell,” quipped NDP leader Tommy Douglas.
The 1965 election changed little and resulted in the smallest seat turnover in Canadian history. “None of the party leaders had managed to mobilize the consent of a bewildered electorate,” wrote Newman. The Liberals increased their seat count by just two, the Progressive Conservatives by seven and the NDP three. Will history repeat itself in 2021?
There are snap election success stories, however. One involves those erstwhile protagonists — Pearson and Diefenbaker — once more. This time, the year is 1958.
A year earlier, PC leader John Diefenbaker ended 22 years of consecutive rule by the Liberals when he won a minority government against Louis St. Laurent. Pearson subsequently became the new leader of the Grits and quickly fumbled the ball by moving a motion that the Liberals should replace the Conservatives as the government.
Diefenbaker seized on the timely blunder and asked the Governor General for an election call just nine months after the last one. There was no real justification except the usual pursuit of power. Vincent Massey granted the request and The Chief rolled on to the largest majority government in the history of Canada, winning 208 of 265 seats in the House of Commons.
Even then-U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon was impressed by the feat: “There is no question but that history will record that you are one of the truly great campaigners of our time,” he wrote to the prime minister.
How this electoral gamble turns out for Justin Trudeau is for Canadian voters to decide, but history shows it is a challenge to turn minority silver into majority gold when making early election calls.
“In this life, you don’t always get your preferences,” Pearson lamented after the 1965 campaign.
Into this election, with a virus still lurking prominently, an electorate unsettled but still trying to enjoy summer, the dice have been thrown.
J.D.M. Stewart has been teaching Canadian history for 27 years and is the author of the acclaimed book “Being Prime Minister.”