by Andrew Coyne
The election that Jean Chrétien will soon call will put an end to one of the
shortest and least productive Parliaments in Canadian history, little more than
three years after it was first assembled. In fact, my research shows that no
Prime Minister in possession of a safe majority has ever dissolved the House
this far short of a full term, with the sole exception of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1911.
That was the famous Reciprocity election, in which the public was asked to
pronounce on perhaps the single most important national question in our history:
whether to enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. The treaty
had excited enormous controversy in the country; Parliament was in an uproar;
prominent members of his own caucus had turned against it. There was nothing
for it but to go to the people.
What similar excuse does Mr. Chrétien have? What great issue of national
import is there to be decided? What bold new initiatives does he plan, which
would properly require him to seek a mandate from the people? Is Parliament
unable to proceed? Is there any doubt whether Mr. Chrétien commands the
confidence of the House? What, then, impels him to call an election in such
haste? Just to show he can?
At times, the Prime Minister has seemed to suggest as much, tossing flip
remarks to the effect that on a Tuesday he feels like calling an election, and on a
Wednesday he changes his mind, as if engaging the machinery of democracy in
the task of choosing a government were so trifling a question as to be decided
on a passing whim.
But of course it isn't. His decision is the result of the most exquisite series of
calculations, with no other interest in mind but the electoral advantage of the
Liberal Party of Canada, and of the Prime Minister in particular. Is the economic
boom likely to last, or will it have tailed off by the spring? Is it best to tackle the
Opposition while its leader is still green, or give him time to prove himself, for
good or ill? Will the Auditor-General's report on the Transitional Jobs Fund and
other fiascos do more damage in the short run or the long?