Here we go again. After a winter that was mercifully free of speculation about voting dates, Parliament, the government and the country have resumed the guessing and rumor-spreading of last spring and fall about when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau will call the election. Many political observers, including some members of Trudeau’s office, bet he would call it last week for May 7, and lost. It’s a game that will continue from now until the election is finally declared because Trudeau does not plan to close any of his options by permitting the nation to know in advance.
Indeed, at a press conference last week Trudeau refused even to rule out the possibility of a vote after July 8, the fifth anniversary of his last win and the date most Canadians assume is his deadline.
In fact, the British North America Act says only that the House of Commons must be dissolved “five years from the day of the return of the writs” from the last general election.* That day is July 31. Trudeau could conceivably wait until then before setting the voting day as far off as June, 1980.
While the law requires election campaigns to be a minimum of 54 days, there is no maximum length. The only restriction is that Parliament must sit at least once every 12 months.
But after teasing reporters with that possibility and feeding^ public paranoia, Trudeau con-1 ceded it would be difficult for him 5 to delay the vote beyond mid-June ~ of this year. Said he: “If I go beyond that, I rather think I will have to worry about the political consequences.” For Trudeau, the only real choice is between May and June, and his advisers are split over which would be the better month. The hawks, primarily Quebeckers but also said to include Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s chief of staff, believe the Liberals have regained momentum after a disastrous 1978 and the election should be called now for May. The doves, mostly from Ontario and said to be led by Senator Keith Davey, the Liberal
*The constitutional requirement that the House of Commons must be dissolved every five years can be waived by a two-thirds vote of the House “in time of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection. ” That was done during the First World War.
campaign chief, prefer to wait until late May at the earliest. They are worried because the polls show the Liberals still trailing the Conservatives in Ontario in general and Toronto in particular.
Last week’s Gallup poll showed the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since last September but by just one percentage point, 39 per cent to 38 per cent. Worse, for the Liberals, it
showed the Conservatives were still in front in every region but Quebec, likely meaning a Tory minority government unless the voters change their minds.
The Liberals got a jolt the day the poll was released when Ralph Stewart, a maverick Liberal MP from Northern Ontario, crossed the floor of the Commons to join the Conservatives. Stewart’s surprising move—he had been expected to accept a government appointment to the Canadian transport commission—was prompted in part by the disappearance of his riding in the redistributed electoral map. But Stewart told the Commons he was also motivated by the government’s “drift to the left,” an explanation that prompted laughter from the NDP and some back-
bench Liberals who are concerned that the government has become too rightwing.
But it is not Stewart who is bothering the government these days as much as it is two issues the Conservatives are threatening to ride right into power: the deductibility of mortgage interest payments; and inflation. The Conservatives first promised mortgage deductibility last fall in the byelection campaigns, with great success, and continue to attract voters with the policy. Finance Minister Jean Chrétien is receiving considerable pressure from his own party to adopt a similar program and undercut the Tories, but he is resisting on the ground that mortgage deductibility is socially inequitable and economically perverse. The Conservatives are also scoring political points in the House of Commons by attacking the government for doing nothing about inflation without ever actually proposing their own policy. They don’t have to. Their polls show the public already believes they can handle the problem better.
With all the electoral tension, the atmosphere in the Commons is becoming increasingly fractious. But paradoxically, the House is starting to process legislation at a faster rate because nobody wants to be accused of holding up something important when a vote is so near. Thus, last week, the House finished clauseby-clause study of new legislation that is vital to municipal housing programs and approved in principle the long-delayed conflict-of-interest bill. In the next week or two, it is expected to approve the energy-rationing bill and legislation giving the government authority to hold a referendum to counter the planned vote on sovereignty-association in Quebec. Trudeau wanted these and other bills to be passed before Parliament is dissolved. But the progress of legislation through the House will not be the signal for an election. Nor will the release date for inflation figures embarrassing to the government, nor the planned visit to Canada of Prince Charles (April 1-7). Trudeau will call the election when he thinks he can win it—no sooner and no later.
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