A couple of days ago now, Cerberus posted an extremely interesting analysis re. the Conservative amendments to the Canada Elections Act, in which he concluded that these amendments were being pretty shamelessly over-sold to the Canadian public.
Specifically, the amendments are supposed to put Canada on a fixed Federal election schedule, where Federal elections occur every four years and the next one (barring the current minority government falling due to a defeat in Parliament) would be on October 19th, 2009.
What Cerberus did was simply ponder the implications of the first words in the new document:
56.1 (1) Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion.
...and realize how much leeway in the calling of elections is still given to the sitting government.
After some to-ing and fro-ing on the Cerberus comments page, and after reading through the six page list of amendments, I am inclined to agree with C's assessment. FWIW, this is what I draw from the proposed revision to the Elections Act:
1) The revised Act will not let a government that is down in the polls extend its term into a fifth year, a la Mulroney's gang and Bob Rae's hapless Ontario Dippers.
2) The revised act will continue to allow a government up in the polls to pull the plug on a parliamentary section and call a snap election, a la Chretien in 2003.
Now, on this latter point, a number of people at Cerberus argued that once the bill is passed the government in power will be "morally obliged" to serve out a full four years, though the wording of the document still allows them to approach the GG and dissolve parliament. How could Harper pass such a bill and then drop the writ? Wouldn't the electorate punish him under such circumstances? And what kind of GG would go along with his request?
But this is just to say that the obligation belongs to the political context in which the legislation is passed, and is not encoded in the document itself. For one thing, political context can change overnight. Just ask Paul Martin. For another, as time passes the memory of the kind of shenaningans that inspired the passage of the amendments will fade (usually, Chretien and 2000 are invoked here). So succeeding governments will likely come to feel less and less obliged to follow the "spirit" rather than the "letter" of the law.
Is this just a case of there being just half a loaf? Even less than half, actually. A government that unilaterally extends its term into a fifth year is generally doomed. I know of no cases (though there may be a few I'm missing) where the ruling party has rebounded in its fifth year to win re-election.
On the other hand, calling a snap election certainly worked for Chretien...
Now, The Libs don't do themselves any favors by straight-out opposing the current amendments. They just look like part of the "old gang" that wants to do pretty much as it pleases when in power. But they might get out in front of the issue by coming down in favor of something stronger, something that more definitively binds the governments hands, or at least closes the loophole of greatest concern, which is the ability under the new amendments to call a snap election when things are going well.