How PMs kept us guessing before fixed election dates

A lot remains unknown as an election nears, but one thing that’s certain is the date: Oct. 21, 2019.

But it wasn’t always so.

Until legislation was passed to fix election dates, the timing of an election rested solely in the hands of the party in power.  

Here are nine times when a prime minister kept everyone waiting for an election call — or when the Opposition strongly suggested the time had come. 

1978: Everyone was ready but the PM

Everyone expected there would be an election called, except Pierre Trudeau. 1:58  

In May 1978, almost four years since the previous federal vote, everyone was certain an election was imminent. But it wasn’t.

The CBC had designed flashy TV graphics heralding Election ’78, and in a special broadcast, the CBC’s Peter Kent said Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s decision against an election had “upset hundreds of Canadians who disrupted their lives for the election that never was.”

“There’s no election!” said Trudeau, as cameras followed his every step, and reporter Tom Leach noted the party was hoping conditions might improve by the fall.

“The PM gave no hint he’d made the decision because he’d been told the Liberals would lose an election now,” said Leach.

1979: ‘Slush and ice’ not nice

The time might seem right for an election, but Pierre Trudeau isn’t interested in a cold-weather campaign in 1979. 3:24

The fall of 1978 came and went, and the drumbeat for an election grew ever louder in the new year. And by the end of January, both the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservatives were ready for an election call. But it wasn’t their call to make.

“The prime minister says he isn’t ready for one just now, especially not in the slush and ice,” said Knowlton Nash on The National on Jan. 31, 1979. 

A number of Liberals candidates had come to Ottawa and were expecting news “in light of recent Tory difficulties,” said reporter Mark Phillips.

Announcement or not, the Liberals that assembled took the opportunity to talk strategy, anticipating the election that came less than four months later

Winter conditions in Canada weren’t especially relevant to election timing anyway, said Phillips.  

“The slush and ice leaves Victoria a lot earlier than it leaves Ottawa, for example,” he said.

1984: Considering the Queen 

The new leader of the Liberals has to consider scheduled visits by both the Queen and the Pope when deciding when to call an election in 1984. 2:41

John Turner barely had time to enjoy his victory as the brand-new Liberal leader before speculation began about when he’d call an election.

He was a prime minister without a seat in the House of Commons, and while a byelection was an option to address that, a general election would have to follow soon after because the Liberals’ mandate would run out by spring.

That meant one thing, said reporter Terry Milewski on The National.

“In practice, they have to go to the polls this year and the calendar does not make that easy,” he said.

The Queen was scheduled to visit Canada in July of 1984 — and that presented a problem, because she wasn’t about to tour the country while an election was on. Her tour would have to be scrapped.

“If it is, Canadians could vote on August 27 or September 4,” said Milewski.

1987: A mandate for free trade

Tories are discussing whether the time has come to call an election in 1987. 2:23

By October 1987, it had been three years since the Progressive Conservatives had taken office and they had reached an agreement for free trade with the United States.

In national newspaper ads and in the House of Commons, the NDP under Ed Broadbent was goading Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to hold an election and go to the people of Canada to seek a mandate on the contentious deal.

“I can assure my honourable friend when I do, you’ll wish I hadn’t,” responded Mulroney in the House.

1991: A dare for national unity

The Liberals say there needs to be an election to get a mandate ahead of constitutional negotiations with Quebec. 2:16

Election talk was in the air when the PCs still had two years left in their mandate, in February 1991 — and this time, new Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien was doing the talking.

The Liberal caucus believed a second referendum on Quebec separation could be coming as soon as the following year.

“I think that they should have an election before so that when comes the crunch, the prime minister of Canada will have a mandate from the nation, from sea to sea to sea,” he said. “I urge him to look in the mirror and do what is right for the nation.”

But the Tories were unpersuaded.

“Not only did Mulroney dismiss the need for an early election,” said reporter Keith Boag. “He also brushed aside suggestions he might seek a new mandate for certain constitutional changes through a referendum.”

An election didn’t happen, but the referendum on constitutional changes did, in October 1992.  

1993: Campaigning outside an election

The guessing game goes on for when an election will happen under a new Tory leader in 1993. 2:46

In August of 1993, Kim Campbell found herself where John Turner had been nine years earlier: she was the new leader of an unpopular party that was running out of time.

According to reporter Joe Schlesinger, Campbell had spent the summer in campaign mode despite being the only person who knew when an election might happen.

And the Tories who gathered on Parliament Hill were optimistic that when the call came, it would have positive results. 

“I’ll tell you, it smells real good out there,” said Solicitor General Doug Lewis. “People are very receptive to the prime minister and what she’s saying.”

1997: Election-style ads on TV, but no election … yet

No election has been called in 1997, but both the Liberals and PCs are already getting out a familiar message. 2:53

“The Liberals are calling these pictures a ‘public awareness campaign,'” said reporter Neil Macdonald on The National in April 1997. “Instead of ‘election ads.'” 

The parties weren’t battling in any ridings yet in 1997, but they were already duking it out on television. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hadn’t even called an election, but everyone carried on as if it was imminent.

The Liberals were airing French-language ads in Quebec only, and Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest was “chasing votes in Ontario” with TV ads.

In B.C. as well as Ontario, the Reform Party was doing the same, as was the NDP in “areas where the party thinks it’s strong: Nova Scotia, the Prairies, and the West Coast.” 

“Once the official campaign starts, probably in a couple of weeks … it will be much shorter than in the past,” said Macdonald. “And all the parties know that television advertising is the single most effective means of communication that they have.” 

2000: Keeping ’em guessing

The government is in a hurry to pass laws in advance of an anticipated election call. 2:25

In the fall of 2000, The National‘s Saša Petricic was trying to glean information through the opening and closing of doors on a Liberal caucus session.

But a glimpse of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien talking, and his audience applauding, gave the reporter precious little to go on.

“We all know that we have an option to call an election in the fall,” Chrétien told reporters after the meeting. “And I explain to you that the other option is in April.”

But Petricic saw the government’s hasty moves to pass legislation, or make a fall mini-budget, as clues that something was coming sooner rather than later.  

2004: The last election on demand?

In 2004, Paul Martin may be the last prime minister to decide when an election happens. 1:58

In May 2004, it looked as if Canada might be about to vote in the last election whose date was determined solely by the prime minister. 

Paul Martin, who had taken over the Liberal leadership from Jean Chrétien six months earlier, was expected to call an election any day.

On the Opposition side, the Conservatives had made clear a month earlier their intention to change legislation regarding election dates once they achieved power.

“Here in Parliament, we continue to struggle with a flawed election process,” said Conservative MP John Reynolds. “If [Martin] doesn’t bring in fixed election dates, the first item of business … when [Stephen Harper] is prime minister will be a set election date.”

And that’s exactly what happened, in May 2006, when Harper was leading a minority government.  

“Fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage,” said Harper, when announcing his intention to change the system.

That legislation received royal assent the following year.

In 2005, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces his intention to fix Canadian federal election dates starting in 2009. 1:22

Canada wouldn’t actually see an election arrive on its fixed date until 2015.

That’s because the Conservatives’ back-to-back minority governments had not lasted a full term before an election was called in both 2008 and 2011.

The Tories won a majority government in 2011. Four years later, the first fixed-date election finally arrived, and the Liberals won it.

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