2021's electoral calendar looks light — but it could get much busier

·7 min read

Judging by what's scheduled for 2021, the coming year is setting up to be relatively quiet on the Canadian election front.

It's what isn't scheduled that could make it a lot more hectic.

The federal government and most provinces have fixed election date laws in place that schedule new elections every four years. The laws, however, have little more legal weight behind them than a strongly-worded recommendation.

If a minority government falls — or if a majority government feels like it — elections can take place well before the date circled on the electoral calendar.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province scheduled to hold an election in the coming year. The government in Nova Scotia is approaching the end of its normal life span of four years, but it is the only province without a fixed election date law on the books. It doesn't have to go until 2022.

So it's possible that Canadians in only one province will be called to cast ballots in 2021 — after three provinces went to the polls in 2020 and four held elections in 2019, in addition to the federal election held that year.

It's also possible that every Canadian will have the chance to exercise their franchise before the year is up — and perhaps more than once.

Polls favour Liberals in East Coast elections

Newfoundland and Labrador last held an election in 2019, so normally it wouldn't be going back to the polls until 2023. Unlike other provinces, however, Newfoundland and Labrador has an election law that requires a new election within a year of a new premier being sworn in.

That means Premier Andrew Furey, who took over from Dwight Ball in the summer, is supposed to call another election by Aug. 21.

The provincial Liberals won in a close race in 2019, taking 20 seats against 15 for the Progressive Conservatives and three for the New Democrats. The election of two Independent MHAs meant that Ball had secured only a minority government. He announced his intention to resign last February.

At this point, it looks like Furey will have an easier time seeking a mandate of his own. The latest survey by Narrative Research, a polling firm based in Atlantic Canada, suggested 67 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are satisfied with the government's performance, compared to just 40 per cent in February.

Furey's Liberals also held a 32-point lead over Ches Crosbie's PCs — a far wider margin than Ball's 1.3-point popular vote victory in 2019. Furey was deemed the best choice for premier by 52 per cent of those polled, compared to just 19 per cent for Crosbie.

Paul Daly / Canadian Press
Paul Daly / Canadian Press

The Liberals also appear to be in a strong position in Nova Scotia if the next premier decides to call an election this year instead of waiting until 2022, when the five-year time limit on the current legislature expires.

That decision will have to be made by whoever takes over from Premier Stephen McNeil. The longest-serving sitting premier in the country, McNeil announced his intention to resign in August. His replacement will be named on Feb. 6 and will be one of three current MLAs and former cabinet ministers: Randy Delorey, Labi Kousoulis and Iain Rankin.

Whoever wins will be taking over a party in an enviable position. The most recent Narrative poll put government satisfaction at 73 per cent and gave McNeil's Liberals 49 per cent support. The PCs under Tim Houston and the NDP under Gary Burrill trailed 24 and 28 points behind, respectively.

Yukon, where the Liberals formed a government after winning 11 of 19 seats in the 2016 territorial election, is also due to go to the polls in 2021, as is Nunavut, which has a non-partisan electoral system. Residents in a few big cities like Montreal, Quebec City, Edmonton and Calgary will be voting in municipal elections over the year.

Will popular premiers resist the temptation to go early?

Though premiers in most other provinces might not be hitting the campaign trail soon (virtual or otherwise), they will have things to consider in 2021.

Ontario and Quebec are not scheduled to hold provincial elections until 2022 — but that doesn't mean they can't go earlier. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister demonstrated that as recently as 2019, when he called an election a year ahead of schedule despite having a majority government.

Polls suggest that both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault have high approval ratings. The latest survey from the Angus Reid Institute, conducted at the end of November, found Legault's approval sitting at 64 per cent, while Ford was at 55 per cent.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Two polls conducted in early December by Mainstreet Research and Campaign Research put the Ontario PCs at around 45 to 46 per cent support, compared to just 23 or 24 per cent for the runner-up (the New Democrats were second in one survey, the Liberals in the other).

Polling in Quebec has generally given Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec a wide lead over the other parties in the National Assembly. The latest survey from Léger suggests the CAQ has 49 per cent support, putting the party 27 points ahead of the second-place Liberals.

Ford and Legault have not indicated they're planning to call early elections; Ford has explicitly ruled it out. But the option remains on the table and a campaign during a post-vaccination high in 2021 might be more appealing than the prospect of an uncertain 2022.

Other premiers have bridges to rebuild

Other premiers, meanwhile, should be glad they have the luxury of time.

The November survey from the Angus Reid Institute suggested two premiers in particular were struggling. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney had 40 per cent approval, while Manitoba's Pallister was even lower, at 32 per cent.

This slide appears to be bleeding into voting intentions as well.

In Alberta, an early-December Research Co. poll put the Alberta New Democrats ahead of Kenney's United Conservatives by a margin of three points. A few other recent surveys show a similarly close race — quite a difference from the UCP's 22-point win in the 2019 provincial election.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

In Manitoba, Winnipeg-based Probe Research found the Manitoba NDP ahead of Pallister's PCs by four points. That marked the first lead for the Manitoba NDP in Probe's polling since 2012, when the New Democrats were still in office. They lost the popular vote in the 2019 provincial election by nearly 16 points.

Both Pallister and Kenney have until 2023 to turn things around. That's lots of time, but the clock is ticking.

Election speculation in Ottawa (as usual)

The clock might be ticking in the nation's capital as well.

Election speculation is a favourite pastime around Parliament Hill these days. When there is a minority government in office, savvy pundits in Ottawa spend their falls and winters speculating about an election in the spring. When it doesn't happen, they spend their springs and summers assuming the call will come in the fall.

Like a stopped clock, eventually they'll be right.

The average lifespan of a minority government in Canada is around 21 months, so in normal circumstances an election in the fall of 2021 might be expected. To reach that point, the Liberals will need to survive confidence votes related to a federal budget in the spring — if they don't pull the plug themselves.

But with the country in the midst of a national vaccination campaign, calling or (in the case of the opposition) forcing an early election would be an extremely risky political gamble.

Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press

It was one thing to call an election when COVID-19 cases were low and the light at the end of the vaccine tunnel wasn't visible, as was the case when New Brunswick and British Columbia went to the polls early in September and October. It's an entirely different matter to call an election while the country is embarking on its most important national endeavour since the Second World War.

Waiting until at least the fall — when the vaccination campaign is supposed to be close to completion — would seem more reasonable. But politics isn't always rational.

Of course, those trying to game out how 2021 will unfold should humble themselves by looking back at forecasts for 2020 when that cursed year started.

But here's one reasonably safe prediction: the Ottawa commentariat will continue to speculate about an impending 2021 federal election until the year is over — or until the prophecies finally come true.