The Trouble with Term Limits: The Differences Between Presidents and Parliaments

This past week, Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jim Prentice announced that he would introduce term limits–3 terms for MLAs and 2 terms for Premiers– if he becomes Premier of Alberta. The idea for term limits is not far-fetched; they are common in the United States, and the idea that there should be regular turn-over of MLAs and Premiers has a democratic edge to it. This is especially the case in a province where the same party has governed for over 40 years. Term limits, however, fit awkwardly with Canadian political institutions. Attempting to transplant an idea from the United States like term limits ignores a number of fundamental differences that set parliamentary institutions apart from presidential ones.

The first problem that term limits run into in Canada is that Canadian politicians do not serve clearly defined terms. MLAs are not elected for a defined period, but rather serve until the Lieutenant Governor (on the advice of the Premier) decides to call an election. MLAs can serve anywhere from 1 to 5 years between elections. Even with a number of provinces and the federal government adopting fixed election date legislation, in minority government situations it is common for elections to be called before MLAs have served the maximum amount of time. Not even Premiers are elected to terms, they serve only as long as they retain the support of a majority of MLAs in the legislature. If a Premier loses the support of their party, as recently happened with Alberta’s Allison Redford; decides to retire mid-term; or is defeated by a coalition of opposition parties (such as when David Peterson replaced Bill Davis as Premier of Ontario in 1985) the Premier can change without an election. This raises the question of what counts as a term for an MLA or a Premier. Is serving a year or two in a minority government equivalent to serving a four year period under a majority government? Does serving two years after a Premier has retired, or in a coalition after a Premier has a lost a confidence vote count as part of the previous Premier’s term–or is that a new term in and of itself? The periods that Premiers and MLAs serve are thus far less clear-cut than American Presidential and Congressional terms, which makes the application of term limits messier in Canada than in the United States.

The second problem that arises with the application of term limits in Canada lies in the fusion of the executive and legislative branches of government. In the United States there is a clear separation of the legislative and executive branches; the President or a Governor is not allowed to serve in Congress or a State legislature. By contrast there is an expectation that Canadian premiers, prime ministers, and cabinet ministers will also be MPs or MLAs. As a result, the composition of the legislature dictates the talent available for cabinet posts and for the Premier’s chair itself.  A three term limit would mean replacing every cabinet minister at least every three elections, sometimes with rookie MLAs or MLAs with limited cabinet experience. This would have a significant detrimental impact on the quality of MLAs available to premiers for cabinet. MLAs would be spending less time in legislature learning the ins and outs of legislative and committee work before being appointed to cabinet. They would also have less time to gain experience in junior cabinet posts before working their way up to senior positions. The same would be true for Premiers.  Premiers who work their way through a parties’ ranks, spending a term as a back bench MLA or junior cabinet minister and a term in a senior cabinet position would be limited to only one term as Premier.  Premier’s who choose to build experience in government before taking over would be sacrificing their ability to run for re-election as Premier.  At the federal level, prime ministers including Jean Chretien, Lester Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau all spent time in cabinet positions before becoming Prime Minister. Even Stephen Harper spent four years as an opposition MP and an additional 4 years as leader of the opposition before becoming Prime Minister. A term-limited system would prevent MLAs from building experience before joining cabinet, and prevent the reappointment of qualified ministers to portfolios they have demonstrated success with.

Term limits would further change the way that party discipline functions. Term-limited MLAs would feel even more pressure to advance their careers quickly, and the higher turn-over of cabinet ministers would make that career advancement all the more likely. The need for quicker career advancement would increase the power of party leaders. The threat of being passed over for cabinet–thus preventing career advancement– by a leader could force MLAs to be even more submissive to their party leadership than they already are. Term-limited back-bench MLAs would have less time to learn how the legislature functions and less time to learn how to influence policy through the legislature. They would also have fewer opportunities to introduce private members’ legislation, which takes longer to get on the legislative agenda and pass than legislation introduced by cabinet members. All of this creates weaker back-benchers in a system already criticized for concentrating too much power in cabinet and party leadership.

Finally, term limits would weaken the quality of the opposition in the legislature, a problem that is particularly pronounced in Alberta. Part of this would come through the lack of time term-limited opposition MLAs would have to build experience. The Reform party in 1993 was elected with 51 new MPs and took a substantial amount of time to develop into an effective opposition party. High turn-over of opposition MLAs would mean fewer experienced opposition MLAs who know how to effectively scrutinize government policy and legislation. It would also have a negative impact on the quality of individuals who run for opposition parties. Spending two or three terms in opposition could end one’s hope of ever being part of a governing party or cabinet. Candidates that face term limits will be much more careful about when they choose to run for office, and may not be willing to spend time in opposition with a party that looks like it will lose the next election. Highly qualified individuals would have limited incentive to commit to building up parties that might need a few elections before competing for government. While I am personally no supporter of either the Conservative Party or the Wildrose Alliance, it is probably beneficial that those parties have been able to grow and present challenges to a federally dominant Liberal and a provincially dominant Alberta PC party. A democracy requires strong opposition parties to compete with incumbent governments and to present an alternative to voters. The build up of strong opposition parties increases the degree to which governments are held accountable and provides voters with a stronger set of choices during elections.

Ultimately the ideas behind the term limits in Canada are laudable, but they do not work with Canadian parliamentary institutions. In Canada and in Alberta term limits will be difficult to make workable, weaken the quality of cabinet members and opposition parties, and increase party discipline in a system that probably has more than enough ways to keep backbenchers from voicing their opinions.


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