NOTE: This was originally produced as an Infoquick, an analysis of real time events in public affairs for Hill & Knowlton clients.

The prospects for a spring federal election have increased markedly over the past week, but it remains possible that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government could survive several confidence votes in the coming days and avoid an election until 2012. Possible triggers for an early election are rejection of the federal budget (to be delivered on Tuesday) and related spending bills, votes on whether the government is in contempt of Parliament and a series of Opposition Day votes between now and mid-June. If there is a spring election, all unpassed legislation will die and both the House of Commons and the Senate will stop sitting. Major policy and spending initiatives will be suspended until after the election, but the federal Cabinet (including Treasury Board) will continue to operate, existing policy initiatives will continue to be implemented and departmental officials will still have limited spending authority. While most attention will focus on the policies unveiled by the federal parties during the election campaign, the business of government will continue, as will the need to monitor regulatory, administrative and third-party influences on areas of interest to clients.

ELECTION TRIGGERS

Under the Constitution, a Parliament can last as long as five years. However, Prime Minister Harper passed a fixed election date law in his first mandate to limit terms of office to four years. The current government therefore could continue in power until October 2012, unless it loses the confidence of the House of Commons (see below). However, the prime minister can ask the Governor General at any time to dissolve Parliament and issue the writ for an election, and the Governor General usually agrees. It is unlikely the prime minister will do this, however, and the most likely scenario is that the Opposition parties, who control the majority of seats in the House, will vote together to defeat the government. These votes can be on the federal budget and related bills, on issues related to government ethics and contempt of Parliament, or on motions brought forward on the nine Opposition days between now and mid-June.

Wednesday, March 23: The House could vote on a report from the committee on procedures that found the government was in contempt for misleading Parliament about the costs of its crime agenda, and that International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda misled the House when she answered questions about how a document was altered in her office. No Canadian government has ever been found in contempt of Parliament, so it is not clear whether this would constitute non-confidence in the government. But even if it does not, the government itself might feel it has lost the confidence of the House.

Thursday, March 24: If the contempt vote does not take place on Wednesday, it could be held today.

Friday, March 25: Under the Standing Orders, the House must pass the final estimates and the companion money bill (to fund government operations through to March 31), along with the interim supply bill (to fund government operations as of April 1 until the Main Estimates are approved in June), by March 26. As that is a Saturday, these votes will take place today. The rules require that all Opposition days (and votes pertaining to Opposition days) must be disposed of first, so today also will be the final Opposition day. The content of the Opposition day motion could be influenced by the contempt finding by the procedures committee and the report tabled in the House on March 21. If the government loses any of these votes – Opposition day motion, final estimates, money bill, interim supply bill – it will have lost a confidence vote in the House and the government will have been defeated.

Monday, March 28: Assuming the government has not fallen yet, this is likely to be the first day there could be a vote related to the budget.

When the budget is tabled on March 22, there will be an accompanying motion that reads: “That this House approves in general the budgetary policies of the Government.” On March 23, a Liberal MP is expected to move an amendment to that motion that would say the House no longer has confidence in the government. The same day, a Bloc Québécois MP is expected to move an amendment to the amendment (sometimes called a sub-amendment) that could say almost anything, but it would preserve the key part of the amendment (ie, that the House no longer has confidence in the government). The BQ sub-amendment would be the first to be voted on by the House, possibly today. If it passes, it could defeat the government.

Tuesday, March 29: If there was no vote on the BQ sub-amendment on Monday, it could be voted on today. If that sub-amendment does not defeat the government, the House would now move on to the Liberal amendment. As with the sub-amendment, if the Liberal amendment passes, it could defeat the government.

Wednesday, March 30: Assuming the government has not been defeated, today is likely to be the vote on the original government motion supporting the budget. If it passes, the government survives. If it is defeated, the government falls.

Thursday, March 31: Assuming the government has not been defeated, there could be a Ways & Means vote today, in order to present the budget implementation bill. If it passes, the government survives. If it is defeated, the government falls.

Friday, April 1: Assuming the government has not been defeated, a new supply period begins and there will be eight Opposition days between now and mid-June. On any of those days, the Opposition could introduce a motion seeking to defeat the government.

ELECTION TIMING

If the government is defeated, or the prime minister seeks an early dissolution, by March 25, the election likely will be held on Monday, May 2. If the government is defeated or the prime minister seeks an early dissolution during the week of March 28-April 1, the election likely will be held on Monday, May 9.

When Parliament is dissolved, all government bills, private member’s bills, committee reports, motions and any other items before either the House of Commons or the Senate cease to exist, and the membership of all committees is terminated immediately. The federal Cabinet – including Treasury Board – continues to operate throughout the election and until a new government is sworn in, and government operations are funded through Governor General’s warrants. Government departments also continue to operate, and departmental officials still have limited spending authority.

This post was originally written by Graham Green, who is no longer working at Hill+Knowlton.