Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Election bill helps Tories exclusively

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You have to admire Pierre Poilievre. Throughout the tabling of the laughable, lamentable Fair Elections Act, the minister of democratic reform managed somehow to keep a straight face.

Many others who witnessed the Tory government's assault on Elections Canada had much more trouble hiding their disbelief.

The new legislation is full of changes to the electoral landscape. It removes powers from the office of the chief electoral officer and gives them to a new independent commissioner of elections, who will now be solely responsible for investigating electoral transgressions.

The law will also revamp campaign-financing rules so individuals can donate more and parties can exempt the costs of raising money from people who have donated before. It also creates new offences, and stiffer penalties, for anyone caught breaking election laws.

And, in one of the more intriguing aspects of the new law, Elections Canada will no longer be permitted to encourage Canadians to vote.

The Conservative government will work hard to convince Canadians this is a simple modernization of electoral law designed to level the playing field. That is a horrible misrepresentation of what is going on here.

Without a blush of shame, the Tories moved to administratively castrate one of their foremost opponents in the public service, chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, who has repeatedly clashed with the Tories over a variety of violations of election law.

Mayrand dogged the Tories for the "in and out" scheme in the 2006 election, where money was moved back and forth between local ridings to exceed total campaign spending. The Tories pleaded guilty to this offence in 2012.

Mayrand has also chased the "robocall" scandal, in which fraudulent, automated phone calls were made to suppress voter turnout. One Tory campaign worker will be tried for offences this summer as Mayrand continues his probe into other suspected cases.

In the past, Mayrand appointed the commissioner of elections to perform investigations. Now the government of the day will do that directly. Taking that task away from a public servant who has more than proven his independence is more than enough to justify concern about the new commissioner's independence. In fact, this concern really makes the stiffer penalties in the new act a joke. How can a less powerful watchdog make full use of more powerful penalties?

This is an obvious attack on Mayrand and something that was nearly unthinkable in Canadian political tradition. The Tories believe Mayrand treated them unfairly and feel justified in using the Commons to neutralize him. That is an attack on electoral fairness from a government that, while not alone in its misdeeds, has certainly led the league in electoral crimes.

Watchdogs are not to be trifled with. In a democratic tradition, any political party that thinks it is being treated unfairly by a watchdog can go to the courts and make its case. The Tories have done that and lost.

Taken together, this looks like a law destined to lower what is already a chronically low voter turnout.

How else can we view the decision to stop Elections Canada from putting some effort into encouraging Canadians to vote? It is true these campaigns have not been hugely successful in raising voter turnout. However, a government campaign to encourage voting is an entirely more appropriate use of taxpayer money than, say, a campaign to promote a federal budget.

At a time when there is a crisis in voter turnout, it's hard to see anything other than blatant self-interest in the Fair Elections Act.

The Tories succeed because they have harnessed the market forces in the current electoral economy. At a time when fewer Canadians are turning out to vote, they have cultivated a small but devoted core of supporters that votes with military predictability, donates money with religious fervour and -- most importantly -- loathes their political opponents.

The act provides changes that will only help the Tories. It is tailored to help political fundraising as the Tories practise it. It weakens oversight of electoral misdeeds, which is good for a party that complains about being constrained by existing laws. And in the face of what may be an irreversible decline in voting, it has silenced the lone voice trying to spur more Canadians to vote.

It's an insurance policy the Tory government hopes will allow it to continue governing without fear of an opposing popular uprising or watchdog wrist-slapping.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 0

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