CALGARY -- The Fair Elections Act, which the federal government is trying to fast-track through Parliament, is so deeply flawed minor tinkering won't fix it.
I won't go into the details of the many provisions of the bill that have raised red flags among international scholars, as well as Canadian academics. Suffice it to quote from an open letter from those same international scholars printed a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail:
"We believe that this act would prove (to) be deeply damaging for electoral integrity within Canada, as well as providing an example which, if emulated elsewhere, may potentially harm international standards of electoral rights around the world."
My concern revolves primarily around clauses that whittle away the powers of the chief electoral officer. To understand why this isn't an arcane or trivial topic, you have to understand the role the CEO plays in our political system.
Free and fair elections are such a vital component of a democracy we go to great lengths to shield the CEO from interference by the government of the day. The incumbent is an Officer of Parliament and reports to Parliament rather than to cabinet. He (there has never been a female so far) holds that office until age 65 and can only be removed by a joint resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Judges enjoy a similar security of tenure to ensure their impartiality and to protect them from government meddling.
But Bill C-23 takes direct aim at the CEO's independence in a number of ways:
-- Instead of holding office until age 65, in future the head of Elections Canada will serve a 10-year term. The "presumptive permanence" the CEO currently enjoys enables him to both do his job without worrying about possible political interference and to accumulate a lifetime of experience -- experience that emerging democracies have tapped into. Security of tenure is akin to academic freedom that allows professors to speak their minds without fear of retribution. How much more important is the independence of an individual who oversees the integrity of the entire electoral process?
-- Another provision transfers enforcement operations from Elections Canada and lodges it with the Justice Department via the director of public prosecutions. The rationale for this clause relates to doubts about the impartiality of the CEO -- Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Pierre Poilievre has stated "the referee shouldn't be wearing a team jersey." This is a serious accusation unsupported by evidence. Yet, the office of the commissioner of elections is being lodged in a government department.
-- Elections Canada has conducted research on a number of topics including electoral participation among seniors, youth and First Nations voters. Its publications are useful to students, scholars and the media.
New provisions in the Fair Elections Act will restrict its communications role to informing voters of the date, time and place of an election. No more valuable research on electoral issues, no more monitoring of elections in emerging democracies or advising countries on election-related matters as they chart a new, democratic course. In future, studies conducted by Elections Canada will be at the behest of the government of the day.
Legislation is routinely amended as and when required, but this is far from a routine exercise. Following numerous irregularities during the 2011 election campaign, it is not surprising the act is being revised. However, the proposed changes go much, much further.
As they will transform the way elections are carried out, it would seem reasonable to expect a full debate on the topic. In fact, the significant reduction in the powers of the CEO alone merits debate. Yet the government is determined to rush through this vital piece of legislation, depriving both the public and our elected representatives of an opportunity to subject it to the scrutiny it deserves.
Many critics have speculated as to the reason behind the government's precipitate action. Whatever they may be, the fact 19 renowned scholars from prestigious universities (including Oxford, Harvard and the Australian National University) "are concerned that Canada's international reputation as one of the world's guardians of democracy and human rights is threatened by passage of the proposed Fair Elections Act" should concern all Canadians.
Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Calgary.