Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Election law abuses democracy

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The Harper government should scrap most of Bill C-23 -- the so-called Fair Elections Act -- relegate Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre to the back benches where his partisan bellicosity can be ignored and establish the national consultation process that should have preceded the unveiling of the law in February.

In fact, that was one of the initial criticisms of the legislation -- Canadians should have had a say in how their own elections are organized and validated. It should not be up to a single party in government to decide how democracy functions in Canada. The people first should have a say.

The act wasn't even an election promise. It was birthed after findings that the Conservatives had abused voters' rights in the 2011 election by using "robocalls" to confuse voters about where they should go to cast their ballots. Bill C-23 quite properly addresses the shortcomings that both allowed the abuse to occur and hindered effective investigation. Those parts of the legislation easily could be passed, likely with broad support from all parties in Parliament. Just as easily, MPs could pass provisions to scrap a ban on publishing election results until polls close in Western Canada. The ban is ludicrous in the age of the Internet, where results are instantly available to anyone anywhere in Canada as they are released.

When Bill C-23 was released two months ago without prior public consultation, it seemed at least there was the opportunity for non-partisan co-operation to ensure that as much as possible the new elections act would reflect the will of Canadians as embodied in their MPs.

But, no. From the outset, Mr. Poilievre has obstinately defended the legislation as a perfect prescription despite an avalanche of expert criticism that many of its provisions are not only wrong-headed, but also could prove beneficial to the Conservatives. All hope for compromise seems to have evaporated. Where consensus might have been found on such simple matters as whether advertising campaigns by Elections Canada represented "mission creep" and wasteful spending, there is only acrimony, finger-pointing and reminders that the government spends tens of millions promoting an economic action plan the public ignores. The issue of whether "vouching" for voters who lack identification is open to abuse should be something debated in a rational way. Is it too much to ask voters to make a modicum of effort to obtain identification adequate to exercise their right to vote? It's a reasonable expectation, a British parliamentary expert told the committee reviewing Bill C-23 last week. He went on to say, however, that some other mechanism to both prevent fraud and protect voters' rights be created. But there is no hope of finding accommodation for vouching in the present overheated and partisan environment, one in which Mr. Poilievre not only dismisses objections but attacks public officials, accusing them of bias in order to enhance their situations.

What hope, then, that more serious electoral issues can be fairly addressed to reflect what might be called a Canadian consensus? This newspaper already has observed that the Conservatives are wrong to not fill a fundamental gap in enforcement of the Canada Elections Act -- the inability of the investigation commissioner to compel people to answer questions. This power is held by elections staff in seven jurisdictions in Canada, including Manitoba. The absence of that power was described as central to the difficulty Elections Canada had investigating the robocall scandal in which Conservative officials could simply ignore requests for interviews. There are other provisions that affect the independence of the chief electoral officer, that allow incumbent political parties to take over from Elections Canada the role of appointing "independent" persons to key election positions in every riding and provisions on campaign contributions and expenses critics say favour the Conservatives.

Against the advice of the chief electoral officer, three elections commissioners past and present, provincial chief commissioners, former auditor general Sheila Fraser, who labelled the legislation an attack on democracy -- even former Reform party leader Preston Manning -- Mr. Poilievre and Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuse to compromise in any substantive way.

Mr. Harper might in fact be correct that the changes to the election act are "fair" and necessary. But other than members of his caucus and party partisans, it is difficult to find Canadians who agree Bill C-23 should be rammed down Canada's throat by a pit bull on a two-month leash.

Forty per cent is enough support to form government in Canada, but it should not be enough to determine how governments are elected.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 A16


Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 5:25 PM CDT: Re-targets.

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