Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper's democratic struggles

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Tom Flanagan, a former member of Stephen Harper's inner circle, summed it up best. The government's so-called Fair Elections Act, he said, illustrated the prime minister's ruthless, partisan side, while his abrupt about-face last week revealed he also has the ability to make strategic withdrawals for pragmatic reasons.

The original legislation was an assault on the democratic process, both in terms of what it proposed and what it left out.

Some provisions in the bill could have disenfranchised thousands of marginalized or vulnerable Canadians -- the kind of people who typically aren't Conservatives. Another clause would have allowed parties to contact former donors during election periods without incurring an election expense, a loophole that could have been used to hide millions of dollars of spending. Elections Canada's duty to promote the democratic process would have been eliminated.

The government's proposals did not address -- and nor do the amendments -- a glaring weakness in the legislation that prevents Elections Canada to compel testimony during investigations of breaches of the act. The power is held by elections staff in seven provinces, including Manitoba.

Other issues also need to be considered, including whether the voter identification cards distributed by Elections Canada should constitute proof of residence and whether political appointments of election day workers should be eliminated.

The government needs to do what it should have done at the beginning of the process, namely consult with Canadians about how elections will be managed.

Some amendments that are universally accepted, including scrapping the rule forbidding the publication of election results prior to the closing of the polls in Western Canada, could easily be passed.

The bulk of the legislation, however, should be scrapped until Canadians have been properly consulted and the opposition parties have had more time to consider the issues.

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 29, 2014 A8

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