Attacking your own appointee

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
April 10, 2014.   National Post Editorial Board |

Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair kicked off Question Period in the House of Commons on Tuesday by asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper if “he expected his ministers to always tell the truth.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harper responded, “I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate [Quebec Liberal leader Philippe] Couillard on his victory last night.”

Mr. Mulcair then inquired about Mr. Harper’s minister for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, who had earlier in the day attacked Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand for his objections to the Conservatives’ Fair Elections Act: Mr. Poilievre accused Mr. Mayrand of wanting “more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”

“Will the Prime Minister … apologize … for that cowardly, baseless attack?” asked Mr. Mulcair.

Mr. Harper stood up and congratulated Mr. Couillard again.

Very funny. But this dismissive, juvenile behaviour encapsulates the problem the Conservatives have with their proposed electoral reforms. Some (such as tightening voter ID requirements and exempting the cost of contacting previous donors from party fundraising limits) are more controversial than others (such as reassigning some of the chief electoral officer’s investigative powers). But Mr. Poilievre and his colleagues have misrepresented the problems they are trying to solve, and they have employed a level of vitriol completely out of keeping with such dry and democratically fundamental policy matters.

Perhaps most controversially, the Fair Elections Act would abolish the provision for a voter to “vouch” for another who lacks proper identification (a procedure of which some 120,000 people availed themselves in the 2011 federal election) and would eliminate the voter information card as suitable proof of address (for which 400,000 voters used it in 2011).

Much ink has been spilled over whether it’s unreasonable or excessively onerous to demand people prove both their identity and address. Senior citizens, students and the itinerant are said to have particular challenges. But whatever the reasons some voters lack ID, we are talking about potentially turning away tens of thousands of Canadians seeking to exercise their most basic right and duty of citizenship. The Conservatives have an obligation to explain what justifies this.

Their justification, essentially, is voter fraud. “When someone lies about their identity or residence in order to vote illegally, they are stealing or cancelling out another person’s vote,” Mr. Poilievre told the House on Feb. 4, having tabled the bill. He has since waved around a report from former British Columbia Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld noting widespread procedural irregularities in the delivery and acceptance of vouching. But irregularities, while concerning, aren’t necessarily fraud. Mr. Neufeld himself says Mr. Poilievre never consulted him, insists there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread fraud and accuses Mr. Poilievre of “selective” reading.

This minister’s needless overreaching weakened the Conservatives’ case for the Fair Elections Act — but not as badly as his colleague Brad Butt’s overreaching. In a House of Commons debate in February, the Ontario MP claimed to have “actually witnessed” people collecting discarded voter cards, taking them to candidates’ offices and handing them over to fellow partisans to vote, having been falsely identified via vouching. He later “clarified” that he had only heard rumours to that effect. It doesn’t get much more amateur hour than that.

Those inside the fishbowl know many Conservatives have longstanding grievances with Elections Canada. Simply put, they believe it’s biased against their party. The vast majority of Canadians outside the fishbowl, however, may well wonder why a minister of the Crown would attack an officer of Parliament — a very calm and reasonable-sounding one, unfortunately for Mr. Poilievre — over a simple policy disagreement.

Considering the Conservatives’ deserved reputation for hardball politics, in absence of a compelling factual case for these reforms, with hardly a single big-name expert to cite in support of them and amidst opposition claims that the Tories are trying to game the system for their own benefit, it’s hardly surprising that some Canadians would become suspicious of the Tories’ true motives.

Mr. Mayrand is a Conservative appointment. In 2007, Mr. Harper’s office declared him a “phenomenal” “non-partisan” choice for the job. If he is now out of control and drunk on power, he can be relieved of his duties after a majority vote in the House of Commons and Senate. Yet the Conservatives show no signs of pursuing this. Instead they seem content to perpetuate a bizarre blood feud with the organization charged with guarding the bedrock of Canadian democracy. If they are having trouble winning public support for their Fair Elections Act, they should hardly be surprised.

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